Arthur Erickson, 1924 – 2009

By Frank Moher

Arthur Erickson, the great architect who died in Vancouver yesterday at age 84, was an artist who became great by remaining where he was. This was in marked contrast to many other western Canadian artists and thinkers, who achieved fame and success by moving away — or at least thought they needed to. It probably never occurred to Marshall McLuhan, born Winnipeg, raised in Edmonton, not to try to leave. Atom Egoyan ditto. But Erickson made a choice early on to remain in his community, — though there was, as per McLuhan and Egoyan, an element of careerism to his decision. “I intend to stay,” he told an interviewer in 1964, “because the potential is fantastic and because there are so few places left in the world with this emergent aspect.”

His bet paid off. At the time of that interview, Erickson was finishing his work on Simon Fraser University, the design, executed on a mountaintop in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby, that would make him famous. Other of his finest works, such as the Law Courts in Vancouver or the Glass Museum in Tacoma, Washington, rest in their surroundings and play with light and water in a way that more conspicuous commissions — Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto, the (unfortunate) Canadian Embassy in Washington — simply cannot. Erickson’s genius lay not only in his understanding of the landscape but of the climate into which he was born. It was an aesthetic exquisitely rooted in absence. “An architect always imagines his buildings in sunlight and casting shadows,” he told that same interviewer, “but here there aren’t strong shadows, no highlights. In a sunny climate you are dealing with a white ground and a dark sky. It is the reverse here. You have a dark ground and a white sky. This means you see things in silhouette, without highlight, and psychologically it can be unpleasant. One is in a dark area and the light is above as at sunset — a melancholy feeling. This is the situation we live in most of the time.”

Read more in “Arthur Erickson: The Lost interview.” And below, we offer the best tribute we can to his work:

“Arthur Erickson: The Lost Interview”

Arthur Erickson: The Lost Interview

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In 1964, the Vancouver architect Arthur Erickson, who died on May 19th at age 84, spoke with an unknown interviewer about the ideas that would eventually make him internationally-renowned. At the time, he was completing work on Simon Fraser University, the campus in Burnaby, B.C., designed with partner Geoffrey Massey, that brought him world attention for the first time. In subsequent decades his designs included the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, the Vancouver Law Courts, Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto, the Canadian Embassy in Washington D.C., and the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington. (Read Frank Moher’s appreciation of Erickson’s work, life, and buildings, here.)

The interview that follows was found in a pile of typescripts at the University of British Columbia, and first published in the anthology Genius of Place: Writing About British Columbia (Polestar, Stouck and Wilkinson, eds.)

Arthur Erickson: I have a favourite theory. In B.C., as pioneers, we didn’t make a significant contribution until a few years ago. As a matter of fact we are the first in Canada to demonstrate contemporary housing. This was about 15 years ago — just after the war. The rest of Canada was a way behind and there was an article in Canadian Art by Bob Hubbard which was written after he had visited the West Coast — just about 1952-53 or 53-54. It was called “Climate for the Arts.” Suddenly B.C. did have this fresh spirit — both in painting, architecture, poetry — all these things — and it was very much on top of the heap at that time — as far as Canada was concerned. There was a time lag in which the rest of Canada, in a sense, caught up, then really took over, because I think one thing that characterizes what we do — arthur-erickson-72whether it is architecture, painting, or anything else — is a hangover of being pioneers, and that is innovation. We had no traditions, nothing tying us down, no ancient architecture, no tradition of building materials that stopped us from making a fresh and interesting experiment at that time. I think this spirit still exists here to a certain extent.

As with the pioneer, you do tackle your new environment with fresh eyes, you are able to innovate, but I think also that when you are asked to make your first spurt, you become a tired old homesteader. I think this happened in B.C. The place settled too quickly. A type of house was built like the post and beam which has been repeated and repeated. This was actually a good solution for the small house. But it was never — and this is the interesting thing — it was never really developed into a fine building type. And I would say that is somewhat characteristic of B.C. — that you don’t have the maturity, at least a maturity isn’t reached. Post and beam was experimented with but it was never refined. Never perfected.

Everyone who came here had to deal with unusual conditions. There were siting problems. You tried to put up a traditional house, but then you found you had to do something else with underpinnings and therefore the whole contractor’s field involved more innovation. And, I think, one of a higher standard than perhaps anywhere else in Canada. I was amazed going up into Capilano Highlands, no matter how awful you think the houses are or out at Bay View, the standard is quite extraordinary. When compared to contractors’ houses elsewhere. Elsewhere in Canada. Elsewhere in the States on the West Coast.

