Viewpoint (June 01, 2009)

On May 20th, Canada lost one of its greatest architects. By the time of his passing at 84 years of age, Arthur Erickson had built a career that spanned several decades, providing us with a number of significant buildings that defined an emerging nation through an architecture that acknowledges its geography and expresses the vitality of its citizens: the venerable Roy Thompson Hall, the groundbreaking Simon Fraser University, the landscape-inspired University of Lethbridge, and the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, a post-and-beam concrete masterpiece that places First Nations art and culture on par with the great cultures of Ancient Greece and Persia. In addition to his innumerable contributions to residential design, he directly influenced the evolution of several important Canadian cultural, educational, corporate and governmental institutions. Internationally, Erickson positioned Canada as a place that could stand proud amongst the great nations of the world. Few of us were able to see his Canada Pavilion at the 1970 World’s Fair in Osaka, but many of us have heard him eruditely describe how his architecture came to be an ambassador for our country by confidently displaying our cultural and creative spirit within a wooden teepee-inspired building. The Canadian Chancery in Washington, DC, an oft-misunderstood building largely due to its postmodern inclinations, is another strong example of Erickson’s interpretation of Canadian architecture as emissary abroad. Located in a precinct of Washington dominated by Federalist buildings, Erickson’s Chancery references the porticos, columns and entablatures of its neighbours–but is expressed through a vocabulary of exposed concrete elements integrated with ample greenery and a publicly accessible landscaped courtyard. But most importantly, Erickson’s architectural intentions and aspirations transcend formal geometries, exuding values that reflect contemporary Canadian culture and democracy.

Erickson’s reputation as an architect entered our collective imagination long before Gehry, Libeskind or Koolhaas were considered household names. This became apparent to us at the magazine, as we have had in the past weeks the privilege of hearing from many readers wanting to share their personal experiences of either Erickson the man or an Erickson building–from those who knew him well as far back as the 1950s, to the aspiring architecture student who, recently having toured an Erickson structure, discovered the importance of his chosen field of study. Erickson was an architect who could inspire us with his bravado and humanism as much as he could provide us with lessons about the plasticity of concrete, the expansiveness of glass, and the elegance of steel.

Arthur Erickson taught us about leading with substance over style: culture, history and humanity are the true foundations of good architecture, and these aspirations can be realized through programmatic invention. At Simon Fraser University, for example, he responded to the challenge of building a new educational facility by breaking down social and academic barriers so that university students from a variety of disciplines could debate and interact freely within a new space-age superstructure. When designing the Vancouver Law Courts, he redefined our expectations of a democratic city by placing accessible rooftop gardens on top of a legislative facility, and by encasing both the public hall and courthouse within a large transparent glass envelope.

Just as former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau once defined a nation through his political leadership during the 1960s, ’70s and early ’80s, Arthur Erickson’s buildings of that era represent an equally sophisticated confidence and vision for Canada. Without a doubt, Erickson’s contributions helped define a period of Canadian architecture that exudes an unprecedented connection to the particularities of site and landscape, and to First Nations heritage. He remains an inspiration to us all.

Ian Chodikoff