Arthur Erickson

B.Arch. 1950
February 17, 1998
Interview by Jim Donaldson

I really started off as a painter and I was interested in being an artist above all. My father suggested that that wasn’t a very practical approach to life and he suggested architecture. And I guess I questioned a lot of people, I met some of the architects in Vancouver, and finally the decisive meeting that dissuaded me from taking architecture was with Richard Neutra and this was at Bert Binnings’s. Richard Neutra was a great friend of Bert Binnings and Bert had invited me over, I guess I was about seventeen at the time, to meet Neutra. And I asked him, I said, “You know, my interest is in Art, I’m an avid painter and I would like to pursue that and is there any school that you would recommend, any university that puts that emphasis on Architecture?” And Neutra said, “Young man, the best thing for you is to go to MIT and study Engineering”. So I said, “Well that finishes Architecture, as far as I’m concerned”. So I forgot about it. And the enlistment in the Army and that sort of thing came up. I had enlisted in the Engineering course at UBC, the Army Engineering course, and found it extremely uninteresting and somebody came along to recruit from the Army persons interested in studying Japanese. And of course, this was very exotic. It was interesting. I had always had some interest in Japanese art and architecture and I enlisted in the Japanese course. And within a year, I was off to India as a commissioned officer. I guess by that time I was twenty, because I had my twenty-first birthday in India.


So the adventure in Asia was a true adventure and awakening of a tremendous interest that I had in foreign cultures. And not only through speaking a new language like Japanese, or trying to speak it, but also India which was extraordinarily exotic. And of course, this was India under the Raj and being an officer in India under the Raj was a very privileged position. There were ten of us from Canada who were sent over and we were scattered all over the world and Secret Forces and things like that. And it was really a cook’s tour because when we were about to go into action, the bomb was dropped in Japan, the war ended, we were the landing force in Malaya, and of course there was no- we expected action, there was no action. Because we were called the Indian Field Broadcasting Unit, and I was the captain of a platoon in that, we were put into Radio Kuala Lumpur and I was Programme Director of Radio Kuala Lumpur for a year. So this is, I mean, all- I guess during that age, anyone in your early- late teens, early twenties, if you’re not sure what you want to do, and having been dissuaded from architecture, I thought, well… You know, I love travel, I love to learn about cultures and why not the Foreign Service? So when I came back from overseas, I went back, well, I went back to my Japanese language course for six months until it disbanded. And then took a summer course at UBC in Economics and History, two of the things that I needed for External Affairs. And I was determined that that was the direction I would go and I would keep painting as a hobby. And then a friend of my mother’s brought over a Fortune Magazine. This was in August of… what year was it?


It would be ’46, ’47?

Forty- I think it was ’46, August of ’46. And in it was Frank Lloyd Wright’s Desert House. And I said, “If an architect can do this, I‘m going to go into Architecture”. So it was already August, and I cabled every university that I had heard of in the States and in Canada. And of course, this was when all the veterans were back, the universities were over-crowded, and McGill was the only university that answered. So I got to know Doug Shadbolt here who was going off to McGill, and the two of us went off on the train together. And Doug was a very, very experienced draughtsman-designer at that time. He practiced for years with people like John Porter and Kay Wisnicki here and so he was a great mentor for me, because I knew nothing. I never had a t-square or anything else in my hand ever. And so I had to start right from the start, but I had a very sophisticated mentor. And we were all older than students generally were. We were in our- I guess, 22, 23, 24… and I think as a student body we were more mature and looked at the University a different way. I think especially with Doug’s leadership, we sort of ran things. You know, if we didn’t like courses we’d go in a troop to John Bland and tell him, you know, we would really like to change this because we don’t think it’s working and this sort of thing. So we weren’t just taking our studies as they were given, but requesting and changing them and we had some very stimulating people. At that time in the staff, de Pierro was an avid Le Corbusier fan, and of course, I was an avid Wrightian. And he absolutely discouraged my interest in Wright altogether. He called it muddy architecture.


Who, Enrico did this?