There is a kind of vernacular here that comes from the challenge of using local materials and settings.

We confuse innovation and experiment with the design. We don’t take it as far as we can — but go on to something else.

I think at that time there was a lot of courage in British Columbia in all the arts — architecture included — which does not exist now. Right at the moment, one of my greatest contentions is the lack of courage in B.C. Looking at the history of the city, I am surprised how few people of vision or people of courage have made their mark here. We seemed to be cursed with timidity. And it makes me mad. For instance, the man who built Lions Gate Bridge, A.J.T. Taylor, was not a Canadian. The people who put the C.P.R. into this area were from elsewhere. The people who created Stanley Park . . . had nothing to do with the resident population.

Interviewer: What you are saying is that outside of some superficial things, we are still living on the foresight of other people?

AE: Yes . . . What can develop is a spirit that pervades everything. I think it existed when B.C. was first beginning. I think now it exists in Quebec, maybe brutally, and in Ontario. And I think it is coming back here. Now . . . the degrading of the profession of architecture has had a lot to do with the lack of spirit here lately. It is a disrespect of professionalism. It has been said lately that an architect is no better than a contractor — there is no difference between an engineer and an architect. They will try to get the cheapest thing possible without respecting, basically, that you have a knowledge at their disposal; that you are a professional. We should have the same respect as a doctor has.

I think we are cursed with the do-it-yourself magazines, which is the curse of Western America. I think the home should express the way a person lives, but I think erickson-filberg-house_wcapthat the creativity which goes into making furniture and things like that, is the wrong way. You should walk into a home and say: this home has character. It represents an attitude toward life that these people have made in it. But not that this is a piece of furniture that the owner made himself — and he is not really a carpenter. This, unfortunately to me, is common to the West Coast. It is all through California right up to here. Not on the East Coast. And I think that this again might be partially due to the wave of settlement across the continent. The people who came to the West Coast were not professionals. They stayed in Quebec, in Montreal, in Toronto, if you will. You didn’t find architects immigrating out here in the very beginning. The people who were here had to solve their problems. The do-it-yourself person is the pioneer. He had to do it himself. Therefore I think we have the values of the pioneer because the arts were late in coming across the continent — painting and music are still a little suspect. The painter isn’t considered as important as the plumber. In Mexico, the painter is an extremely important person and often a Mexican would forego
plumbing to have a painting.

Interviewer: Jessup says we are still in our adolescence.

AE: Don’t forget that sometimes when there are signs of youth there is also disintegration of old age. I am afraid — and this is common to North America and more specifically in the West — that the important things are given the most unimportant places. The fact that the houses are heated and that the plumbing works and the roof doesn’t leak is the most important thing in our lives. But to some people there are other things much more important than these things.

Interviewer: But can you marry aesthetics with the necessaries — like a roof which will keep out three inches of rain such as we had last night?

AE: It is a confusion of fundamentals. The Sicilian would consider certainly that the roof being watertight was essential — but just as important is the place of his native image. It is not something he brings in afterwards to decorate the house. Unfortunately, what happens is that most of the arts including architecture are thought of as decoration. It is not thought of as absolutely fundamental.

Interviewer: In some ways, architecture is thought of as luxury?

AE: Yes, and this is a completely ass-backwards situation.

Interviewer: Now . . . does all this apply to office buildings and plants?

AE: Certainly, because . . . Mind you architects suffer here from lack of training and experience and challenge that creates good architecture. There is a more competitive situation in the East. Certainly they have a much greater sense of becoming better architects. There just isn’t the challenge here in this respect. But whatever it is, factory or office building, you are providing an environment of some kind. I feel this is the most important thing in our lives. We are so influenced by our environment, so conditioned by it, and we are always creating it.

Look at San Francisco which is a much older city than ours. The strongest thing is a pattern of thought, a pattern of acting, a way of thinking, what you have is very difficult to spell out. For instance, I am very conscious when I go east of how different my thinking is from theirs.

Interviewer: What is the reaction of the people listening?

AE: Very responsive, but I find also that they, with their experience, consider things more carefully — that I would perhaps be impatient of a problem, but I am sure that I see the problem freshly and that my ideas are valid. Therefore the response to them is good. I also find that there too is a lack of courage, but it comes from not being able to see a problem freshly — almost being burdened.

