Architecture

Vancouver’s core creator

Thomas Hopkins September 10 1979
Architecture

Vancouver’s core creator

Thomas Hopkins September 10 1979

Vancouver’s core creator

Architecture

Thomas Hopkins

At its most elemental it is a football field of cool green glass slicing to the street from a height of seven storeys, drained by three rumbling waterfalls. It is airy and stylish and it presents a new leafy core to the city of Vancouver. After six years of planning and $160 million, Vancouver’s new 35-courtroom Law Courts building opens this week, complementing the year-old Robson Square complex of skating rink, restaurants and government offices. Together they create what Mayor Jack Volrich terms a “great stimulus to downtown Vancouver.”

The controversial architect of the project hurries around the site days before the opening in a cream-colored suit that blends with the concrete he calls “the marble of the ?0th century.” He is Vancouver-born Arthur Erickson, 55, whose major projects have included Simon Fraser University, the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology, Expo 67’s Man in the Community building and the Canadian pavilion at Expo 70 in Osaka, Japan. Small and elegant, he is a man-child who races from one job to the other, exploding out of meetings, habitually late and hurrying down corridors. “He u spreads himself too thin,” lamt ents one colleague, but Erickson is J unapologetic, jetting off to Ku£ wait, China, New York or London. &

He made certain, though, that he | would be in Vancouver Sept. 6 for £ the Law Courts opening, a cere8 mony awash in royal red carpet ° and dignitaries celebrating the completion of the second component in a three-block project that will become the jewel in the navel of Vancouver. The third element, the transformation of the 67-year-old neoclassic Vancouver courthouse into the Vancouver Art Gallery, is scheduled for a September, 1981, opening depending on government and private fund raising.

The new Law Courts building is designed to replace the old bulging courthouse and contains 35 courtrooms and offices for 62 judges. It is built in a series of bleacher-like steps of fernhung galleries under a shimmer of glass. The structure will house its occupants in 670,000 square feet, almost five times the floor space of the former courthouse. The glass roof consists of

883 panes of laminated glass weighing 600 pounds each. Judges, spectators and prisoners will have separate entrances and corridors and, in keeping with the times, there will be no bars—only sheets of unbreakable plastic. An urban garden effect is achieved by light filtered through water flowing over opaque skylights. The project is highlighted by the Erickson landscape signature device of a huge mound of earth studded with plants.* Project chair-

man Gordon Shrum, who was the building overseer for the UBC museum and Simon Fraser, calls it “the first effort to make Vancouver a beautiful city.”

As ever with Erickson the Law Courts and the three-block project are not without controversy. It was envisioned in 1968 by the Social Credit government of W.A.C. Bennett as a 55storey slab of skyscraper, but the NDP scrapped that plan in 1972 (to editorial

* Erickson last month received the prestigious President’s Award of Excellence from the American Institute of Landscape Architects

choruses of “Oh Happy Day” in The Vancouver Sun). Instead the NDP commissioned Erickson to come up with a more humane alternative. Initial cost estimates on the revised project were in the range of $80 million. Shrum, who was appointed to oversee the project in May, 1976, says that it was, “incredible [but] in the beginning [the project] had no over-all budget.” Inevitably costs rose, adding to Erickson’s reputation in some quarters as the Francis Coppola of Canadian architecture.

For his part Erickson claims that building costs will come in at less than $100 million and that other ancillary costs incurred by the old skyscraper have been tacked onto the final costs. He answers critics’ charges that his buildings are too extravagant by saying he is “an iconoclast and sometimes iconoclasts threaten the preservers.” It is an attitude that does not salve the jealousy of competitors but does garner international respect. Philip Johnson, grand old man of American architecture, has called Erickson “by far the greatest architect in Canada and maybe the greatest on this continent.” Dressed in a summer suit, violet-tinted Carrera aviator glasses and loosely knotted tie, Arthur Erickson sits in his bone-white Vancouver office. Secretaries periodically darken the doorway with messages but amid the chaos Erickson’s attention never leaves a listener. His charm is immovable. He denies the charge that his buildings are monuments, then says, “but even so, monuments are the most important things that can happen.” He speaks of courage in architecture, despairing that bureaucrats and politicians are robbing North America of great buildings. But neither is he blind to the irony that governments have permitted him to do his best work. “Arthur’s great talent beside his strength of design,” says former partner Geoffrey Massey, with whom he amicably split in 1972, “is his ability to convince clients that his designs can be built.”

