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By Brian Carter, editor

Arthur Erickson: Layered Landscapes: Drawings from the Canadian Architectural Archives

By Linda Fraser and Michelangelo Sabatino, Editors

Review By Bill Jeffries

March 6, 2014

BC Studies no. 184 Winter 2014-2015  | p. 152-53



Canada counts its blessings when it comes to architecture books, which is not to say that we don’t want better books to be produced here. Surprise that we have any books on architecture at all is more likely, given that there are no deep-pocketed university presses such as Yale or Princeton to print scholarly, yet coffee-table-sized tomes with beautiful, meaningful images. The Dalhousie Architecture Press, out of Halifax, is doing yeoman work in the area, and given that both books under review examine BC architectural practice, we in British Columbia should be the last to gripe and the first to say “thanks Dalhousie.” Their series, “Architectural Signatures Canada” under the Tuns Press imprint, has previously (1994) published a monograph on Vancouver’s Patkau Architects in addition to books on six firms from other provinces.

Of these two books, BattersbyHowat clearly had the larger budget, with Canada Council funding, but it also has better proofing, and more thoughtful design — in spite of the decision to print the colophon page text in medium gray mouseprint on white paper. The pictures speak admirably to the firm’s practice, telling us most of what we need to know, and for the rest, the texts by Christine Macy, Brian Carter, and Christopher Macdonald are aided by a corporate timeline that completes the story. Clearly, Vancouver’s BattersbyHowat design beautiful homes with exteriors characterized by a sage use of contrasting construction materials and a sensitivity to the way that the lines resulting from a creative use of boards can become part of the external form of the house. The boards are essentially ornamental — they have gaps between them, revealing black spaces. This signature effect is accomplished by using the boards (commonly cedar) as design elements applied over concrete or other wrapping. One hopes it works, because it gives a very distinctive look that extends the idea of “west coast modern” into new territory.

Dalhousie has a second imprint for books relating to Canada’s deeper architectural history — “Canadian Modern,” and that is where the book/exhibition catalogue Arthur Erickson: Layered Landscapes: Drawings from the Canadian Architectural Archives is to be found. This is a book of selected project drawings from 1953 to 1968. Its subtitle explains succinctly where the drawings may be seen in the flesh. In the same format as BattersbyHowat, with fewer pages and no colour, it is a welcome addition to our knowledge of Arthur Erickson’s creative legacy. The Canadian Architectural Archives are at the University of Calgary, existing, as most archives in Canada do, in an under-funded, under-staffed state about which very few people seem to care; the Prime Minister’s dumb attack on the National Archives was a sign of cultural stupidity, but not a surprising one, and for once I think there may actually be a trickle-down effect in play.

Difficult as it may be to see the originals, here we have, in case you missed seeing the reproduction in the exhibition “Vancouverism,” the drawing “Project 56,” Erickson’s 1955 plan to build two interlocking Kuala Lampur-sized 40-storey residential buildings covering what appears to be a three by ten block area of Vancouver’s West End between Burrard Street and Stanley Park — assuming I am reading the drawing correctly. Someone must know how many suites the proposed complex contained, but I’ll guess 4,000. As a thirty-one year-old architect, Erickson was having dreams about Corbusier and planning to build a proto-Dubai with a view toward Stanley Park. The original drawing (in Calgary) is about 20 by 36 inches, but even at 5 by 14 inches in the book it is an amazing vision; Erickson called it a “conceptual sketch,” but it is so jaw-droppingly ambitious that a reproduction of it was the title wall piece when the “Vancouverism” exhibition was at Canada House in London.

All fourteen drawings in the book are fascinating. They are selected from 225 in the master list of the Erickson holdings at the Canadian Architectural Archives usefully reproduced at the back of the book. Revelations abound: the master plan for Simon Fraser University intriguingly proposed a series of many stepped flat areas going down the mountain — like rice paddies!

Again, thanks are owing to Dalhousie Architecture Press for doing these books, but their size points to a crying need for funding to a press that can do larger books, and make money doing so. Yale University Press does not lose money, so maybe bigger is better for architecture books. However, better proof-reading is a necessity: the caption to an Erickson drawing of his own house and garden places it in Vancouver’s West End, which is complete nonsense; and, sorry to quibble, but the drawing captions do list the medium, but sadly not the sizes of the originals. The exhibition of Erickson’s drawings at the University of Calgary’s Nickle Galleries ended on January 4.

Arthur Erickson: Layered Landscapes: Drawings from the Canadian Architectural Archives
Linda Fraser and Michelangelo Sabatino, editors
Halifax: Dalhousie Architectural Press (formerly Tuns Press), 2013. 68 pp. $19.95 paper

Brian Carter, editor
Halifax: Dalhousie Architectural Press (formerly Tuns Press), 2013. 96 pp. $34.95