The Architect Who Thinks People Matter More Than Buildings

ALAN EDMONDS June 1 1970

The Architect Who Thinks People Matter More Than Buildings

ALAN EDMONDS June 1 1970

There was Arthur Erickson, architect and tastemaker, an honored guest at the ceremonial opening of Expo 70 in Osaka where his mirror-walled Canadian Pavilion was about to enhance his already substantial reputation — and he couldn’t get his mind off the fact that back home in Vancouver he might even then be losing the battle to save his garden fence. Two neighbors, including the woman with the ghastly front door, had complained that it was an eyesore and should be lowered. So he left the Japanese enchanted by the infinities of space and dimension he had created as the face of Canada at Expo 70, and flew to Vancouver to do battle. It is the uniquely Canadian irony that a man the world regards as one of the age’s leading designers should be excoriated by the woman next door. The irony is greater because while the most visible monuments to his talents and those of partner Geoff Massey are university complexes and office blocks and bold concepts for new cities, the great body of 46-year-old bachelor Erickson’s work to date is the 30 or so houses he has built. Each is unique: each a model to designers around the world. So between the opening of Expo 70 and the final round of the battle to save his fence, Arthur Erickson took Maclean’s on a guided tour of the Vancouver he built. On the next pages he talks about his buildings, his philosophy, his life:

Simon Fraser University was, I suppose, what first got our firm of Erickson - Massey substantial recognition, back in 1964. The university is wrapped around the top of Burnaby Mountain. Have you been mountaineering? I remember my first time, climbing out of the treeline and glimpsing the vistas to come, then climbing higher and higher and the vistas became clear, and they changed, and the promises of the glimpses I had had earlier came true.

Simon Fraser is like that. You come out of the lower transportation area and you climb up terraces past classrooms and laboratories and into the roofed-in mall, and you get glimpses of the vistas you can see from the mountain. Then you climb higher, to the summit, to the upper quadrangle, and you see the whole world around, with the realization it has wide, limitless horizons. Education is like that. As you learn more, you are able to see more of the vistas of human knowledge and experience.

Simon Fraser is also a very functional building. But we wanted something different to what I'd had. I thought university terrible. People weren’t educated there; it was a production line. Most universities treat students as objects and just provide classrooms to teach them in. We said, “All right, anyone can build classrooms. We want to build a community.” The mall is the focal point, the place where you expect to meet people, where the heart is, where revolutions are fomented — which is what happened at Simon Fraser.

The real function of the architect is the reinterpretation of the institutions of man: the hospital, the office, the city, the university. The architect should re-see them in a new and fresh way..relevant to his own age. They should be monuments to his own times, to his place in the cosmos of history.

Perhaps it sounds a little grandiose, but that’s what we were trying to do with Simon Fraser. I think we were generally successful. But it’s always disappointing to see what people do with what you have built. I was angry about the gas station — they built it in a place where it defeats one of our principle aims: it partly blocks the view of the vistas from the mountain.

The MacMillan Bloedel building (left) was our first major office block. The company came to us three years ago with a plan by other architects and said, “We like the building, we like the price, but we don’t like the outside.” We looked at it and the site and told them we couldn’t do anything but design a new building.

Most office blocks are disasters. Secretaries and staff are tucked away from the natural light, surrounded with acoustic ceilings, portable walls, big heavy pillars, ugly radiator shells, a clutter of hatstands and filing cabinets and piles of paper, all lit with ghastly fluorescent light. Building houses teaches you what makes people happy. Learning that a woman needs a pleasant view from her sewing-room window makes you sympathize with the secretary stuck away from the windows and the world outside.

So we came up with a slim building — two of them, in a way, but overlapping so they could share the same service core for elevators and have offices with windows on either side of a central corridor. We put the usual ugly office furnishings — hatstands, filing cabinets and so on — in wall units. To do away with the usual square or rectangular curtain-wall boxlike building, an office-factory, we used the old load-bearing outside walls with windows punched in them. I think it is fundamental you have a sense of the structure, so we left the outside roughcast concrete — and you have the same thing inside; a lot of plain, honest concrete.

You know, when I graduated from McGill I took a ship to England that went to Egypt instead. It was the most important thing that ever happened to me. It took me back to the beginning of history, and I began to sense the great timeless styles, the courage of the ideas that have made buildings last. The Parthenon was not, as I’d been taught, built with mathematical precision. It is a piece of sculpture. Rough rocks were put up and the builder carved his columns, then stood back, looked at them, and went back and chipped off a bit more. The Parthenon taught me that what is important is inner perception, not technology. The MacMillan Bloedel office is my Doric building.

