A Tribute to Arthur Erickson

Remembering Erickson
Delivered at the Erickson memorial last June, Phyllis Lambert–architect, activist, philanthropist and the Founding Director of the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) in Montreal–speaks about the death of one of her dearest friends and confidantes.

TEXT Phyllis Lambert

On the day before he died, I told Arthur how beautiful he was. He was beautiful in mind and spirit. His elegance was in his mind, his bearing, in his clothes. Brigitte Shim told me that she was with him and Adrienne Clarkson in Iceland, and when he did not show up for a tour, he explained that he was ironing his shirt. To me this is consistent with the coherent wholeness of his work, his sense of propriety, and his humour.

Arthur Erickson is acknowledged as Canada’s greatest architect. He was deeply connected to the land in a way that is particularly Canadian. As Pierre Trudeau famously said, “The land is strong.” Born when Vancouver was just 38 years old, Arthur’s culture lay in the vast forests of ancient firs and cedars, the rivers and ocean of this mountainous Pacific Northwest–the context that grounded him in the “profound communion between building and site.”1

After military service, Arthur plunged himself into architecture, inspired by images of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West. On graduating from McGill University, rather than working in Wright’s office, he accepted a travelling fellowship to study world cultures–always through the lens of his belief that there is no more poignant source of meaning in architecture “than the act of setting a structure in its environment.”2 This experience gave him, as Adrienne Clarkson has said, “an understanding of a world beyond his world.”

Erickson’s canonic works of the 1960s and ’70s integrate landscape and what is built in it. The massive wooden beams of his early houses grow from and are symbolically of the earth. He was highly innovative: in his first major work achieved with Geoffrey Massey–the Simon Fraser University campus–academic departments are interlinked around a vast greensward, achieving a translation into architecture of the expanding fields of knowledge, and encouraging cross-fertilization through physical proximity and sharing of spaces. Living spaces are embedded in the terraced landscape. The University of Lethbridge in Alberta (1968) is more extreme, with academic and living spaces contained in one powerful building, a bridge across the ravine of an otherwise barren landscape.

Embracing Marshall McLuhan’s view that humans will return to the tribe, Arthur concluded as early as 1965 that individual buildings were things of the past: “We are already dealing with the building complex, where buildings are only important as contributors to the total experience of moving through a vast complex. It is both a step forward as well as a return to the total building of the medieval city: the streets of Orvieto, the faades of Florence, the squares of Venice.”3

Arthur’s Robson Square is to me one of the great innovative and canonic works of the 20th century. In this low-profile, three-block-long complex in downtown Vancouver, government offices are interwoven with a richly planted landscape–designed with Cornelia Oberlander–that is reminiscent of the terrain of the province. Under a huge tilted glass roof, the adjacent Law Courts building marks a profound innovation in courthouse design, inducing an optimistic concept of justice in opposition to the grim traditional assumption of guilt. It was visionary in the 1970s as an example of sustainable and humane concepts of government and urban planning, and today, it points the way for world cities.

And so with the Museum of Anthropology (1971), which relates to Kwaikiutl construction, the totemic poles within the glazed enclosure inferring the village in the forest as they rise against the pond (that should be there) to connect to the sea beyond Oberlander’s landscape. Erickson challenged museum typology by opening the storage, thus encouraging autonomous learning about aboriginal cultures. The extraordinary garden of his own house dissolves the boundaries of two ordinary suburban lots to create the illusion of infinite space.

And he could wittily and wickedly comment on governmental ethics. In 1980 in Washington, DC, the span of his Canadian Chancery’s enormous architrave beam confronting the street implies the expanse of Canada. The inclusion of Bill Reid’s major work entitled The Ship of Fools, in which each Northwest Coast animal bites the tail of its neighbour, is a political statement. So are Arthur’s tongue-in-cheek nods to de rigueur Neoclassicism in the US capital–hollow metal columns that support only a plastic canopy, and in response to Reid’s black sculpture, a small, white columnated rotunda.

