The Quintessential Garden

TEXT + PHOTO Cheryl Cooper

When I am asked what architecture is, I can only answer that that’s the question you ask yourself in the beginning, and finding the answer takes a lifetime. –Arthur Erickson

As nearly a thousand souls gathered in SFU’s Convocation Mall at the Memorial for Arthur Erickson, a certain quietude prevailed. Some wondered if it would be possible to convey the feeling of that occasion in words. Yet it was that glorious space that so eloquently spoke of Arthur’s vision and courage, a space a Renaissance poet might have described as “enthralled.” The SFU Mall is one of those magic places that is both there and not there at the same time, enclosed and yet open, as much about space–and what Arthur called “the common ground”–as it is about structure. And the structure evidences that “juxtaposition of constraint and freedom” that Arthur found so haunting in Japanese art. We felt contained and yet not contained, both held and as free as the air. As Arthur has said, “every object is only space and all space is only one.”

There is always this sense of limitless possibility in Arthur’s most significant works, whether large or small, and an abiding sense of the infinite. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why his spaces convey a sense of the sacred.

A bird flew through.

We remembered the gentleness of Arthur, his boldness and curiosity, together with the sensuality and humanism of his engagement with the world and his Buddhist contemplation of mutability. Nowhere is that contemplation more quintessential–and now more poignant–than in his Vancouver garden. Like much of the Erickson oeuvre, from the complex civic projects to the poetic houses, the garden is a living essay in relationships and moments and movements experienced in time. As the garden aged, and Arthur with it, its contemplative nature became increasingly revealed, and mutability its true subject.

Photographs cannot convey the experience of Erickson’s architecture. At the heart of his greatest works, as if on a journey–one discovers a sense of serenity, a serenity achieved through his profound physical and philosophical understanding of line, scale, context, culture and purpose, and the ephemeral nature of all things.

Therein also lies the sacred. That sense of the sacred and the infinite are among Arthur’s legacies, imparting the wisdom that anything is possible. Great buildings are honest, simple and stirring. They look like they belong; their presence enhances the beauty and meaning of place.

The genealogy of his influence through generations of architects, artists, and citizens will be traced. Those of us fortunate enough to have known him will miss his resonant voice and captivating smile, his grace and humility, and his insistence on questioning everything. Arthur urged us to attend to place–to climate, topography and culture–and to “the city as dwelling.” He inspired us to engage more respectfully, joyfully and freely in the world, and to embrace the challenges of architecture and citizenship in the human community and natural world. CA

Cheryl Cooper is an arts consultant and Founding Director of the Arthur Erickson Conservancy (AEC). The AEC’s mission is to preserve the Erickson legacy through advocacy, education and conservation. Please send inquiries to