Sorry? de Pierro. Yeah, de Pierro was very much- you know I’d start out with a Wrightian plan and he’d say, “Oh, you know, get rid of all that, you know all those things. Clean it up, clean it up, it’s very muddy”. And he did impress upon me the clarity and simplicity of the planning. And of course our heroes were Mies and Corb, very much and we studied them extensively. We decided with- under de Pierro’s guidance and Doug’s capacity as an organizer to put on a major exhibition at the school of Le Corbusier and sort of copied full-scale some of his paintings, got wonderful photographs of his work and made models of his work and things like that. And so my path was switched from Wright to Corb and Mies and the whole Bauhaus. Of course, the Bauhaus training was reflected directly through Gordon Webber, who had been a student of Moholy-Nagy at the Chicago Institute of Design. So we thoroughly brainwashed in a way, in that philosophy and in those attitudes. And it was wonderful. It was a great, great experience. I think all of us, we were a fairly middle-sized class. We were right behind Guy Desbarats’s class, in which I think there were only six students, and then Affleck was the class ahead, in which I think there were about twelve or so, and I think we were probably the largest contingent. I think we must have been about twenty students.


And John Bland was the director of the school.

John Bland was the director and of course, he was the, you know, perennial director of McGill, I think, and an extraordinary man and a wonderful attitude towards his staff and students. I think his, what can I say, his commitment to the school, to architecture I think certainly pervaded the school, and also his ability to allow different opinions and different attitudes. There was no specific programme from the school and he encouraged us to- took us on visits to Boston to see the work of Stubbins and Gropius; we met Gropius and Breuer. So all of this was a wonderful initiation into the whole school and into the basic tenets of modernism.


Was, excuse me for interrupting but was Gordon Webber at the school in your time? Was he teaching there?

No, no. I mentioned him-

Yeah, you did.

Yeah, and he, of course was a great influence. What I think we- you know, many of the students found Gordon’s classes bewildering and I think that was part of the lesson that he was teaching was to bewilder in order to get people to think in a different way. And what I found was that Gordon’s contribution was a unique way of seeing things and making us aware of our visual perception in a way that- through the experiments, through the Bauhaus experiments and things like that, that otherwise, we would be using our brains instead of our senses to figure things out. And I think Gordon really introduced the realm of the senses into the teaching and was a great, great influence, and a great friend. The Sketching Schools, I mean, I must say the class below me, Ken Carruthers was in that and we became good friends. I think we went to one of the Sketching Schools up to Sainte-Agathe and met a French Canadian family there and began to go out with the girls and stuff and that was quite a mad escapade. And they were very romantic periods, those Sketching Schools, especially up in the Laurentians because it was during the fall when the leaves had changed and long walks through the woods to a wonderful little tea house run by some Austrians a way off in the woods. It was a marvelous time, great conversations, very Oxbridge in its sense.


Did you ever keep in touch with any of the classmates? I know Doug Shadbolt, of course, ‘cause I talked to him and he’s still here in Vancouver, but any of the others that you remember?

Well, Ken…


Yeah. Because he, I think, got the Pilkington the year after I did and I was still traveling in Europe when he got it and so we crossed paths and met in London and went out together to explore England and that sort of thing. And had a mutual girlfriend that traveled to Spain with both of us on different times, so we’ve kept in touch. The others, you know, it’s wonderful to see them but it’ s difficult when you live in the West and are working there. Even when I was in Toronto there for a few- and in Montreal, I guess I saw a few of them during Expo in Montreal because we were all down there.


Talk a little bit about after you graduated, what you did for a while and where you settled into practice and the initial stages of your career.