Arthur Erickson invented unsurpassed urban schemes and building types that were well ahead of their time both socially and environmentally, yet the dynamic evolution of his work still waits to be assessed. The full extent of Arthur’s body of work, together with his impressive writings and photographic records, will be a real discovery.

Phyllis Lambert is the Founding Director and Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) in Montreal.

1 Arthur Erickson, “The Design of a House,” Canadian Art (November 1960): 98.
2 Arthur Erickson, “The Weight of Heaven,” The Canadian Architect 8:3 (March 1964): 48.
3 Arthur Erickson, Habitation: Space, Dilemma and Design, 1965 Canadian Housing Design Council Lecture (Ottawa: Canadian Housing Design Council, 1966), 3.

A Poem on Arthur’s Life
The following text was written and read by Abraham Jedidiah Rogatnick at the memorial for Arthur Erickson at Simon Fraser University’s Convocation Mall on June 14, 2009.

TEXT Abraham Rogatnick

Alas! Arthur is gone. The word “alas,” so prevalent in the English of Shakespeare’s time, sadly has no equivalent in our language today. I can’t imagine what Shakespeare’s poetry would have been like without that word, which so succinctly expresses the deep groan of grief, of loss, of regret, and of sorrow.

When I think of Arthur Erickson, as when I think of Shakespeare, I think of poetry. Arthur was eloquent with words, but he became most renowned as an artist/architect whose life and whose work can be seen as a long, lyrical, but silent poem, a song without words.

The first person to greet me upon my arrival in Vancouver 54 years ago was Arthur Erickson. Immediately I knew I was in the presence of someone rare, and over the years I marvelled at the absence of self-importance he demonstrated, even as his creative vision brought triumph after triumph. To him, it was the poetry, not the poet that mattered. I also came to recognize the nobility, courage and stoicism with which he faced the trials, sorrows and ironies of his public and private life.

How appropriate it is that we meet in this space, an example of one of Arthur’s many masterworks, although it would have been an amusing irony for this celebration to have taken place, as was first intended, in Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, a building Arthur had once been commissioned to demolish. His design for the site was a delicate, modest tower in the bowels of which a new, bright, modern church was to be ensconced. Since I was already known as a devoted fan of Arthur’s work, I was asked to appear on CBC television to support the scheme against the explosive opposition to it that had erupted in the city. When the program was over, the cameraman informed me that if he hadn’t been stuck behind the camera, he could have punched me in the nose. When I returned to the dr
essing room, I was accosted by a furious young actor who screamed a similar intention at me.

But the irony doesn’t end there. Many years later, I became an actor, and was thrilled to have had the opportunity to perform in several Shakespeare plays in that fine, still intact theatrical space.

Journeys to as many parts of the world as possible were Arthur’s most joyful means of education. I soon began to see the romance of a poetic journey as an underlying theme in his creative vision. Fifty years ago, I was asked to write an account of the Filberg House near Comox. As I was walking the path to the house through dense trees dappling the forest floor with muted light, catching intermittent glimpses of the sparkling waters of Georgia Strait, I knew, even before reaching the crescendo of the house itself, that I was moving through a poem by Arthur Erickson. When preparing to write an article on this great space, achieved together with his partner Geoff Massey, I experienced a similar journey in the sinuous climb up the tree-lined road, again with brief flashes of glistening water, and finally, suddenly coming into the presence of the building stretching serenely over the summit of the mountain. In David Stouck’s remembrance of Arthur published in The Globe and Mail, he quoted Arthur’s own description of his Museum of Anthropology at UBC as “a walk through the forest to the beach.”

And Nancy Southam, in another article in The Globe, quoted Arthur as saying, “Whatever you build should enhance the surroundings.” I’m sure he might have added, “Because the surroundings create and enhance the building.”

The game of seven stones, which Arthur taught his students to play, was another evocation of a passage through time and space. Each player was given a small stone to be located in harmony with the shape of an existing field. Each placement influenced the judgement of where to site the subsequent one. The resulting pattern could not be planned in advance, but was the outcome of an organic series of decisions determined along the way.