Interviewer: You mean they are seeing things in a more limestone-fronted manner?

AE: In modern terms.

Next page: “Are you angry?”

Arthur Erickson: The Lost Interview (Part 2)

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Continued from page 1

Interviewer: Are you angry?

AE: Consistently.

Interviewer: Is there a pride in the city?

AE: No . . . I don’t think people take pride in this city. I think this is one of the reasons people don’t give money to the city or to the university beyond a token few, who do more than their share.

Interviewer: Do you think that people live here purely because of the easier climate, being more or less opportunists — not putting anything back into the city?

AE: Yes. I think this still persists.

Interviewer: Is this then a reason for a sense of moral laxity in politics, a sense of letting things slide by just because we haven’t much interest and are only using the place to live nicely?

AE: Yes. And I think this is the reason why we can’t have a well-run Grey Cup parade without hoodlums and that sort of thing — because if you have a shoddy place it is treated shabbily and if you have a good-looking place it is treated well. This has been proven time and time again.

Interviewer: There was a news story on that. There were one-hundred thousand people who attended the Rose Bowl Parade, New Year’s Day, in Pasadena. They milled all over the downtown for two nights. The police reported not one case of hoodlumism.

AE: People expect something that is beautiful. For instance, you don’t have a defacement of Stanley Park.

Interviewer: What are some of the problems of building in B.C.?

AE: Unskilled labour. You just can’t get skilled labour to do anything. I don’t think there is a climatic problem whatsoever. But I think there is in aesthetic terms. The main problem is light. Natural light. With the overcast skies. It has not been answered in architectural terms. It needs a rich profile and this has not been answered. And also, we need to get light into our buildings, both light and shadow. It is a drab, depressing light. The main problem is to use the rain, and take advantage of it as is done in Japan. Japanese architecture makes the rain beautiful. But no one else’s solution is adequate for this. An architect always imagines his building in sunlight and casting shadows, but here there aren’t strong shadows, no highlights. In a sunny climate you are dealing with a white ground and a dark sky. erickson-law-courts_wcapIt is the reverse here. You have a dark ground and a white sky. This means you see things in silhouette, without highlight, and psychologically it can be unpleasant. One is in a dark area and the light is above as at sunset — a melancholy feeling. This is the situation we live in most of the time. Somehow we have to overcome this. Somehow we have to replace it not with lamps and artificial sunlight. The problem is to try to live with it. The Filberg House was the one where I did try to experiment with the problem of light.

The most important thing is the creation of harmony. The role of the architect is to bring the human into harmony with the environment. You have to work with the idea of harmony right from the beginning. If you have a depressing outlook, sky, etc. how do you make this pleasant. This is a very real thing we have to do. How to let one enjoy this landscape. I think B.C. is one of the blackest places on earth. Black trees. Black mountains. The minute you go to California, they are not black. The redwoods are bright green. Other countries are a different green entirely. Black-grey and black-green — how to make one see the softness and subtlety of the colour. I remember when I flew back from Japan — Japan makes you very conscious of colour, because it never uses colour — they use it only for festivals and things like that — and somehow you become conscious of all the subtle gradations in colours. In a garden, there will be no flowers and you see all the differences of green and how they have been used. Very often in their gardens they cut them off because it is jarring. The flowers they treat as a kind of festival event. For instance, they will have in a garden, which is all green, one pool of iris which come out only once a year. Or perhaps an area of cherry trees which are out once a year. Everything is kept in harmony. And I noticed when I returned here and I was flying over the country, it was a beautiful day of sunlight — and then for a week afterwards when I was driving up-Island, how brilliant the greens are in Japan and what a rich and splendid variety they have of greens in their foliage and how very different our greens are. But how beautiful they were in a different way, in a soft way. They are all greyed here. Everything is greyed.

Now, if we could build so that people began to see these lights and colours and the softness of them, and understand their own response to them, they would realize the marvels of the environment we live in. This question of environment . . . people hate to walk out of doors and be spat on by rain. It is a kind of affront. I think there is an antagonism to the environment. I know a psychiatrist who felt in B.C. that there was a real, deep-seated hate of nature and therefore we treat it violently in the way we clear and the way we build. We go out of our way not to create this harmony.

