Just Add Water

TEXT + PHOTO Cheryl Cooper

Architects foremost of all should be listeners…

–Arthur Erickson

Thirty-eight years ago, Arthur Erickson designed the Museum of Anthropology (MOA) at the University of British Columbia. In a forest clearing on a cliff edge, Erickson oriented the Museum to the sea and tied the building to the land in ways expressive of Northwest Coast Native life. Evoking a traditional Haida village, he envisioned an inlet where First Nations peoples brought their canoes to rest on its shell-and-shingle beach, and where, among the longhouses, the Museum would, as Erickson put it, “shelter all those objects, cultural and sacred, that could no longer be left out in the rain.”

Water, and its relationship to light is central to this vision. Erickson saw that water was essential as a boundary for totem poles, a shimmering median. And if the idea of a Haida village actedas a mediator between forest and sea, then the inlet-cum-pond was integral to the narrative of site and meaning of place. Water provides afurther horizontal plane in a composition, intersected by verticals, progressing south to north. Water also brings down the sky, lights the ground, and animates the whole through the multiple, constantly changing reflections of sky, cloud, tree, bird, building and totem, reconciling the public and the sacred, conveying mystery and serenity.

With its indigenous plants and grasses, the landscape becomes part of the outdoor museum, seen as a continuous cultural expression. The reflecting pool is an integral element of this expression of place, people and time, part of its meaning and spirit, metaphysical and ontological.

I saw this poetry revealed in June 2004 whenI had the pool filled for Arthur’s 80th birthday party, with thanks to the University, the MOA, the Friends of Arthur Erickson, and the reflecting pool’s sponsor, Concord Pacific. The pool had only been filled twice in its history: for a 1993 film shoot for the movie Intersection and for the 1997 APEC Summit. But for the weekend of Arthur’s birthday, hundreds of people saw the magic of the place as Arthur had imagined it. That event, with the photographs, publications, exhibitions, tours and discussions that followed, contributed powerfully to advocacy for the permanent installation of the pool. From that day, Arthur and I always met friends and guests at the Museum with my folder of photographs, most memorably with Yosef Wosk, who has now helped to make this vision possible through his generous, deeply sympathetic gift.

Completing Erickson’s vision is a great tribute. This does not happen without agency: advocacy, political will, funding, perseverance, and passion. All these came together in the support of UBC President Stephen Toope, MOA Director Anthony Shelton, and others. Not least among these is landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander. Her knowledge and tireless dedication have enabled this challenging project to be realized in keeping with the original concept.

On September 19, 2010, the MOA recognized the completion of the landscape with the Yosef Wosk Reflecting Pool, in honour of Arthur C. Erickson and Cornelia H. Oberlander. Today, we can celebrate the fulfillment of Arthur’s vision and greatest wish. CA

Cheryl Cooper is an arts consultant and Founding Director of the Arthur Erickson Conservancy.