Arthur, the conjurer of a poetic world, was epitomized in the design of his own garden. Here, in miniature, he created an enticing fragment of nature with a path around its periphery, which passes under trees through a shadowed series of woodland experiences at the same time that it affords a myriad of surprising views of the garden itself. But the enchanted world with which Arthur imbued the garden truly came to life with the brilliant parties he held there, full of spellbound guests moving dreamily about as the gentle music of a string quartet or the soft bell-like tones of a Jamaican steel band wafted from across the pond dotted with flickering candles floating on its surface.

For nearly 30 years I lived near the garden and, while I wallowed in the celestial sounds that emanated from it, some of our neighbours were incensed by what they considered noise, which often continued until two or four in the morning. They also resented the cars parked in front of their houses during those stupendous soires, not to mention the deployment of an army of plainclothes policemen blocking the intersection when Pierre Trudeau was one of the guests.

I loved living close to Arthur’s paradise. I loved to see the heron perched on one of his tall trees, pausing on her trip to the water to find food to feed her fledgelings nesting in the nearby woods. I loved the colourful Japanese carp that drifted languorously in the shallow pool, and the two black swans that for a time glided silently, elegantly, across its surface. I even loved the raccoons that invaded the garden, to Arthur’s dismay, since the brazen creatures dined on his luxurious carp. I found the peeping of the frogs that colonized the pond bucolically romantic. Again I was in the minority among our neighbours who complained bitterly of their croaking, which they claimed interfered with their sleep.

To discourage the raccoons, Arthur set a large cage trap hidden strategically under the foliage beside the pond. He never caught any, but once, one of my cats disappeared for several days. So one evening I asked Arthur to take me to the trap to check it out, and, sure enough, from the dark there emerged an exhausted, pathetic meow. This touching story was published by Edith Iglauer in her book on Arthur, entitled Seven Stones: A Portrait of Arthur Erickson. The story was also featured in The New Yorker magazine. But what was never published was the sequel, which reflected a more melancholy aspect of the saga of Arthur’s life and that of his Arcadian garden. One day, a couple of good Samaritans brought to the garden a carton containing a clutch of tiny ducklings which had hatched on their property, far from any body of water. They thought of Arthur’s pond, and, with my help, slipped the ducklings under a hole at the bottom of the fence. The desperately quacking mother flew over it and instantly took up tranquil residence in the garden together with her brood, guests which Arthur welcomed. But as time passed the ducklings began to disappear, several of which were brought to me in the jaws of my previously trapped cat. Perhaps it was her revenge, but, to me, it was a memento mori of the brutal indifference of nature and the hovering presence of death, who in Poussin’s painting of a tomb in Arcadia, reminded the inhabitants of that idyllic sphere: Et in Arcadia ego. Even in Arcadia, I am here.

I marvelled at Arthur’s calm nobility, which I saw over the years as he lost one close friend after another to various untimely deaths. I am sure that privately he grieved, but outwardly he seemed to accept each difficult loss as an unavoidable acquiescence to the will of nature and the inescapable darker passages in the poem of all our lives.

Arthur possessed an inner dignity, together with an innate kindness and compassion. The first person whom he invited to grace a modest structure that he added a few feet from the garage in which he made his home, was Gordon Webber, his teacher and inspirer at McGill. He told the city it was to be a garden shed, but to his friends he called it a guest house, which he later attached to the humble garage to become his tiny bedroom and studio overlooking his magical garden. Gordon, a victim of polio, was disfigured, lame, an almost Quasimodo-like figure in his misshapen body. The reverence, affection and tenderness with which Arthur cared for him before he too died was utterly moving. I thought of Arthur and Don’s father Oscar, a double-amputee World War One veteran, whom the two brothers carried in his wheelchair up a painfully long and steep staircase to visit Alvin Balkind and me when we were running a gallery over some shops in West Vancouver back in 1955.

Many years later, Arthur and I were judges on a jury to select a design for the Terry Fox monument at the end of Robson Street. We knew that the public was expecting us to choose a statue of Terry struggling to hike across Canada on his prosthetic leg. Arthur objected to such a statue. He insisted that the handicapped don’t want to be remembered for their disability, but for their triumph in overcoming it. He opted for an arch leading to the stadium behind it, an arch of triumph, and influenced others and me to vote with him.

