Arthur Erickson: Critical Works
November 4, 2013
Review By Jill Wade
No postwar Canadian architect is as widely known as is Arthur Erickson. Some commentators refer to him as an architectural star and a Canadian icon. Still others argue that, while many in this country revere him and while the international architectural press has covered him since the mid- 1950s, he is not appreciated to the same extent abroad.
This splendid hardcover book, published concurrently with the Vancouver Art Gallery’s exhibition of the same title, firmly establishes Erickson as an important player on the West Coast, in Canada, and on the international stage. Last year’s exhibition was the third, the largest, and the most critical show of Erickson’s work assembled by the gallery, and the book, which appeared simultaneously in Vancouver and Seattle, is the first critique of Erickson’s best built work. Nicholas Olsberg and Ricardo L. Castro, the architectural historians responsible for both book and exhibition, chose to work with three international critics – Edward Dimendberg, Laurent Stalder, and Georges Teyssot – all with ties to Olsberg through Quebec’s universities and Montreal’s Canadian Centre for Architecture. Olsberg introduces the book with an overview of Erickson’s life, work, and influences. Thereafter, each of three symmetrical sections contains an essay by Olsberg, a portfolio of spectacular plates of selected works photographed by Castro, and a closing review by one of the three critics.
The critical dimension of the book is a vital and timely addition to the literature by and about Erickson. Until now, we have had a glowing biography by Edith Iglauer, two handsome books by the architect himself, an impressive number of articles in the national and international journals and in the Canadian media dating back over fifty years, and even some negative press, as the Vancouver journalist Donald Gutstein revealed in 1974 in the first issue of City Magazine. The nation’s prominent architectural writers, such as Harold Kalman, the architectural historian who wrote the classic A History of Canadian Architecture (1994), and Lisa Rochon, the Toronto Globe and Mail critic who recently published Up North: Where Canada’s Architecture Meets the Land (2005), have featured Erickson in their books. The fully researched monograph by Olsberg and Castro reinforces the renewed interest in and intense scrutiny of the modern movement in this country as seen in the abundance of new books about Canadian modernism (some of which Douglas and McIntyre have also published) and in several architectural historical conferences, including one in 2005 at the Erickson-designed University of Lethbridge. Thus, the first truly critical book about Erickson has arrived at an appropriate moment.
For Olsberg, what distinguishes Erickson is his conceptualization of architecture within the context of time and space, whether landscape or cityscape, and of culture. Olsberg centres the book upon twelve “critical,” or architecturally significant, projects according to three “horizons” in time and space – namely, infinity, enclosure, and affinity – and he reveals the cultural references of each project. Thus, the space through which one walks in the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology leads to infinity and recalls memories of a Haida longhouse, whereas, at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, the pattern of movement through time and space is enclosed and raises cultural references to physical exercise, social exchange, and knowledge as varied as Pergamon and Oxford. Then again, at Robson Square in downtown Vancouver, the horizontally configured Law Courts, provincial government offices, and Vancouver Art Gallery convey ideals of a transparent judicial system, an administratively discreet state, and a free yet ordered civic artistic life, while the pedestrian passageways join the square’s various components and interact with the urban surroundings. In each instance, the idea from which the design process flows through models and drawings to realization is invariably powerful, and, as many would assert, that concept transcends the particular to reach some universal truth. In other words, Erickson is as much an artist and a philosopher as an architect.
In the opinion of Olsberg and the critics, the local and international influences on Erickson’s perception of space, time, and culture are of great formative consequence. Those influences include the West Coast landscape, the early intervention of the artist and theosophist Lawren Harris, the encounter in Vancouver in the 1950s with the modernist Richard J. Neutra, and the First Nations traditions of coastal British Columbia. As a young man, Erickson came across illustrations of the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, and he became familiar with the work of other masters of modern architecture through his teachers, particularly the design instructor Gordon Webber, in the architecture school at McGill University. Of utmost importance were the journeys afforded to Erickson through his service in the Second World War, his travelling scholarship from McGill, and his opportunities to visit and work in Japan and the Middle East.
In the end, the critics confirm Erickson’s singular importance as an architect at home and abroad but cannot agree on whether Erickson is a late modernist in the tradition of Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the renowned international masters of modern architecture, or whether he is a regionalist like Étienne Gaboury in Saint Boniface, Manitoba, or a West Coast modernist like the early Ron Thom in Vancouver. Georges Teyssot rightly observes that still another master of modern architecture, Alvar Aalto, who responded to the landscape (and, I would add, the culture) of Finland, is sometimes wrongly viewed as a regionalist, and he argues that Erickson is “a late modernist of the third or fourth generation” (111). As Edward Dimendberg concludes, Erickson is not easily categorized. Yet he is very much a uniquely modernist architect, whether on the regional or the international stage.