Building a legacy for Arthur Erickson

An excerpt from David Stouck's Taylor Prize-nominated biography of Canada's bad boy architect

Photograph by Johann Wall

Photograph by Johann Wall

The biography of an architect made for “a steep learning curve,” says David Stouck, a professor emeritus of English at Simon Fraser University, whose Arthur Erickson: An Architect’s Life is shortlisted for the $25,000 RBC Taylor Prize. Stouck, 73, is an experienced biographer of Canadian writers, but he was drawn to Erickson’s genius—which surrounded Stouck for 40 years at SFU, “Erickson’s biggie”—and “the morality tale” of the architect’s extraordinary life.

The following is an excerpt from Arthur Erickson: An Architect’s Life, by David Stouck. Published by Douglas & McIntyre. Reprinted with permission.

Arthur was the subject of numerous newspaper and magazine articles that fed the public’s fascination with his jet-setting life style. He was said to rarely be in one place more than a week, making the drawings for his famous buildings while flying high above the clouds. Of special interest to people in Vancouver were the elaborate themed parties he hosted in his bachelor’s garden with sometimes as many as 200 guests looking for parking. One of these featured early music with lutes and harpsichords, and Arthur welcoming such notables as British economist Barbara Ward (a.k.a. Baroness Jackson de Lodsworth), anthropologist Margaret Mead, and novelist James Clavell. But it was a cold spring evening, the partygoers squeezed inside his cottage, and eventually Arthur could no longer hear the musicians. Stepping out to see if they wanted a warm drink, he found the players in scarves and mitts. But the problem was not cold but frogs: every time they started to play, the frogs’ song drowned them out. Arthur soon solved that problem by shuffling through some music by Handel until he found them a frog cantata, which the group subsequently added to their repertoire.

A more exotic soirée featured things Japanese, including two musicians—one playing a Japanese flute, the shakuhachi, another playing a koto. For this summer entertainment, Arthur’s partner, Francisco, had illuminated the garden with paper lanterns, and from the moon-viewing platform Arthur released a jar of fireflies that had been flown in that day from eastern Canada.

Most famous was the party Arthur gave in July 1967 for members of London’s Royal Ballet who, because it was a hot summer’s night, doffed their clothing and went skinny dipping in his pool. This event acquired mythic status because Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev were touring with the company and it was rumoured that the lead dancers had not only been skinny dipping but the well-endowed Tatar had done a marvellous nude solo—the whole length of the garden.

Certainly, famous guests were frequently in attendance, none more famous perhaps than Pierre Trudeau. Arthur had known Pierre’s younger brother, Charles, as a gifted architecture student at McGill in the late 1940s, but Arthur and Pierre did not meet until the latter became prime minister in 1968 and convened a group of the country’s leading artists for a dinner in Ottawa—about 24 composers, painters, writers and actors. Trudeau was intent on hearing their views about the country’s national identity. Arthur was the sole architect. He could not recall anything significant being resolved during that long evening around the table, but a politician turning to artists for advice seemed extraordinary and his meeting with Trudeau was one of instant rapport, of the kind Arthur had experienced with very few men in his life.

While outwardly they were a study in contrasts, Pierre strong-willed and physically aggressive, Arthur gentle by nature and calm, they had much in common as private men—self-discipline, reserve and enormous ambition grounded in a sense of their superiority. They both loathed regimentation of any kind; they held themselves at an emotional distance from other men, and the education they both valued most was acquired from their ascetic, backpacking travels when they were young. What they quickly recognized in each other was that behind the self-confidence that, to many, suggested arrogance was a solitary individual whose intelligence and sensitivities made him feel vulnerable and defensive in relations with the public at large. They were also leaders in their field and so they met as equals and took pleasure in the rarified atmosphere that superior leadership created. Further, Arthur was aware of the rumour that Pierre was gay, that it had made the former prime minister, Lester Pearson, feel uneasy about his successor. Indeed Trudeau was poised to make his famous statement that the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation. The close friendship between prime minister and architect fed the public perception that the prime minister needed a wife.

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