Arthur Charles Erickson is considered one of Canada's greatest architects. His modernist designs adapt and extend the principles of Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, creating bold spatial forms that respond to their contexts using a variety of structural systems and materials - primarily concrete and glass. He has designed several private homes as well as a number of prominent public buildings, such as Simon Fraser University (SFU), the University of British Columbia (UBC) Museum of Anthropology, the San Diego Convention Centre, Roy Thompson Hall in Toronto, and the Canadian embassy in Washington D.C.. Other buildings of note include one at ExpO 67 in Montréal and Expo 70 in Osaka, Japan; the University of Lethbridge in Alberta; the MacMillan Bloedel tower on Georgia Street in Vancouver; and the Bank of Canada building in Ottawa.
Erickson was born in Vancouver British Columbia in 1924. He studied at UBC in Vancouver and McGill University in Montreal, receiving his Bachelor of Architecture from there in 1953. After graduating, he went to Asia as a member of the Canadian Armed Forces, after which he travelled extensively in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East before returning to practice in Vancouver. In 1953 he established a private practice. In 1963 he and Geoffrey Massey established Erickson/Massey Associates after they won the prestigious competition to design SFU, a project which brought them international attention. Since 1972 he has been the principal of Arthur Erickson Architects, and his firms garners local and international contracts alone and in partnership with other firms.
While at McGill, Erickson developed an admiration for the emotive work of Frank Lloyd Wright, then out of favour, and Wright's predilection for low horizontal buildings is echoed in Erickson's own. Later, Erickson expounded on his pedagogical message in language that could have come from Wright himself:
I tell my students not to think. Thinking is the enemy of architecture. I tell people, you must feel your way and not think! Decades of rationalism have restricted the limits of thought. We simply cannot trust the brain.
I'll review a few of his Vancouver buildings, as they are the ones I'm most familiar with.
The feelings generated by at least one of his most important designs, SFU, are complex. SFU is built atop a mountain in Burnaby, a suburb of Vancouver. Erickson's bold design hugs the mountain top, drawing inspiration from the Greek acropolis and from hill-top hugging towns in Italy. The buildings are terraced to reflect the contours of the landscape emphasize the horizontal rather than the vertical. Though much admired by architecture critics and pundits, the design invokes the ire of students and faculty of the university, who complain of its starkness and of the cold winds that whistle through the open plazas.
The Museum of Anthropology at UBC is much more successful, in my view, and not just because it features a most impressive display of Northwest Coast First Nations art, including a series of gorgeous totem poles that greet the visitor just inside the entrance . The building follows the natural slope of the surroundings, gradually rising up in a series of steps as the ground slopes down. It is swathed in glass, allowing natural light to cast shadows upon the exhibits and permitting the visitor views of the beautiful surrounding mountains and ocean. The museum is well worth a visit, both for the architecture and the collections it houses.
Also worth a visit in Vancouver is Robson Square, a three-block long complex which Erickson designed. The geometric concrete staircases and low cement office blocks are vintage Erickson, but the harshness evident at SFU is here softened by extensive plantings, especially on an artifical rooftop hill covered with bushes and grass; a series of waterfalls and pools; and the incorporation of an old courthouse refurbished to house the Vancouver Art Gallery.
The eminent architect has buildings throughout the world and received the Order of Canada in 1984 and an honorary doctorate from McGill in 1975.