Viewpoint (February 01, 2002)

Late last fall, the University of Toronto Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design (al&d) inaugurated the Eric Arthur Gallery with an exhibition of its namesake’s remarkable legacy. Both the exhibition, Eric Arthur: Practical Visions, curated by Michelangelo Sabatino and designed by PLANT, and the gallery designed by Kohn Shnier Architects (see page 16), honour one of the most influential and enthusiastic proponents of Canadian architecture (pictured above on one of his many excursions to historic barns; see page 22).

It’s entirely appropriate that Arthur’s memory is enshrined in an act of institutional remembrance. To acknowledge his legacy in this way establishes a fitting symmetry; remembering the past and acknowledging its important role in shaping the future were among Arthur’s greatest contributions to Canada’s architectural culture. In an era when many modernists treated history with indifference and even contempt, he understood the importance of studying what had come before. But unlike the resurgent interest in history that characterized post-modernism, Arthur’s position was neither ironic nor nostalgic. If history was viewed by modernists as irrelevant, and by post-modernists as a field of rubble from which to appropriate forms and motifs, for Arthur it formed part of an architectural and cultural continuum that linked past, present and future. It was his own unique “third way”–to borrow a phrase from recent political discourse–that allowed Arthur to pursue concurrently, as part of a coherent cultural project, activities as seemingly diverse as his support for progressive Modern buildings like Viljo Revell’s Toronto City Hall (1958-65) and his celebration of the 19th century in Toronto, No Mean City (University of Toronto Press, 1964).

In addition to providing fitting tributes to Eric Arthur’s legacy, the gallery and its inaugural exhibition call to attention just how rare such acts of remembrance are. The projects combine to correct the unfortunate tendency in Canadian architecture to quickly erase historic buildings and figures. Larry Wayne Richards, Dean of al&d, notes that as he learned more about Arthur’s work at the University and beyond, he was struck by how “someone so prominent in the history of Canadian architecture wasn’t being remembered; this didn’t seem reasonable.”

Eric Arthur’s is not an isolated case, and bringing his legacy back to awareness presents an opportunity to revisit other aspects of our forgotten history. (In a similar vein, the AIBC recently mounted an exhibition of Arthur Erickson’s Filberg House, located near Comox, B.C. When the house was built in 1961, Canadian Homes dubbed it “The Most Fabulous House in Canada.” Subsequently the victim of unsympathetic renovations, the house was recently restored to its original splendour.) In his day, Arthur strove to save important historic architecture from the progressivist zeal of the post-war boom. Today, many early examples of mid- century modernism are being sacrificed to make way for ersatz historicist piles with little regard for the architecture they mimic or that which they replace. Each generation, it seems, is quick to dismiss the work of its predecessors and eager to recreate the world in its own image. In this climate, it is all the more important and all the more urgent that Arthur’s lessons are not forgotten. Marco Polo