The public response was overwhelmingly negative, noses were out of joint and, O cursed spite, I was chosen to set them right and to defend the choice to the press. Once again I suffered slings and arrows in the newspapers and on the radio. I was portrayed as an addled professor who foisted the design on the public who saw it as a monstrosity and an insult to Terry Fox. Yes, I sometimes suffered in my defense of Arthur’s sensitive wisdom, but I don’t regret a minute of it.

Arthur Charles Erickson, whose initials appropriately spell “ACE”–and what an ace he was–a prince and a poet among us. We still walk the many poetic paths that he created. Alas! The poet is gone, but the poem of his long life’s journey lives on.

Abraham Jedidiah
Rogatnick died on August 28, 2009. He was 85. During the Second World War, Rogatnick fought as a US army combat infantryman and was part of the major offensive against the Germans–the Battle of the Bulge. He studied under Walter Gropius and graduated with his Masters in Architecture from Harvard University in 1953. In 1955, Rogatnick arrived in Vancouver with Alvin Balkind, his lifetime partner with whom he almost immediately established the New Design Gallery, one of the first galleries in Canada devoted to contemporary art. Rogatnick lectured at the Vancouver Art Gallery before becoming a professor at the University of British Columbia in 1959, where he became a famous scholar who specialized in the architectural history of Venice. In 1969, he established the university’s Studies Abroad program. He retired from UBC in 1985, having earned the university’s Master Teacher Award. It was then that he officially took up acting and co-founded the Arts Club Theatre on Granville Island in Vancouver.

The World Through Your Eyes
Cornelia Hahn Oberlander delivers an ode to 35 years of collaboration with Arthur Erickson, and to more than 40 projects.

TEXT Cornelia Hahn Oberlander

It was 1954 when we met at the Vancouver Art Gallery, where you gave a lecture showing us the most beautiful slides of your travels around the world, seen through your keen eyes. It was truly uplifting, and we all felt that you had brought to us in Vancouver a new way of looking at the world. You talked to us about the city as the greatest achievement of mankind, and spoke of your dreams to improve our places of work, learning and leisure in the city.

You stimulated new thoughts of how we should live and socialize in the city, which culminated in the teamwork of Group 58 showing us new ideas for our city dominated by high-rises. You wished us to shoulder social responsibility for the betterment of all in the city.

Your travels brought back new ideas such as the discovery of the gardens of Japan, which express the totality of all arts and architecture. You were inspired to implement these in your own garden, which became a sanctuary for your inspiration and contemplation for all your projects. It became a garden of viewing, reflection and discovery. Over the years, the preservation of this special garden was made possible by your friends and colleagues.

Your first dictum to any building is the site. All your projects show your commitment to nature and the deep understanding of it.

You demanded achieving a fit in all your buildings, and instinctively you understood the importance of nature and bringing it into harmony with glass and concrete. Thus, it was easy to interpret this relationship of building and site as a team. In all your thoughts you were innovative and you expected the team to perform with excellence. You challenged all of us to interpret new concepts, such as at Simon Fraser University, the UBC Museum of Anthropology, the BC Provincial Courthouse Complex, the Chancery in Washington, DC, and many houses in the forests of the Pacific Northwest.

In your writings, you eloquently observed that the dialogue between a building and its setting is the essence of architecture. One of your first major contributions in the world of architecture was winning the competition for Simon Fraser University in association with Geoffrey Massey in 1963. Here, you created new cultural significance for an educational institution. You challenged the site on this mountaintop and came up with new solutions that enabled students to learn and socialize, and you achieved an integration of activities within the buildings on different levels.

The Provincial Courthouse Complex was your next landmark project. Instead of building a 55-storey high-rise you put the building on its side, thereby making it possible to have a green roof over three city blocks. You saw to it that we built a linear park for all citizens to enjoy throughout the seasons, day and night, and that we could traverse from one street to the other surrounded by greenery. It took many years of research, risk-taking and responsibility for the team to make this possible.