I built two houses for Gordon Smith, the painter, 12 years apart. The 1954 house (lower left) was my first, done when I was still teaching. A lot of my early work — this first Smith house particularly—is like somebody groping for words, and not finding the right ones. The idea was to build a bridge in the trees, and put the house on it so they would be living in the trees. Most of the things I have done since have been bridges in a sense — between one part of the environment and another. But look at that first house. It’s very weak. The eyebrow — the platform and the rail around the platform — is not convincing; not heavy enough.

The second house I built for the Smiths (upper left, and above) in 1966 is much more successful. It's still a bridge, it still brings the outside world into the living areas, it is still an environment within the existing natural environment. On the west coast the light, like the weather, is very capricious, constantly changing, lending variety and excitement to a house. In eastern Canada you couldn’t design the same way. The weather there is more constant, and houses must offer a sense of protection from the elements that we don’t need here.

I find it frustrating to visit homes I have built, partly because you become aware of what you didn’t achieve. I have never fulfilled what I wanted to fulfill.

I did this house (upper right) for David and Penny Graham in 1965, and I suppose it’s the best known of them all because architectural magazines here and in Europe have written a great deal about it.

The idea was to make the site an experience. It is on a cliff overlooking Howe Sound, and as you drive up you can' see only the house. Then you come down the steps and see the cliff rising to one side and, in front of it, the swimming pool. From the front door there is an explosion of space. You can look down the stairs through the dining room to windows in the bedroom and living room and see the sea. From everywhere you can see either the cliff, the pool or Howe Sound. The house is an island on a terraced bridge between two bodies of water — the swimming pool at one level and the sea below. But not all my houses are for the rich, you know. I’ve built houses for $15,000, and they can be just as rewarding.

I sometimes think I don’t have any real talent at all. I treat everything the Zen way. I am an empty vessel. I let every new problem or project inform and teach me. It’s terrifying at times.

The one thing I avoid is coming to conclusions. Ideas are a dime a dozen and the great thing is to keep pushing them aside until every single thing is right. That’s why I don’t make money.

This house for the Catton family (lower right) I did last year and it’s probably my last house. We can’t afford to do houses now because they involve as much work as a major building and we simply can’t make as much out of them — and we’ve got to keep an office with 40 people going. But through houses you learn about people and what they need and want. I can’t spare the time now. You practically have to marry the wife of the family you’re designing for. Most people and most firms can’t afford the amount of effort I like to put into something. This last house is a good example of my belief in designing a house for the site. This business of using the site properly is one area where I’m probably one of the two best in the country. The other is Ron Thom in Toronto.

And this is my house. It was intended as a garage for a big house that was never built. I bought it from a woman who had a superb English garden, which I loved until the second year when the roses had gone wild and the grass was knee high. I had a smaller fence then, only about four feet high, and I could lock out of my living-room windows across the road and see a neighbor’s very ugly front door. So I called a man with a bulldozer and told him to shovel the garden into a hill at the end of the property. When he’d finished, it wasn’t high enough. I could still see that ghastly door. So I had him scoop a hole in the garden to make the hill higher, and that made a pond. And that was the start of a quiet garden of native plants and grasses, which is what I had wanted anyway.

I’ve been fascinated by the Orient and Oriental philosophies for many years, ever since I was taught Japanese and sent with a special forces unit to India during the war. It’s also partly the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright, who leaned toward mysticism and the Oriental. After the war, I had thought of going into External Affairs. Then I saw a picture of Wright’s famous desert house and I thought: If an architect can do that, I’m going to be an architect.

McGill was the only university that would accept me with a partial engineering qualification. While at McGill I went to see Wright. He was working from a magnificent estate in Wisconsin with what amounted to a group of disciples. It was incredibly peaceful there, and in the distance I heard someone playing the harpsichord. Wright seemed very interested in me and the fact that I had been an artist before joining the army and that I had little formal education. He thought education a corruption. He was prepared to accept me as one of his pupil-acolytes, but I took a traveling scholarship and landed in Egypt and Europe instead.

Eventually, I ended up teaching at the University of British Columbia and living here, trying to coexist with the raccoons, which is difficult. They make a hell of a racket on the roof and I used to chase them down the street. Have you ever tried standing in pyjama pants, trying to explain a vendetta with raccoons to a curious policeman at 2 a.m.?

Today, this house isn’t my style at all. Now I want more space, and I suppose as I grow older I want to get back to elementals, things that matter. The materials here now — fabric on the walls, heavy curtains, carpets — are all too sensuous, too artificial.

The house I would design for myself now would have solid walls and no roof. Its site would have great views, but I wouldn’t want to be confronted with these views constantly through windows. I need to be able to look inward, to not have my innermost privacy disturbed by intrusion of the world outside, however beautiful, unless I want it to. Then I can go outside and look. Privacy is terribly important. I suppose that’s why I built the fence that my neighbors don’t like and I’m having to fight City Hall to keep.