Well, to go through it, yeah, well... Just before the last year, because traveling back and forth across the country was many different kinds of adventures. I must say that I purposely didn’t go to the university here because I did want to see the rest of Canada and get some understanding of the Eastern view. My parents had come from the East and so that was very much part of the decision, because I could have gone, the school was just opening that year and I could have gone here. But I was all for absorbing as much of the world, the different tenors of different parts of the country and that sort of thing. I think one’s curiosity at that age is absolutely unquenchable and certainly traveling and living elsewhere was an opportunity to get a feeling for Eastern Canada. And I felt as a Canadian, I should know more about the East, and get some sense of East and West, which I think is one of the chronic problems still of Canada. On the trips across, I always chose a different route and a different means of traveling to explore parts of the United States and other parts of Canada. And one time, I guess I decided to drop in on Wright at Taliesin. It was prompted largely- I think I just wanted to see his building and Taliesin was on the route, as was Wright’s work around Wisconsin, Madison and Chicago. And I think at that time I was driving across, I can’t remember, but- I was absolutely enchanted by Taliesin. It was like, I mean it was such a huge countryside, and it was really an abdication from the world, almost like a monastery, which attracted me. I always wanted to abdicate from the world and live a monastic life. This seemed to be a great opportunity. And I met Mr. Wright and found him. I was very apprehensive about that meeting because I had heard how rude he was, unpleasant and opinionated and everything else. But he was absolutely charming. Wonderful twinkle in his eye, great wit, and he didn’t talk about himself; he talked about me. So I was enormously flattered and in the end, I asked him if there was any chance of going with him and he said, “well, usually, we used to have scholarships”, because I explained that I didn’ t have the money to pay the eleven thousand a year which you paid as an apprentice, which was nothing when you consider just a thousand dollars a month for board and lodgings and everything else. An ingenious system, you know, to have a drafting staff and pay them minimum wages, and perfect surroundings. And so I spent an enchanting evening and a young Norwegian took me around who- there were a lot of people, you are always making these connections with people and he turned out to be the boyfriend and later married the girl that I had met in Sainte-Adele and this sort of thing and became the head of Waterloo many years later, Thor Bjornstad. And he was the only one that seemed to not be coddled by the grandeur of the [unclear] dinners that I didn’t think was Wright’ s initiative at all. I thought it was Mrs. Wright. I think she was a very self-important person and had done the grand head table thing and the procession into the dining room, the adulation of the apprentices and all that sort of thing. And I think she reveled in it. I think Wright couldn’t have cared less. Anyway, he said that he would make an exception and would let me come and not pay him anything if I promised to pay them later when I was making a living myself. And so I went back to university and went to see Bland and said, “You know, I’m quitting, I’m going with Wright for a year”, and he said, “Well, you know you should really consider this very carefully, Arthur, because there is the traveling scholarship and you could be in line with it. You know, I’m not saying you’re going to, but you could be. And that would give you the chance to go to Wright and you’d have the money to pay for it immediately or travel over the rest of the world. Well, the minute the aspect of travel came up as a choice, that was another temptation that was much greater than that of the monastic life with Wright. So-


One hundred and eighty degrees!

And so I chose that and luckily got the traveling scholarship and managed to spend two and a half years in Europe. I got an Army grant, an educational grant too, which increased it to- I think it was fifteen hundred dollars and I think the Army grant was six hundred dollars. And a friend of my father’s managed to get me a pass on a ship as a kind of- and it was a very strange voyage to- the ship was going originally to England and my plan was to go to England and get a job working on the Festival of Britain, because that was the most exciting thing that was happening at that period. However, the ship changed its course and the very last minute. It was going to Egypt and then on to India. So I had to quickly get my passport changed and get a visa, I don’t think I needed a visa for Egypt, but anyway. There was a lot of very last minute things. And on this ship, there was only one other passenger. And I don’t know, I was put on as a supernumerary and I don’t know if they expected me to do any work or anything else, but I had my- my destination, of course, was eventually Italy. So I decided to learn Italian. And I had my Italian textbook and I spent every day of that month getting to Egypt in a hammock on the upper bridge and I would come down only for meals. And the other passenger who was a very red-necked American, and I think an arms dealer, and I only found out later, and this was before the whole strife in Egypt. It was right at the time and acts of the strife in India that he was taking arms to India. And the ship was, half of it was loaded with dynamite. And he suspected that I was a spy. Anyway, it was a very complicated story. I got off the ship in Egypt and then started around the Mediterranean and that’ s what took me two and a half years. I spent- it was the most extraordinary voyage because there was no particular destination, there was no schedule, there was no time. I just traveled and when I felt I was ready to go on, I went on. And in my first week in Egypt, I think I spent half of the funds that were available. I realized that I couldn’t eat in restaurants, I couldn’ t stay in hotels, I had to take a sleeping bag and sleep in the fields, and fourth-class bus travel and train travel and that sort of thing and very cheap.


You know, a few thousand dollars didn’t go very far.

