An Appreciation / Arthur Dickson

With concrete and honesty, he honoured us all

LISA ROCHON Saturday, May 23, 2009

What tricks does your mind play when you learn that death has claimed a friend? What clarifying thoughts are to be found within those first awful moments? With Arthur Erickson, Canada's first master of modernism, his passing at the age of 84 provoked, for me, a mind rush of his buildings not as static objects but as symphonies of rhythm and sound: the endless repetition of vertical, concrete fins on a perfectly square academic quadrangle at Simon Fraser University (1965); the horizontal cadence of the University of Lethbridge (1969), rendered like a locomotive running hard between two coulees in southern Alberta. There is the roar, almost deafening, of water cascading down the side of the Provincial Law Courts (1979) in downtown Vancouver. Rather than being still and passive, Erickson's architecture communicates life in motion.

Ever elegant, ever gracious, Erickson designed without the polite drafting impulses of many Canadian architects. He sought to inspire humanity through architecture - nothing less than that. And he led a movement in Canada to create buildings that depend on exquisite siting and an honest expression of raw materials. Yes, he was Canada's most famous architect - but his triumphant success did not come without pain. In 1986, the year he won the Gold Medal from the American Institute of Architects, his desire to make a splash in the Middle East and the United States moved him toward financial disaster; bankruptcy came in 1992.

In many ways, Erickson epitomized what many architects experience in their careers: the lean professional fees; the endless hunt for inspiring work; and, within a young country still evolving a culture of architecture, a lifelong battle to defend a vision for design. He knew, often, the ecstasy that comes with designing things of beauty and permanence. But he also bemoaned petty administrators who failed to complete his vision, or who permitted ham-fisted additions to his original buildings.

Erickson was a boy from Vancouver who went on to develop a worldly elegance and experience. He displayed plenty of personal style - the neat, European suits, worn almost always with a blue tie - but opposed architectural frippery. He stripped buildings down to structural bones made of honest materials. That is where the strength of his practice lay - with his architecture of essence, expressed the way Erickson beautifully did on the West Coast (and not, for instance, with the Canadian embassy in Washington, with its postmodern indulgences). He was a master with concrete, a material he once described as "the marble of our time." Roy Thomson Hall (1982) with Mathers & Haldenby Architects in Toronto rendered the ice, snow and, possibly, the moral rectitude of Canadians by wrapping the curved lobbies in walls of grey concrete.

Erickson drew buildings to match the tempest of the land, investing the Museum of Anthropology (1976) at UBC with the heft and power of an ancient longhouse wrapped in walls of glass, not wood. His many residential designs (in collaboration with his business partner Geoffrey Massey) bounced light from reflecting pools to the interiors, and featured outdoor stages from which to draw people into nature. In West Vancouver, Erickson conceived of the Smith House (1966) as architecture reduced to skin and bones. Against a forest of towering trees, he set the house across two rocky outcrops. Four connected, square pavilions float according to a pinwheel plan around a central, meditative courtyard. Sheets of glass hang from rough cedar beams. The house was designed for his beloved artist friends, painter Gordon Smith and his wife, Marion. The couple still lives there on the edge of the forest overlooking the ocean in what is surely one of the most sublime homes in Canada.

As much as Erickson enjoyed the stripped-back aesthetic of modernism, he was a romantic capable of creating distracting and even special effects with his architecture. The dimension of his own backyard in Vancouver - where he lived in a modest house in Point Grey until he was placed in a nursing home in March - was magnified through thick plantings of bamboo placed behind a small reflecting pool. This is where Erickson once floated black swans to set the scene for an exotic party during his hipster years.

He believed that architecture, intelligently conceived and carefully constructed, could inspire and possibly heal. The desire to accomplish this invested him with a young heart and an ever-curious mind. Even in his seventh decade, his work was wide-ranging and generous. Erickson designed the Portland Hotel Society for the most down-and-out residents of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside and, together with his stalwart business partner, Nick Milkovich, worked on the community centre for the Olympic Village as well as a twisting, 20-storey waterfront residential tower called the Erickson designed for the north shore of False Creek.

Erickson had a rare gift: He saw things most people would rather ignore. As a boy, he was hauled down to the principal's office by the art teacher for refusing to paint daffodils because, Erickson told me, "it wasn't art." By the time he was 17, he had found comfort and inspiration in the home of artist Lawren Harris and his wife, Bess, whose Saturday-evening salons gathered dancers, musicians, writers, painters to their Vancouver home. The artist and architect B.C. Binning taught Erickson how to draw with a single, powerful line; but it was Harris who insisted the young man study the mountains for their myriad shapes and deep shadows.

Erickson hiked the mountains surrounding Vancouver to imprint their heavy forms on his mind. By the time he reached McGill University, he declared himself a "non-conformist," and though he graduated from the School of Architecture in 1950, he felt uncomfortable with its emphasis on the machined aesthetic of the German Bauhaus. He made a series of pilgrimages to visit with Frank Lloyd Wright, the great American modernist whose buildings connected deeply to site. And he travelled to places of antiquity. The mosques of Cairo taught him how a void - a courtyard, big or small - could charge the rest of a building. The Greek temples showed him how to frame views over sacred tracts of land. The Gothic churches of Europe convinced him that architecture could communicate emotionally saturated space.

On his 80th birthday, at a sumptuous affair at the Museum of Anthropology attended by hundreds of friends, devotees and colleagues, Erickson insisted on rearranging dozens of luminaries: tea candles placed on a bed of sand within white paper bags. He noticed how they had been arranged on a low bank alongside a temporary water feature next to the museum, and how they needed to be repositioned to afford a better perspective for the people inside. Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, the renowned landscape architect who has collaborated with Erickson for more than 40 years, stood by as her siting of the paper lanterns was completely overhauled, one bag at a time.

Erickson lived and he dreamed. He decided early on to take a position about architecture: It should honour and amaze. Erickson made architecture to convince Canadians their aspirations didn't always have to be meek and mild - they could think big. That's an enduring comfort, even while we mourn.