But in these meagre times business has been disastrous for Canadian architects and Arthur Erickson Architects has been no exception. In 1978 he was forced to slash staff in his Toronto and Vancouver offices to 50 from 100. Friends also complain that B.C.’s Social Credit government has blacklisted him because Erickson lent his name to some NDP campaign literature in 1975. At any rate, there are no new Erickson government commissions in his own province; his crystalline design for Toronto’s Massey Hall is his major project in Eastern Canada. As a result as much as 60 per cent of his work is now done in the lands of the new dreamers, the Middle East.

The same egalitarian streak that led to the NDP endorsement and in 1971 to his call for the eventual collectivization of land on the one hand, while designing $500,000 houses for the stylishly rich on the other, has led critics to accuse him of being a parlor radical. Erickson is hardly that, but he is opinionated. He denounced, for example, the decision to award the 1976 Olympics architectural contract to Frenchman Roger Taillibert rather than a Canadian. When Prime Minister Joe Clark persisted in his plan to move the Canadian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and jeopardized a $4million Erickson design project in Jedda, Saudi Arabia, and another to design the new town of Fintas in Kuwait, he was furious and flew to Ottawa to confer with External Affairs Minister Flora MacDonald. “It was an absolutely outrageous move,” he says, his long, youthful-looking face reflected in several ivy-covered mirrors. Outrageous, he stresses, not just for Erickson Architects but because it jeopardizes Canada’s unique credibility with the developing countries, a credibility Canadian entrepreneurs desperately need.

But it is while talking about architecture that Erickson’s deep announcer’s voice softens and he speaks romantically in phrases such as “let’s feel how it looks.” He describes his works as “instinctual,” his talent as “visual.” It is this fine estheticism that marks the Erickson style. Born in Vancouver, he wanted to be a painter, before the Second World War and service in an intelligence unit in Malaya intervened. Entering architecture at McGill in 1946, he was invited to apprentice with Frank Lloyd Wright after graduation; instead he chose to accept a travelling scholarship that solidified his love for classical architecture by allowing him to spend time in Florence before returning to Vancouver to set up practice with Geoffrey Massey. His pace always frantic, increased incrementally until today he offers the astonishing information that, “since 1965, I haven’t spent more than 10 days in one place.” Indeed, on many occasions after the long creative design phase with his staff (“I try to bring a broader world view to the design”), he is often scurrying, suit bag in hand to catch his next plane. (“It’s the only place I can work,” he says.) The pace of this Edwardian dervish drives his young, informal staff to distraction and leads project manager Shrum to muse: “He is a great designer but I don’t think he has enough interest in the working out of his own designs to be a great architect.”

When he does stay home his time is full. He maintains a small fenced house in Vancouver and rents a coach house in Toronto’s Rosedale. An esthete, he sports a bulging classical record collection and “is absolutely the best dancer

I’ve ever known,” says Vancouver journalist and longime friend Mary McAlpine. A gracious host and gourmet, his parties may feature at any one time exquisite food, a koto (a Japanese zither) player and candles set in glass holders in the trees. Although he cherishes old friends, he is at home on a disco dance floor trailing a string of groupies. (Just before Margaret Trudeau’s recent saucy appearance at a posh Vancouver disco, she had been dining with Erickson.) It is the pace at which Erickson appears to thrive. “It’s true,” ventures Mary McAlpine. “Arthur is a happy man.”

Vancouver, whose spectacular setting and dreary architecture have led some to call it “an unrealized Athens,” has been inalterably marked by Erickson’s vision. From the brooding austere power of the MacMillan Bloedel building, to the shifting perspectives and visual surprises of UBC’s Museum of Anthropology, to the cool freshness of the three-block project, Erickson has begun to remake his home town. With zoning ensuring that the green valley of the Erickson project will not be encroached upon, an elevated observer must agree with Gordon Shrum’s assessment: “Erickson’s project gives the city of Vancouver a heart.”