No. So I was able when I got to Italy to live on one dollar a day, because they had wonderful mensas there, which were set up, I guess, just after the war to give full-course meals for twenty cents, you know, and you could get lodging for about fifty cents. And I think in Florence, which I made my headquarters, I rented a bathroom and the owner put a mattress over the bath tub and that was my lodging there for almost eight months. But I used that as a headquarters and traveled all around from there. And spent most of the time in Italy and then through France, down into Spain, up into England and it was an extraordinary- and a bit of Northern Europe. It was an extraordinary trip, absolutely extraordinary. And I think a lot of my sense of architecture, developed through that experience because I really studied the architecture and I always, when I came to a town, I tried to arrive at night always so in the daytime, I would see the town differently. I’d arrive and wander through the streets at night and see it again in the daytime. And I always started with the earliest buildings and went through the progression right up to- and I lost interest in contemporary buildings entirely. I did in a few cases in Milan, you know, look up some of the contemporary architects like Rodgers’s father and they were doing interesting work in Milan and elsewhere and of course, in England, I looked up Misha Black and Dennis Lasden and people like them.


In England when I finally got there I tried to get a job with one of the better firms and wasn’t very successful. And I can understand because what I had to show in my portfolio was sort of, you know, by this time, it had been in a backpack for two years and it was all moldy and that sort of thing. It wasn’t very well presented! And the only person I was- I was only able to get work for one month, or two months in England and it was with the son of Sigmund Freud. Ernst Freud was an architect and his practice was in his garage at the back. There was one other draughtsman and myself and we would have tea in the house and Anna Freud, and Lucien Freud, his son would come in and it was very interesting. And then I realized that the amount of money I was making, which was about, I think it was something like four pounds a week or something, twelve dollars, I was better traveling and spending what I had rather than- seeing things rather than working because it didn’t make sense to work for that amount of money. So I gave that up and continued to travel up into the North, Scandinavia and Northern Germany. And so I had a very, I had a wonderful grounding in architectural history and art history because I was following the whole history of art at the same time. It was an extraordinary experience, an extraordinary experience.


How long did that experience in your life consume? A couple of- two, three years?

No, it was two and a half years, yeah. And it changed everything that I had been thinking up until that time, everything that I had been taught came into question. So I came back very confused, not interested in Modernism anymore, fascinated by all these different cultures that I had seen and the extraordinary buildings, a very strong sense of what made great architecture, whatever period and whatever time. And the strong sense of the influence of climate on form. And I arrived back in Vancouver and had the same difficulty looking for jobs here. But of course, it had been stated that I had won these scholarships and I guess I’m supposed to be fairly smart and so I got into one of the top offices here, which was McCarter and Nairne, and I think I lasted probably about six months and they let me go, because I really was pretty useless. Although if they had built the post office building that I had proposed, it would have been a very contemporary building today, because- They thought it was an absolutely crazy building, because what I had done was a building that was entirely achieved with glass with glass fins for sun control. And of course, that’s the whole media in current architecture in Britain and elsewhere. Well, this was in nineteen fifty-


Eight or seven?

No this was’53. And so, and also I had this terrible habit of not liking the kind of sandwiches that you had and then getting a loaf of bread and a piece of cheese, smelly cheese, and a little bottle of wine. And I put the bread uncovered in- you know, it wasn’t sliced, it wasn’t packaged bread, it was raw, baked bread, and I would put it in the drafting drawer and it was sticking out with the cheese in one hand and this was just not acceptable in that office where everyone had white shirts and steel armbands too to keep their cuffs off the drafting board. Terribly neat. So then I went with Chuck Thompson and Pratt, and I was equally useless there. I was working under Ron Thom, trying to sort of follow his Wrightian style, I mean, which, you know, I was sympathetic with and had some understanding, but the dynamics of architects as a business hadn’t gotten through to me and so I guess I didn’t accomplish very much there either. So then I was jobless and at this time, I had met Geoff Massey. He’d come out, ‘cause at that time, this was when Vancouver architecture had become known all over the Eastern States and Vancouver was considered one of the pioneers in modern architecture. And of course, so young students were coming from the Eastern universities to work in Vancouver and that’s how Geoff came out and several others came out from Harvard with him, Abe Rogatnik and Alvin Balkin and of course, Peter Oberlander, ex-McGill, from Harvard as well, because it seemed to be the promised land for new Urban Planning and Architecture. So I met Geoff at Bert Binnings’s and we became good friends and Geoff persuaded me to share a house with him, which we did for a couple of years and it was- at that time, we were both working with Sharp and Thompson, then I lost my job and that’s when Gordon Smith came to us and said, “Would you design a house for me?” So Geoff was still working at Thompson, Berwick, Pratt, and so I was left at the house working on Gordon’s new site, and so we did the house, the working drawings and everything else, and Geoff would work on it in the evening when he got back and it was built, Gordon got a carpenter and built it, and it was one of the first Massey Medals.