The Indian village is a wonderful example of adaptation to an environment. Their livelihood came from the sea and the forest. They had plenty to eat and therefore didn’t have to organize into any greater cultural unit than the village. The village was placed on the dividing line between the forest and the sea. Nothing was done to the forest. They built along the beach. The village was strung in perfect juxtaposition between these two environments which gave them their livelihood. This is harmonious positioning in the strongest sense. The beach gave a shape to the village. On it they built their magnificent houses . . . I must say the Haida House at UBC is the one great piece of architecture in B.C. A copy built by Bill Reid. It erickson-museum-of-anthropology_interior1has everything that great architecture has — that is, it takes common material at hand and fuses it with spirit and uses it with skill and inspires you. How simple the idea of the house is . . . the size of the great timbers and how beautifully they are put together. Then, for the special things, because they were involved with the animals and fish, the other animate creatures become deified. They decorated the poles with these, and the pole was nothing but a cedar tree raised on the beach. It stood just as a cedar tree against the backdrop of cedars, but painted in the colours that they saw on the backs of the sea ducks or the whales — the dark browns, the brilliant whites. The cedar tree decorated this way was a harmonizing of the forest and the sea. Everything that was in the forest, everything that was in the sea, became part of the village. This was a primitive village and a simple society — but our job of much greater complexity is eventually to do this.

We have to come to terms with our environment. In the meantime we are destroying it. We have no respect for it. And this is the tragic thing. The fact that we are creating parking lots in Stanley Park when really what we should be doing is taking the cars out altogether and using some kind of public transport or horse and buggy and not allowing people to drive through — letting it become more primitive.

I think the climate has a tremendous influence on our minds. You can almost pinpoint the different characteristics of the peoples of the world by the kind of climate they live in and I find I respond very quickly to a climate change. My whole attitude changes. I remember when I was in Syria in the desert, finding that this whole country was so completely different and I changed. I became conscious of attitudes within me I never knew before. I became suddenly more sensitive to my senses there — odours, colours, stimulated my senses. Here there is the smell of wetness and it is hard to differentiate between odours. And this is the same in Japan. The main odour in Japan is sour — almost like sewage, but not quite the same. In the desert you begin to see forms very clearly and your mind becomes sharper to form. The sunlight plays on shapes and you become more conscious of form. There is a more heightened sense of life. It is more stimulating and it is celebrated. Here the greyness penetrates right through our lives. The people are rather lethargic, spiritless. But where there is a lack of spirit, there is a great sense of poetry. In painting, architecture and literature the poetic sense is stronger. The forms and structures are not as important as the moods and the poetic inference of the forms.

Next page: “What do you think of the women in Vancouver?”

Arthur Erickson: The Lost Interview (Part 3)

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Continued from page 2

Interviewer: What do you think of the women in Vancouver?

AE: They are rather fashionless. I don’t think they take advantage of their beauty. I think in general they are handsome, but they look dowdy and ill-kempt as though they just got out of bed. The men appear to lack adventure in their minds. I think people here are indifferent to morality. It is a very amoral place and it is a kind of climate that sponsors amorality and [in reaction to this, on the other side,] you have a lot of prudishness. People here are easygoing. Very casual. Very lax in maintaining social responsibilities. Their arthur-erickson-colorfriendships are not deep but they are very friendly. The Swedish people are the same. In the winter they hibernate. I think the same thing happens here.

Interviewer: That is a summation of your students?

AE: I find the same thing.

***

AE: (speaking of civic pride) I think there is an artificial pride here. People are proud of their mountains, proud of the site and certainly this is the most beautiful site of any city besides Rio. You can’t really be proud of something that nature has done, you have to be proud of what you have done and we have not done justice yet. I intend to stay because the potential is fantastic and because there are so few places left in the world with this emergent aspect.

Interviewer: What do you see in Simon Fraser [University]?

AE: We haven’t had time to develop the initial ideas. We were thrown almost from a cartoon into working drawings without going into a lot of soul-searching as to how this should evolve. Therefore I think we lost a lot. We haven’t had time for the refinement, the development. It is a monumental scheme. It is going to be the one monumental thing that people in Vancouver will see. They have never seen anything like it and probably never will again. It will have great spaces which I felt were important — in scale to the landscape and the site. It will unfortunately be rough, brutal, and I feel that it is better to be rough and brutal in the materials and in the way it is built, rather than to pretend refinements, when there hasn’t been time to apply these. It will be as I think architecture should be in this city — down to earth, rank, open, no nonsense, applying itself with as much harmony as possible to its setting and to the climate and within itself and also something that takes the human out of his ordinary, human fire-side existence. Ennobles him, lifts him.