02 Jul, 2009

Arthur Erickson’s architectural triumphs

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

He may not have the fame of Frank Gehry or the kudos of Rem Koolhaas, but this versatile Canadian architect leaves a far-reaching legacy

Remembering Arthur Erickson, Canada’s most renowned modernist architect, on our national day yesterday, I couldn’t help but think how his work embodied the Canadian ideal at its most promising: clean, contemporary design, rooted in natural inspiration, open to the world.

Too often, the man and his architecture rubbed up against that other Canada – the one of petty, Presbyterian sensibilities that confuse parochialism with patriotism and never fully appreciated his vision. But at his 14 June memorial service, held on what would have been Erickson’s 85th birthday, I came away with a renewed sense of what his work was all about.

The service was held at Simon Fraser University (SFU), Erickson’s magnificent 1965 campus, located on Burnaby Mountain, half an hour’s drive from downtown Vancouver, and designed with his then partner Geoffrey Massey. As tributes were paid to the man and his work, we all stood under the glorious glass and concrete canopy that frames the university’s central mall.

I grew up here, when my parents were students in the early 70s, and always used to joke with Erickson that I was a product of his architecture. When the campus and I turned 40, I interviewed him for a fledgling documentary called Architecture of My Childhood.

SFU, a temple to learning, with a nod to Greek and Islamic architecture (Erickson spoke of Cairo’s Al-Azhar University), had a sense of processing down the mountainside. From the Academic Quadrangle, with its Moghul-like pond at the summit, down to the westernmost student residences, the campus was conceived as a series of open terraces extending down the slope.

The central, open-plan mall was the place where it all came together, quite literally. Designed as a way to erase boundaries between disciplines – arts and sciences, professors and students – the area was the site of many cultural happenings and student protests in the heady years of SFU’s childhood. With its native plants, water features and sense of grandeur, it seemed to embody the promise of Canada.

But while the country still struggles to live up to the ideals contained in SFU’s design, Erickson’s legacy lives on. Vancouver will always be the richer for his late 70s Robson Square complex, a high-rise plaza laid on its side across three city blocks, and his 1976 Museum of Anthropology, a cliff-top modernist ode to traditional northwest architecture.

But it’s not just in his hometown that his legacy remains compelling. From the Canadian embassy in Washington DC, which slyly mocks American imperial arrogance even as it pays homage to it, to the Tacoma Museum of Glass, with its temple of Hatshepsut-inspired ramps and shimmering slanted cone, Erickson’s elegant style has left its mark on a far-reaching landscape.

Indeed, I wonder how the vision of Erickson, who was noted for his long conversations about Zen philosophy and whose work always seemed to have a vaguely Babylonian feel, would have transformed Baghdad. I’ll always remember his story of being commissioned to redesign Abu Nawas, the historic riverside neighbourhood, and meeting Saddam Hussein in a bunker on the eve of the Iran-Iraq war. His plans were cut short by the eight-year conflict, but I’m sure they would have brought an exquisitely designed sense of place, and a tranquil modernism, to the banks of the Tigris.

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