And then the next house came up, was eventually to be Geoff’s house, and it was for Ruth Killen, who had been an old friend, and I had introduced Ruth to Geoff. And we had tried to- at that time, the most spectacular property in Vancouver, which had belonged to A.J.T. Taylor, an early visionary, I mean, the only visionaries in Vancouver have always been Europeans and probably mostly English or Scottish. And he had bought the prime property everywhere in West Vancouver. He had sold the Guinnesses on the ideas of the British properties, the bridge and he had died in the meantime and his property was going up for taxes. And I tried to get friends of my parents’ to invest in this property. But their attitude was who ever is going to live over in West Vancouver and as far out as Glen Eagles. Because, you know there were seventy-five acres of Glen Eagles available for, I think it was $15,000. And nobody saw that this was an opportunity. Of course, I was hoping that they would and I could lay it out and do that sort of thing. And then there was another wonderful piece; I think it was four and a half acres for I think it was $7,500. And I know Geoff and I took Ruth out and tried to persuade her to buy it but she wasn’t interested. And then somebody bought it and subdivided it, and then Ruth bought the point that sort of stuck out into Howe Sound, a spectacular piece of property, for the same price that the whole thing was originally up for. And she asked us to do the house. Well, again, the same pattern, I was working on the design and then we’d both work on the working drawings at night and everything else, and then the house started to be built. And of course, I had always envisioned it as a house for Ruth and because it was on a point of land with its own little lighthouse, I thought of it always as a white house, you know, as most sea structures are white, so it was all painted white. And it had a pyramidal roof which was- the whole roofing was this neoprene, sprayed-on neoprene, which was very new at the time. I think they had trouble with it, because apparently, the seagulls would nibble on it and it had to be repaired every once and awhile, but I was always interested in new materials and new techniques and experimenting with new plastics and things like that. But that house was built and then I was sort of acting as a supervisor on the house too until one time Ruth said, “Look, Arthur, don’t you get the point?” And I said, “Well, what point?” And she said, “I want Geoff to come and supervise the house!” So I got the point! Of course, they were married eventually, and, you know had a wonderful life with wonderful children and a marvelous family. So that was- basically, that was the beginning.


And then I teamed up with somebody who had picked this Australian girl and I in Spain and we traveled through Portugal together. And we kept in contact. He came back here and he had bought a piece of property with a house on it that he wanted to- it was half-built and he wanted to finish it and there were certain things he didn’t like so I helped him on that. And then he said, “Now why don’t we form a construction company?” And at that time, another artist came to me, Charles Stegman and his wife, and we built this enormous studio for him, a studio-house, which hung over a ravine, and it was just crazy, you know I mean, structurally impossible and being very naïve about costing and everything else. We knew nothing about the contracting business. We had bid on this and hoped to make money, but we didn’t because it required enormous cranes to come in and lift the glulam beams in place because it was a sixty-foot-long studio and thirty feet wide, and, you know, extraordinary founding problems and everything else. It was a great experience but we lost our shirts. The company went bust, but it was good experience!


And then I think about that time, because nobody would hire me in Vancouver, and I think it was just at that time, I think it was 1956, that Doug Shadbolt phoned me from University of Oregon. And I had tried to get a post at UBC under Lasserre and he said, “Well, no, you really don’t have the experience or anything else”. So Doug said, “Look, I’m teaching at the school and I can’ t make head nor tail of what they are talking about. Why don’t you come down? Maybe you can understand what they are doing.” And this was the original University of Oregon Eugene School of Architecture and Allied Arts that had been started by a man called Wilcox who was a disciple of Sullivan. And he had based the whole school on the Sullivan kindergarten chats and the whole philosophy education without grades, without schedule, really, you could take as long as you wanted to finish a project, you could choose the project, you could also choose your mentors. One was appointed, but you had two others, you had three mentors on every project. And it was the most mature educational experiment, I think, in the United States at that time. It was really remarkable. I really enjoyed it. I took the job for a year and then I came back and Lasserre then hired me because I had had that experience, although he dropped me down a grade from- I was an Associate Professor and he had made me an Instructor or something like that. It took me several years to get up! But I brought the same philosophy back to UBC and I guess there were a number of fairly chaotic years, but I think very fruitful years. Certainly, the experience for me at Eugene was remarkable. And Doug and I being foreigners felt that we could do things which no one there would attempt to do, such as organize- we felt that everything was taken a little bit too seriously and there should be a little bit more joy in the work and study and everything else. And so one of the projects that we made was a great party. And we had the whole school, the architects, the planners, the ceramicists, the Design School, everybody. Each one had a project and it was to be- to erect wind shelters on the dunes of the sea and we’d prepare a big three-day feast and we had some assistants, one was from Colombia, one was form China and one was from, where was the other place, anyway, we- oh, one was from Iran. And so he was given the job of preparing a sheep, and soaking it in the right ingredients and everything else for a week and the Chinese lad, the pig, which he soaked in things like maple syrup! And we all went down, this caravan went down the beach. The ceramicists made ceramic armour, masks, things like that. We had a great celebration with, you know, processions and performances and everything else. It was an extraordinary thing. And it became a tradition at the University of Oregon. I think it went on for about fifteen years and then it stopped but I’ve heard recently that they’ve started again, so that’s one thing that we can say that we introduced!