Today, visitors to Robson Square do not realize the learning curve for greening roofs in 1974. The team had to analyze the loads on the roof, research lightweight growing medium, and choose plant material that could withstand pollution. You challenged us to bring biomass into the city 30 years ago. All this grew out of your deep love for the forest and the ecology of the Pacific Northwest, which you explored early in your life. This project is a work of art and must be retained in its entirety as your legacy.

The Museum of Anthropology at UBC embodies your spirit of land and sea. The Haida houses are placed at the edge of the shell-and-shingle beaches, and tell about the life of our native people. One day you called me into your office to see the first sketches of the museum and the site, and asked, “What would you do, Cornelia?” I replied that we should echo the landscape of the Queen Charlotte Islands with the grasses and plants used by our native people, as depicted in the book This is Haida. Thirty-five years later, this is still a work in progess. We hope that by next year, at your birthday, there will be water in the pond to complete your vision for the museum.

The Portland Hotel in Downtown Eastside Vancouver is one of your most important contributions to the city–a home for drug-afflicted people. A roof garden with blueberry bushes and apple trees, as well as cushions of lawn, allow the residents to soothe their spirits. Alternatively, they might find solace in the contemplative courtyard garden on a lower level.

How is it possible that we could do all these projects together? Although we grew up in different parts of the continent, we had similar backgrounds. We both roamed the woods, loved the mountains and the sea, and learned to appreciate nature early in life. Instinctively we both understood ecology and were taught design by those trained in the Bauhaus method.

From you, Arthur, I learned so much. When I presented you with the architectural plant for all the planter boxes–namely Taxus Media (Hicksii Yew), you gently commented, “But Cornelia, there are many greens.” What is Arthur talking about, I wondered. Oh … I guess I don’t know too many plants. This started my mind spinning, and I then took a crash course at UBC in plant material so I could bring different greens to Robson Square. Your gentle guidance will never be forgotten.

Arthur, I sing an ode to 35 years of collaboration with you. We all miss you and your constantly inquiring mind.

Cornelia Hahn Oberlander launched her career as a landscape architect in 1950. Her Robson Square development, designed in collaboration with Arthur Erickson in 1974, marked a turning point for the profession of landscape architecture when the concept of the rooftop garden was virtually unknown. She has worked with leading architects in Canada and around the world, continuing to contribute greatly to the profession of landscape architecture.

A Scenic Tour
A historian and friend of Arthur Erickson discusses a couple of inspirational moments that have influenced his appreciation of the value of architecture and the collegiality that it engenders.

TEXT Michael J. Prokopow

Among my many memories of Arthur–of countless meals, looking at buildings, looking at art, walking in gardens, listening to Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier (Arthur’s favourite piece of music, it should be noted), and talking about his life (that amazing adventurous and fully lived life)–two stand out.

My first memory is of a two-part afternoon spent with Arthur, Harry S
eidler and his wife Penelope. In Australia for a December holiday, Harry had invited his old friend to his light-filled and poetic studio at Milson’s Point in North Sydney with its expansive views of the Harbour Bridge and the financial district for what Arthur called a “long overdue reunion.” There were several of us with him and when Arthur extended Harry’s invitation to us, we happily tagged along, honoured as much to meet Australia’s great architect as to be included in what was obviously a personal occasion. They had not seen each other in a number of years, and, after hugging each other upon meeting and then hugging again, simply picked up a conversation where it had last been left off–in Singapore, Arthur believed. Over lunch, with good wine flowing, Arthur and Harry and Penelope Seidler talked about everything: about their long friendship, about projects, about lost friends, about engineers (a particularly popular topic with Arthur) and about the work of making buildings and the obligations that attended what Arthur always called the “gift” of practicing architecture. In the middle of dessert–a pound cake with cream and a bowl of native fruits, the colours of which appealed to Arthur–Harry got up from the table and said that we should go for a ride. Penelope quickly said she would forgo the “tour” and soon we were in the elevator descending to the underground garage. When the elevator door opened, Harry told three of us to wedge ourselves into the back of his car–a sleek, new silver-grey Mercedes convertible–and Arthur to get in the front. The top was down and we stormed out of the garage into that brilliant sunlight so typical of Sydney in high summer. As we drove over the Harbour Bridge, Harry explained in what was necessarily a very loud voice that he wanted to show Arthur “a few projects,” old and new. We saw the MLC building from 1977, careened past the landmark Australia Square tower of ten years earlier and ended up at the Horizon, Seidler’s celebrated 43-storey luxury apartment building in Darlinghurst, which was completed in 1996, and which was an experiment in form that Harry said soon became a reference in much of his more recent work. It was a whirlwind tour with Harry gesturing enthusiastically and driving extraordinarily fast, and Arthur agreeing and pointing at things, and the both of them smiling the entire time. Too soon it seemed that Harry was dropping us off at our hotel. Harry and Arthur got out of the car at the same time and they embraced again, grabbing each other’s arms and nodding at each other.

