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Architect Arthur Erickson dead at 84

Blog by Ian Watt | May 21st, 2009

Architect Arthur Erickson dead at 84

Architect Arthur Erickson.

Architect Arthur Erickson.

Photograph by: John McKay, Times Colonist

Internationally renowned Vancouver architect Arthur Erickson, who mingled with the world’s artistic, corporate and political elite during a marathon career that lasted more than half a century, has died. He was 84.


During his career, Erickson designed unique mansions, libraries, universities and other massive buildings. He first achieved international acclaim for his award-winning design for Simon Fraser University and his work can be seen around the world.


His projects include the Canadian Embassy in Washington, Kuwait Oil Sector Complex in Kuwait City and Kunlun Apartment Hotel Development in Beijing. In his late ’70s, Erickson accepted a non-profit organization’s plea to design a Downtown Eastside housing complex for poor people with long histories of drug abuse and mental illness, saying it was a more interesting project than building condominiums for the wealthy.


Erickson enjoyed accolades and honours from his professional peers. Yet he suffered the public humiliation of personal bankruptcy in 1992, after piling up more than $10 million in debt.


That financial disaster almost made the mansion-maker homeless. At that point, his Point Grey cottage was his only declared asset.


But Erickson rebounded. He started up another Vancouver-based architectural firm and went on to design bold new buildings like the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Wash. and the Liu Centre for the Study of Global Issues at UBC.


Erickson might have been one of the elder statesmen of world architecture, as some admirers have described him, but he was not always diplomatic. He frequently railed against those who dared to change his original designs during major refits.


“It’s very difficult to see your children wasted,” he said late in life. In 2004, when Erickson was 80, a controversial address that he made to Canadian bankers in 1972 was one of two speeches he kept posted on his corporate website. After declaring that worldwide tourism was the greatest threat to human cultures and slamming bank-financed “multi-storied monster” hotels in pristine Third World settings, Erickson reminded the bankers of their enormous responsibilities.


“You, as bankers, cannot afford to be concerned with only the economic aspects of projects that you finance,” he declared. “There may be serious implications on the natural environment, on the urban environment, on human culture, which at some future time may even be considered crimes against mankind.”


The complex life of a self-described non-conformist began in 1924, in Vancouver.


Erickson shared stories of his childhood with Edith Iglauer, author of a 1981 biography, Seven Stones: A Portrait of Arthur Erickson, Architect.


Erickson’s father lost both legs during a First World War battle. When he returned from the war, his fiance went ahead with the wedding despite his disability.


She explained, according to Iglauer, that she would “rather marry a man with wooden legs than a wooden head.”


Their son, Arthur Charles Erickson, began painting at age 13, using National Geographic photos to paint two small fish on his bedroom wall. At 16, he exhibited some of his oil pastel abstracts at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

In 1942, when Canada and other Allied nations were fighting Germany and Japan, Erickson was taking second-year courses at UBC. At the urging of his father, he joined the Canadian Army University Corps and studied engineering before being asked to take a Japanese-language course.


Erickson was in India, headed to Malaysia as a commando in a behind-Japanese-lines field unit that was supposed to bombard the enemy with demoralizing Japanese-language propaganda, when U.S. atomic bombs fell and Japan surrendered. So, he ended up with a far less dangerous assignment: program director for Radio Kuala Lumpur.


By 1946, Erickson was back in Vancouver, taking economics, history and Japanese courses, aiming for a career in diplomacy. But his goal changed one year later, when he looked through Fortune Magazine and saw photographs of American architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s desert house, Taliesin West.


“Suddenly, it was clear to me,” Erickson wrote in his 1988 autobiography, The Architecture of Arthur Erickson. “If such a magical realm was the province of an architect, I would become one.”


After four years of study at the school of architecture at McGill University in Montreal, Erickson visited the already-famous architect’s home. Wright invited Erickson to stay at Taliesin for a year of study, but Erickson accepted instead a one-year travelling scholarship from McGill.


With the help of an $800 veteran’s grant and a free passage on an Indian freighter that was carrying dynamite, he made that $2,500 scholarship last almost three years. Erickson’s travels followed the history of western architecture, from Egypt and Lebanon, from Greece to Spain, from southern to northern Europe.


He worked in London for the architect son of legendary psychologist Sigmund Freud before returning home. In Vancouver, he worked for several large architectural companies and was fired from two.


In 1952, Erickson began working with architect Geoff Massey, designing houses for friends and wealthy customers. His first patron, the son of a lumber magnate, commissioned the 1958 Filbert House, at Comox on Vancouver Island. Erickson began teaching architecture in 1955, at the University of Oregon.


One year later, he started teaching at UBC, where he would challenge undergraduates with open-ended, Socrates-style assignments until 1964.


Erickson said he reached a landmark moment in his career in 1963, when he and Massey won a competition to design a new Burnaby Mountain campus for the then-non-existent Simon Fraser University. Unlike other North American universities that gave departments their own buildings, they designed a campus of linked buildings.


“What Simon Fraser says is that the body of knowledge is one, and that to artificially segregate different disciplines and incarcerate them in different buildings completely disallows the kind of cross-fertilization, the chance associations, that have always occurred in our great institutions of knowledge,” Erickson wrote.


That design ignored the competition rules, but Erickson worked on it for weeks. Although Erickson and Massey didn’t expect to win, they attended the award ceremony, just to see the winning design. Seventy other designs were submitted, but the judges were unanimous: Erickson and Massey won first prize and became responsible for the university’s overall design.


To many students and staff, the vast columns of grey, unadorned concrete were repressive. Erickson called concrete “the marble of our time.”


In 1989, Erickson declared Vancouver should plan for a regional population of 10 million and stop pretending it is a suburb. (Erickson didn’t say when the region’s population, now at about two million, which grow to 10 million.) Meanwhile, Erickson’s corporate empire grew.


There was an office in Montreal for Expo 67 projects, which included the Canadian Pavilion. More offices opened in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in the late 1970s for projects in the Middle East. At one time, he was designing a massive water garden in Baghdad for Iraq’s then-president Saddam Hussein — a project abandoned when the long Iraq-Iran war began.


In 1972, B.C.’s first New Democratic Party government shelved a Social Credit government plan to construct a 55-storey government office in the heart of downtown Vancouver. It gave Erickson an opportunity to turn his notions of good urban design into reality.


Erickson’s scheme, unveiled the following year, became Robson Square and the Law Courts. Instead of another office tower, the offices and the courts were laid on their side to become a lower-profile, three-block-long complex. Instead of a narrow hallway between courtrooms.


The glass and steel truss roof created a wide public gallery — a place, the design plan stated, that would be “inviting public awareness and involvement in matters of justice.”


Erickson’s other works in Canada include the Sikh Temple in Vancouver, the Bank of Canada headquarters in Ottawa, Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto and King’s Landing condominium and office development on Toronto’s waterfront. In other countries, he designed the Canadian Chancery or embassy in Washington, D.C., the San Diego convention centre and California Plaza, a massive office complex in Los Angeles.


But Erickson’s business faltered. He closed down his Toronto office in 1989 and his Los Angeles office in 1991, angering unpaid creditors, who began filing lawsuits. Some former employees said Erickson was constantly shuffling between his projects, travelling around the world, and often reversed work that had been done in his absence.


Erickson said he was simply a bad businessman.


“You know, there’s a phrase, idiot savant,” he told the Vancouver Sun. “I think I fall into that category. You’re very good at one thing, but an absolute moron in others.”

Architect Arthur Erickson.

Architect Arthur Erickson.

Photograph by: John McKay, Times Colonist