So then I came back and taught at university for, and I guess I was at UBC for altogether about seven years. And at the same time, I had a little drafting office in my office, which had a student working on house projects, you know and sometimes not whole houses but additions, etc., and things like that. And from that little office, there were a number of early houses done. And I was teaching at the same time. At this time, really Geoff and I were no longer working together until in 19- the end of, yeah, the end of ’62, there was an announcement that there would be a province-wide competition to design a new university. And I got in touch with Geoff. And of course, universities had always been of special interest to me. I had done my History thesis at McGill on universities, particularly New College at Oxford. And when I traveled, I went to all of the ancient universities through the Middle East and Europe. So education was of a particular interest. So I persuaded Geoff that we should go into this competition. And Geoff had a small office, I guess with about three or four people. He’d left Thompson, Berwick, Pratt by that time. And we started to design it. There really was no programme just a statement that they wanted five buildings. They wanted a gym, a theatre, a library, science buildings and arts buildings and that was it. And so I decided- by this time also, I’d had a six-month, whatever you call it, recess in Asia, my first trip really to Eastern Asia, to Japan, Thailand, Bali and Hong Kong. And most of my time was spent in Japan. And of course that was another great influence in my work. You know, all of the things that I had assumed about Japan from books and I had studied the language and everything else, well none of that existed. It was all entirely something other than I expected and it was a lasting impression, which reinforced my feeling that there were many- that there were no- there wasn’t one set of standards. The European, Western idea of architecture was one idea. Japan was another idea, which had nothing to do with the Western idea of architecture at all. Islamic architecture is another idea. So I began to feel very strongly that there were these different cultures that had nothing in common, no standards of proportion or anything else in common. They were all quite distinct and separate. And so that reinforced my interest in exploring these and getting familiar with them through travel and work and that sort of thing.


But Simon Fraser, having just come back from Asia and seeing this mountain top where the university was to be placed, I felt that instead of putting buildings up, we should go with the idea of terracing everything, as the rice fields in Bali and Japan. That it would be much more sympathetic if we started terracing the whole landscape, the playing fields, the parking lots, everything and that the buildings just sat on these terraces and the buildings were terraced themselves. And even part of the concept was to flood the roofs so it was like looking over the rice fields of Asia. And there should be one building. It shouldn’t be a whole group of isolated buildings because that betrayed an old idea of the packaging of knowledge, which I was very much against, that really your different laboratories and lecture rooms and things like that should be shared and not assigned to any specific discipline so that, you know, knowledge was universal. And the interesting aspects of new knowledge were the interstices between disciplines and not the disciplines themselves, and that should be allowed for and encouraged in the design. And also, being in Vancouver, you should be able to get out of your car and get into a shelter and be able to leave your gear and your rain gear and everything else and go everywhere in the university under cover. So that was very much the concept: the terracing, the spine. But, at the same time, at one point, because the competition required five different buildings, and we were joining all these together and breaking them down so that they weren’ t five buildings, we said, “Do we try to win the competition or do we just do what we believe is the right way to design a university?” And so we all agreed that we thought that what we were doing was right and it would be a demonstration to everyone in sort of an in your face thing.


To use a present-day term!

