Arthur Erickson

June 14, 1924 – May 20, 2009

Arthur Erickson died on May 20, 2009, a few weeks before his 85th birthday. He was Canada’s greatest architect, our unofficial Architect Laureate.

For those who knew him, the modest house and garden where he lived so comfortably in his native Vancouver will always stand as the symbol of his legacy: five decades of extraordinary buildings that have transformed cities and landscapes across Canada and around the world.

Professional recognition of his work included the UIA’s Auguste Perret Award, Gold Medals from the AIA, Canada and France, and countless design awards. He was a Fellow of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada and an honorary fellow of the professional colleges in Scotland, Spain, Mexico and the USA. He was an Academician of the Royal Canadian Academy of the Arts, a Companion of the Order of Canada, and he held seven honorary doctorates, including one in 1975 from McGill University, where he completed his architectural studies in 1950.

In the beginning, he wanted to be a painter; he recalled with warmth the soirées that he attended as a teenager at the Vancouver home of another legend, Canadian painter Lawren Harris. But one day, in the summer of 1946, he came across an article in Fortune magazine with the first colour photographs of Frank Lloyd Wright’s house and studio at Taliesin West, and he said, “If an architect can do this, I‘m going to go into architecture”. How many since then have been similarly inspired by one of his buildings?

From the first houses in the 1950’s to projects that are currently underway in Vancouver, he used a surprisingly simple palette of materials and formal geometries to celebrate the poetry of architecture and the city. His buildings are Vitruvian in spirit - well-crafted, intelligent and responsive in their planning and organization, and not merely beautiful but delightful. They engage site and program, climate, culture and history, daylight and the natural colors of materials in ways that connect them to their context with startling clarity, intentionally dissolving conventional distinctions between architecture and engineering, building and landscape.

They are unimaginably original, impossibly "right" for their place and time, and they can be breathtaking.

The purity and simplicity that mark so much of his work are linked to his love of nature, perhaps informed by his painter’s eye and his encounters with artists like Harris, and to his fascination with Asian and Aboriginal cultures. He often reminded his colleagues of the need to protect the simplicity of the idea from the over-complication that comes with design development. His own design process typically started with a sketch or vignette. Projects evolved in an endless examination of alternatives expressed in the sketches and models – the models were crucial – that were prepared by the design teams and criticized in open and thoughtful dialogues. A patient listener, Arthur possessed an uncanny ability to find the right answer, usually somewhere in between the options on the table.

The long list of Erickson’s built works includes a number of stunning residences and iconic buildings such as Simon Fraser University, the University of Lethbridge and Macmillan Bloedel (with partner Geoffrey Massey); the UBC Museum of Anthropology; the Evergreen, designed as an office building at the water’s edge in downtown Vancouver, now converted to residences and designated as a landmark of modern heritage; Roy Thompson Hall, Toronto; the Royal Bank of Canada, Ottawa; the Canadian Chancery in Washington, DC; the Tacoma Glass Museum, and so many more.

One project, the Robson Square and Law Courts Complex in Vancouver, is the most perfect example of urban design in Canada and one of the most important public buildings in North America. It is, in Erickson’s own words, “a fragment of utopia”. He first used that expression to characterize the university campus, but doesn’t every good building present a glimpse of utopia?

Conceived as a celebration of art, law and government and designed with a 60-foot long model that took over the office as the scheme evolved, the three blocks of Robson Square are an urban living room that now defines the heart of downtown Vancouver. A beautifully crafted sequence of stairs and ramps, terraces, waterfalls and pools – seamlessly integrated within a lush landscape designed by long-time friend and collaborator landscape architect Cornelia Oberlander – provides an unexpectedly civic context for a government centre. It is an inventive and effective interpretation of a complex program based on a vision of a justice system that is accessible, transparent and non-threatening - “a new attitude to the courts”.

He once described this intention as “probably the most important aspect of my work: getting people to see things in a different light.”

Arthur was like his buildings – gentle and dignified, impeccable in manner and dress, eloquent and courageous. He was unique.

David Covo and Barry Johns, 1 June 2009

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