My second memory of Arthur was having lunch together in his house on the day before his 84th birthday. Seated at his chrome dining table, beneath the chrome planter that had long been filled with philodendrons and which framed an arched skylight, we resumed what was an ever-continuing conversation about architecture–his architecture and that of others–and about how his interests in designing buildings had evolved. He talked that day about his early investigations of domestic spaces, speaking in detail about the commission for the first Smith House and the design of the Ruth Massey House. He talked about how his and Geoffrey Massey’s winning of the Simon Fraser University competition in 1963 set in motion his interest and career in public architecture. He talked about how the design of museums was particularly challenging because of how the requisites of program had to accommodate–to serve–the collection. Such a building should never overwhelm what was going on inside, he said. Somehow we ended up talking about regrets. And while Arthur could and did talk freely about many things he regretted in life, his biggest regret professionally was that he never had the opportunity to design an airport. Airports, he said, were the emblematic structures of advanced society. As transportation hubs, national showcases, and meeting places, airports–in all their complexity–were sites of intersection: of people and cultures, of technology and possibility. Having spent a good deal of time in airports all around the world, he said that the task of designing an airport was a particularly challenging one. He talked in that conversation about Saarinen’s Dulles airport, about Piano’s tour de force in Kyoto Bay, about the old and rather beloved airport in Hong Kong, and about his friend Norman Foster’s remarkable replacement at Chek Lap Kok. And he talked admiringly about Foster’s recently completed terminal in Beijing. The conversation, while happy, possessed a decidedly wistful tone. It was, in truth, simply Arthur’s acknowledgment at a particular point in his life, of the vast and rich possibilities of the art he loved and the one he long sought to serve.

Michael J. Prokopow is a faculty member at the Ontario College of Art and Design.

A Bigger World
An Erickson apprentice from decades past contemplates a few important lessons learned early on in his career.

TEXT James Cheng

Arthur Erickson was well-known for his extensive travels and his wide circle of influential friends. When he returned from his trips abroad, which included China with former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, we were treated to a show of his gorgeous slides taken with his Hasselblad camera. From Iran, he introduced us to the photographic work of Roloff Beny in the book Pleasure of Ruins; from Japan, he brought the new GA Architect series by the legendary photographer Yukio Futagawa–with the initial publication profiling the work of Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo. I still recall the excitement this generated and everyone scrambling to order the latest volumes. Unlike today’s easy access to information via the Internet, books were rare, information was hard to come by, and travel was expensive and time-consuming. Often, Arthur would speak of the quality of light specific to a region. He was deeply interested in the culture of the various countries in which he worked, and in giving it expression in his designs.

Once, when we were discussing Simon Fraser University, he brought out a rare limited edition photographic survey of Fatehpur Sikri in India, going on to explain the spatial and spiritual nature of the courtyard spaces. On another occassion, when we were talking about the siting of a building, he shared images of the Alhambra in Granada, with its spectacular placement above the southern Spanish town. And he would continue to inspire us with the prints of Josef Albers and Frank Stella. It was during those moments that we appreciated his interest in travelling widely and his commitment to pursuing international work. Vancouver was a small and insular place in the early ’70s, but through his excursions and his circle of worldly friends, Arthur managed to steadily expand his professional perspective.

