Casting Lines, Building Grids

Text Jenni Pace Presnell

Two current architectural exhibitions, one in Calgary and the other in Vancouver, challenge the blueprint-and-blurb conventions of exhibiting architecture. Rather than simply displaying and describing works by the well-known Arthur Erickson and the lesser-known but prolific Vancouver architect Daniel Evan White, they test innovative display strategies to evoke both the design process and the resulting spaces. 

Layered Landscapes: Constructing Form and Meaning from the Sketches of Arthur Erickson at the Canadian Architectural Archives (CAA) prompts a consideration of line, both drawn on paper and imagined in the landscape. The display centres on hand-drawn sketches from eight projects, selected from the CAA’s rare stash of some 14,000 drawings produced by Erickson. 

The compact exhibition was organized by CAA curators Linda Fraser and Geoffrey Simmins with Erickson scholar Michelangelo Sabatino, and its design was developed by the Marc Boutin Architectural Collaborative. Each of eight projects is represented by two to four sketches, mostly on translucent tracing paper. The sketches are suspended in internally lit vitrines affixed atop specially built shipping crates, which will allow the exhibition to easily travel. Five of the displays include newly commissioned time-lapse video of buildings in their current state: some inhabited by people, some empty of all but rustling plants. 

Layered Landscapes is especially notable for what it does not include: the exhibition has no text aside from the most minimal labels. No narrative is present to explain the sequences of sketches, which vary from one project to the next. Scale is also fluid, with micro- and macro-scale drawings superimposed in the same vitrines.

The curators argue that the sketches are by nature highly accessible, because they invite contemplation of design impressions, adaptations and potential without imposing a textual reading on the viewer. Erickson himself contended that line “tells everything,” suggesting countless possibilities that are lost in dimensional representations.

For visitors eager to fill in the blanks, the exhibition might be best examined in conjunction with a close reading of David Stouck’s recent biography, Arthur Erickson: An Architect’s Life, (Douglas & McIntyre, 2013). As Stouck recounts, Erickson considered the site of the Filberg House in Comox on Vancouver Island, overlooking the Georgia Strait, to be the “most dramatic” site for which he designed and realized a structure. “The aesthetic problem was how to cast lines into the vast space, draw it into the complex of a building and release it without decreasing but enhancing its energy,” wrote Erickson (CA, December 1960). Layered Landscapes affords an opportunity to contemplate the architect working out these very concepts: three perspectival elevations are grouped with the house’s planting plan. The liberal use of glass to enclose the pavilion-like dwelling is apparent in these sketches, while the decorative screens referencing Andalusian Islamic traditions recede into the bold formal geometry. The economical use of line suggests an ideal continuity of landscape elements, minimally enclosed by man-made forms.

Stouck also sheds light on the Simon Fraser University (SFU) competition of 1962. He recounts that project manager Gordon Shrum insisted submissions be limited to three sheets of drawings–a site plan, aerial view and building profiles–along with a single page of text. These purposefully modest requirements opened the competition to young independent architects without the support of a large staff. Erickson’s and project partner Geoffrey Massey’s original aerial drawing for the central mall dominates one vitrine in the CAA exhibition, overlaid with a rough sketch for the plaza. Though still inexact, the descending series of platforms and pedestals is evident in the early sketch, although their relation to the whole can only be guessed at.

In contrast to this emphasis on two-dimensional documents, Play House: The Architecture of Daniel Evan White at the Museum of Vancouver (MOV) seizes on another architect’s mastery of volumetric shapes to design for improbable coastal sites. White was hired by Erickson and Massey during the development of SFU; he later worked with Ian Davidson. Afterwards, he launched a robust solo practice, creating numerous single-family homes and several condominium buildings along the West Coast. Despite a substantial portfolio, the work of the late Dan White is not widely known in Vancouver, even among the city’s architecture community. Guest curators and White collaborators Martin Lewis and Greg Johnson, working in conjunction with MOV curator Viviane Gosselin, set out to launch White’s designs into the public realm. In order to make his work as widely accessible as possible, they invited audiences to follow in White’s design process and engage in a creative play with form.

The exhibition is anchored by a series of 1:96 scale models of selected houses, displayed in a cabinet of curiosities along one wall. On the opposite wall, a chronology is illustrated with tangram-puzzle diagrams of White’s work. The gallery space is dominated by a 1:4 scale model of the Mâté Residence in West Vancouver, which recreates the tiny but ambitious house’s four planes cascading down a steep slope from the road above. The strong geometry of the floor plan recalls Erickson’s designs for the Museum of Anthropology, which itself echoes White’s earlier Reynolds II Residence of 1974–evidence of the strong ongoing dialogue that continued between the practitioners. Many of White’s ideas were playfully unconventional: the bridge-like Taylor Residence spans a deep gorge, while a floating bathroom in the McIlveen Floating Home features a 10-foot-diameter sphere containing bath and steam rooms, suspended over the kitchen. 

Beyond surveying White’s work and bringing it together as a coherent whole, the exhibition makes a concerted effort to engage the architectural community and general audiences alike. University of British Columbia architecture students were hired to assist with research, model-building, and catalogue design, while public programs accompanying the exhibition included a Lego build day and family-friendly design lab. In the exhibition space, stories from clients and contractors, 3D computer models, and building blocks encourage hands-on engagement.

Together, these two exhibitions provide instructive examples of how architectural displays might go beyond the norm. Viewing them in comparison also provokes the question: how does work become known? And, how do certain projects get absorbed into the canon of architectural touchstones? In some ways, the concurrent appearance of these two exhibitions may help to level the playing field–bringing attention to how even Erickson’s most acclaimed work arose from tentative sketches, and to White’s masterful but until now overlooked geometrical experiments.  

Jenni Pace is a doctoral candidate in the history of modern art and architecture at the University of British Columbia. Layered Landscapes: Constructing Form and Meaning from the Sketches of Arthur Erickson debuted in the Nickle Galleries at the University of Calgary and will travel across the country, concluding with a major symposium in Vancouver. Play House: The Architecture of Daniel Evan White is on display at the Museum of Vancouver until March 23, 2014.