Yeah, you don’t make universities as they have always been because that’s not the way they should be and this is what we think it should be. And so, we were astonished when we won, because we really contravened all of the rules of the competition. And when we won, I mean, it was an extraordinary experience, because having done nothing bigger than a house before to dealing with a whole university. And the decision that Shrum had made that in order to do this in one year, in two years, the design and to build it in two years from the competition, he gave us one month to reassess. I asked for six months to reassess our attitudes. You know, there was no staff to go to; there was no programme, there was nothing. We had to invent the whole thing. We had to find out, you know, how many classes you needed for so many students, the whole thing.


The whole programme.

Yeah, the whole programme had to be invented. There was no President, there was only Shrum. And in order to do it quickly, he asked the runners-up, our envious competitors, to be our assistants. And they had to work on our project. So it was something designed by the devil [unclear]. It worked out, because the idea was strong enough that it just- it forced a certain consistency and conformity to everyone because we were all dealing with one single structure.


So there wasn’t too much compromise then. I guess you were happy with the final results.

Yeah, I mean, well, we had to work night and day to be ahead of the others always and what we did was to give them sixtieth-scale drawings of the plans for their buildings, the elevations for their buildings. And we had an enormous model that they had to build their buildings at the same scale to fit in and bring them in and fit them in to a single model, because otherwise we would never have been able to coordinate. We were asked which building we wanted to do. Well, the most prestigious and dominant building was the Academic Quadrangle. But we realized that what we had to do was the building that tied all the other buildings together, which was just sort of the parking structure and the central mall with the umbrella, the glass roof over it. Simply because as coordinators of the whole project, we needed to be able to tell them what the levels would be at certain points and how their buildings had to tie in and therefore, we would have that - we would be able to dictate certain placement vertically and horizontally and everything else. But it was just- it was a trial by fire, because then we had five contractors that we had to supervise too. And even though the individual architects were supervising, we still had to have our overall coordinators. So we had to build up suddenly from, you know, four, five people.


Did you do it all in the timeframe that was suggested?


Pretty well?

It was done in the time. And I remember they appointed- the first person Shrum interviewed was somebody from the East and he immediately understood what we were trying to do and was very enthusiastic. And we hoped he would be the new President. But at the last minute, his alma mater asked him to be President of their university and so we lost him. And instead, Shrum finally chose McTaggart-Cowan, whose brother is a very prominent biologist in Vancouver and an extraordinary person. But McTaggart-Cowan didn’t grasp the idea and the educational experiment. I had to write a programme of the ideas of the university, the academic concept of the university that would be sent to prospective professors all over the world. And as a result, it was a pretty revolutionary idea, as a result, they had- marvelous people came out and they were all hot for a new idea and, you know, breaking all customs of university teaching and everything else. It was going very much back to the tutorial system rather than the lecture system.


So that competition was the real sort of beginning of your career even though you had done smaller projects before.

Yeah, yeah. And instantly, you know it was recognized all over Canada and elsewhere and gave us- other projects came immediately, the MacMillan Bloedel Building, the University of Lethbridge, all in that same decade of the sixties. It was finished in ’65. It started the beginning of the- the awarding of the competition was in the fall of ’63 and students moved in in the fall of ’65. And the new President, I remember, his coming to me at one point, because it was a glorious summer when they were finishing the university. We had these Italian stone masons laying this tile that goes through the mall, the surface of the mall, and they were with their carts racing up and down the mall singing at the top of their voices, you know. And McTaggart-Cowan came up to me and said, “Arthur, these people have to get to work. Can’t you get them to stop singing?” And I said, “Look, if they don’t sing, they’re not going to work. They are enjoying their work and we’re going to get the best work from them because they are enjoying it”. So-


Is it fair to ask you, in all the years of your career, did any other project, and maybe we can sort of finish up with this, give you as much satisfaction as that first one, Simon Fraser?


Is that a fair question?

No, sure it’s a fair question. I mean, others have given me different kinds of satisfaction, but that was a major challenge. And it was an opportunity to change the view of people about universities. And I sort of continued on that mode through other projects, such as the Vancouver Courthouse, too.

That’s the first thing that came to mind.

Yeah, yeah. You know, introducing a new attitude towards the courts. And I’ve tried to do that wherever possible. And I think that’s probably the most important aspect of my work is getting people to see things in a different light. You know, nothing to do with design necessarily, but with how a whole thing works and how it’s perceived in a social network.

And you’ve had fun most of the time.

Yeah. Oh, yes!

Well, thank you very much. I very much appreciate it.


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