Sometime around the mid-1970s, Arthur was invited to participate in a limited competition to design the General Services Administration Building for the City of Portland. Postmodernism was the flavour of the day, and Michael Graves was Arthur’s chief competitor while his friend Philip Johnson was the deciding judge. We knew that a Postmodern design would win, and the office struggled with the competition design. Arthur was a Modernist and the scheme we submitted certainly reflected that compromise. As expected, Graves’s scheme for the Portland Building (with the famous statue of Portlandia) won. Arthur never looked back.

I was just three years out of architectural school when I worked for Arthur–from 1973 to 1976. He helped me appreciate that there is a much bigger world out there, and he taught me the lesson of being true to one’s convictions–and to never be swayed by fads and fashion.

Order and Simplicity
Fundamental tenets of architecture as espoused by a master architect are discussed.

TEXT Barry Johns

“Space has always been the spiritual dimension of architecture. It is not the physical statement of the structure so much as what it contains that moves us.” This quote from Arthur, as everyone called him, illustrates his unique way of seeing. Consumed by the need to create meaningful buildings through a life’s study of human culture and an affinity with light and landscape–his influence is original and profoundly Canadian.

Arthur’s tenets of site, light and cadence continue to inspire our own Alberta practice in its quest for authenticity and environmental harmony. We have learned to work with the wet, milky horizons at sea level and the intense prairie sky at much higher altitudes. Arthur taught me, among other things, to see light as a building material.

Order and simplicity define the characteristics of Arthur’s most compelling work, and have become our practice’s fundamental design principles. From the parallel planes of the Hillborn House so beautifully nested into the landscape, to the integration of Robson Square into the city of Vancouver, the best of Arthur’s work is found in structural cadence from a distance and a spatial enrichment up close. He decried structural expression when it was based on engineering calculation–preferring to sculpt it instead by defining or framing the space with elegant proportions. So many of the houses–from Smith to Eppich to Fire Island–use the same dimensions for columnar width as beam depth, his signature structural order to create calm, subtle and beautiful compositions. From crisp edges (never chamfer a corner) to honest expression (never patch a surface), raw structural concrete was saluted as the “noble stone” of the 20th century. Years later, we are still learning to keep it simple.

Within the didactic culture of his studio, I fondly remember our five orders: the slip/slide; never turn a corner but terminate on a point of natural light; plant it; structural cadence; and always be unique. These were starting points to the endless options we explored, although Arthur would derive yet another solution in the end.

At the best of times, we were in the presence of a genius who, through his architecture, is ample testimony to Canada’s worldwide identity as a “gracious” culture.

Barry Johns lives and practices in Edmonton. He worked closely with Arthur Erickson on Robson Square and other projects from 1974-1980.


A few words on Simon Scott
Throughout this issue, several images—many previously unpublished—have been used by the photographic artist Simon Scott. Adele Weder explains why.

TEXT Adele Weder

As the primary photographer of Arthur Erickson’s architecture, Simon Scott reveals a symbiotic aspect to his own work, as suggested by the title of his recent exhibition at the West Vancouver Museum. Simon Scott: The Architecture of Photography syntactically inverts the usual deferential relationship of camera and building, wherein the former is no more than a visual recording device of the latter. What we see here is an artistic partnership. The work of Scott, who trained in architecture and runs his own architectural consulting firm, is itself a strand of architecture, defined by strong lines, poetic construction, and an overwhelmingly powerful visual unity. Like that of Erickson, Scott’s work bespeaks an idealism that seems at odds with the vagaries of commercial life. Created largely during Erickson’s glory years of the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, the images suggest an idealism that looks almost anachronistic today: ethereal crispness and clarity; deep and brilliant colours; the artful swoop of the horizon line; and always the sun. Most notably, the land itself fills up much of the composition, in tandem with Erickson’s own values, but in a manner that is largely avoided by the more common anthropocentric and media-oriented architectural photography. “I have never really believed that nature and man need to be separated,” Scott told the assembled crowd on opening night. “What man does is part of nature. The critical issue is how well he does it.”

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