A Canadian icon rediscovered

Arthur Erickson was hailed in obituaries last week as one of the greats. He wasn’t always.

A Canadian icon rediscovered“It’s like entering a forest,” says architect Simon Scott, pausing outside the Museum of Anthropology at UBC, designed by architect Arthur Erickson, whose death last week, at 84, saddened design fans everywhere. Scott, who worked at Erickson’s firm while he designed the museum, steps through a row of Douglas fir and western red cedar into a dark entranceway. As you walk down a steep, black ramp—nowhere near wheelchair code—sunlight sneaks through skylights, “like light coming down through the trees,” he explains. Gradually, the room gets bigger, and brighter, until “you see this immense sky,” he says, pointing to 70-foot windows, the ocean just beyond it. A forest clearing was the intent—the Great Hall is filled with towering Haida totem poles, painted in red, green and black.

Widely considered Erickson’s master work, the museum was completed in 1976. Three years later, in a 27-page New Yorker profile, eminent U.S. architect Philip Johnson declared Erickson “by far the greatest architect in Canada, and maybe the greatest on this continent.” Flooded with blue-ribbon corporate and institutional clients, and with two universities (Simon Fraser and Lethbridge) as well as Vancouver’s downtown courthouse complex under his belt, Erickson would nevertheless soon see his sterling reputation tumble—partly a reaction to shifting styles, partly his own doing.

Accolades have poured forth from all corners of the globe after news of his death, and in recent years he’s been embraced as one of the great architects of our times. But it was not always thus. The tide began turning against him with the completion of Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall in 1982. Blame for acoustical problems, common in concert halls, was pinned on the “dumb idea” to install 800 non-functional coloured tubes in its hall. He was snubbed by Expo 86—“which took place in his hometown,” adds developer and friend, Lois Milsom—and his 1989 Canadian Embassy in Washington was “not the great building that was hoped for,” but an “oddly vapid” thing, said the New York Times. (The project was handed to him, to much criticism, by his friend Pierre Trudeau.) By then, Erickson had three global offices, projects in Cambridge and Saudi Arabia, and a reputation for being “very difficult,” says one developer. The California Plaza, his glass high-rise in L.A., seemed, “sadly dated, even before its completion,” wrote a critic. Its third tower would never go up.

In February 1992, Erickson, a self-confessed bad businessman, declared bankruptcy. The ethereal glass walls of Filberg House, which had vaulted him to prominence in 1961, were covered by its new owners with pink stucco, its fine cedar sunscreens removed with a chainsaw. Postmodernism, titanium, and architects like Frank Gehry were in, as was a gleeful disregard for context and scale. Erickson, and his sharp-angled, ’60s-era brutalist and modernist styles, were out. It turned out, says Sherry McKay, head of the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at UBC, that concrete, his material of choice (the “marble of our time,” as he put it), stained and darkened with age.

But here again, the story shifts. His experimental Waterfall Building, completed in 2001, or the Portland Hotel, erected in the Downtown Eastside in 2000, may have kicked off the turnaround, but by the late ’90s, says Vancouver developer Bob Rennie, young design types had begun rediscovering his ’60s and ’70s-era work and its commitment to public space, scale and environment. In 2002, his gutsy Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Wash., featuring a 90-foot stainless-steel-clad cone, opened to critical acclaim. The project suited Erickson perfectly. Intended to jump-start the renewal of a one-time Pacific Northwest boom town, the museum was designed by a faded Pacific Coast architect with, one might imagine, a vaguely similar goal.

Only today do we fully appreciate his vision and influence, says McKay. From inside the Law Courts in downtown Vancouver, “you look out through a glass roof at a swatch of green,” something no one was doing in the ’60s, when we’d given cities and streets over to the car, says Phyllis Lambert, founder of the Montreal-based Canadian Centre for Architecture. No architect has left a Canadian city with as big an imprint as Erickson has left on his hometown, she adds. His urban ideals will live on. The Filberg House, meanwhile, has been perfectly restored. Even the cedar sunscreens, left to rot on a burn pile, have been saved.