This week, the RBC Charles Taylor Prize will be awarded to one Canadian non-fiction book from the past year. We spoke to the nominated authors about their craft and the process of writing their shortlisted book. Here, an excerpt from David Stouck’s Arthur Erickson: An Architect’s Life.
The most innovative aspect of Vancouver’s Robson Square complex was its planning for the Law Courts. Before he submitted his design for the project, it happened that Arthur had made a business trip to Saudi Arabia, where he learned that punishment was public and severe, and, as a consequence presumably, there was little crime. He had in fact accidentally left his wallet in a public place and it was still there when he returned the next day. “It seemed,” he wrote, “that their justice system, carried out in public squares, encouraged a remarkable honesty.” J.V. Clyne, Vancouver’s Chief Justice at the time, made a similar observation when he said to Arthur that in his opinion justice was last carried out effectively in London in the seventeenth century with public hangings in the streets. From these violent examples, Arthur characteristically drew a benign, positive conclusion – that justice had to be seen to be appreciated. Accordingly, the idea of the Law Courts was to open the justice system as much as possible to the public and make it less an ominous house of retribution and more a civics lesson in community standards. “Why not open up our corridors to the street and then justice will be part of the education of our citizens!” Courthouses have traditionally been places of intimidation and humiliation, he later wrote, because often family matters are being laid open to the public. We should not be there to condemn people but to help them sort out their lives. It should be an open place accordingly. A passerby should be able to see justice at work, a judge adjusting his robes, and so forth.
To many, Arthur’s approach to justice seemed naive, just as his views on city planning seemed riddled with contradictions, but what was remarkable, as so often, was his ability to translate ingenuous thinking into innovative design. When Arthur’s office was awarded the contract, the Law Courts building was designed with a great deal of glass allowing a maximum exposure of light, because he wanted the courthouse not to be a depressing place but “a cheerful one, with all sorts of things going on.” The main Gallery with its glass roof, like the Mall at Simon Fraser University, is in fact one of the grand public spaces for a variety of events in Vancouver. He also wanted the individual courtrooms to be light and welcoming. In this way he wanted the setting to reinforce the British idea of justice, that you are innocent until proven guilty. The accused should be able to enter, see where the court is and approach it in pleasant surroundings. “In no way,” he insisted, “should one be intimidated by the courts.” A courthouse should not be a humiliating place. It should be as uplifting as a church, university or museum. Only the courtroom itself should be solemn. Here the architect’s vision and the administrator’s purposes came into conflict over the matter of security. Arthur wanted glass interior walls, to provide greater light and make the rooms more open to the public, but the judges’ insistence was for solid walls on the pedestrian hall side. The result is the more traditional feeling of being closed in; only skylights slanting up from the street-side windows bring daylight into the room. But Arthur was able to persuade the judges to abandon their preference for dark wood and carpeting; instead all the wood on the walls and tables is pale American elm, the carpet a bright crimson, and the chairs covered in soft tan leather. The judges felt the colours were not rich enough, that the effect was too modern, but with J.V. Clyne’s support on this issue Arthur’s choices prevailed.
Arthur’s creation of the Law Courts as a physical monument to the “transparency” of the Canadian legal system was directly connected to Pierre Trudeau’s legal reforms. His friendship with the Prime Minister always involved a vigorous exchange of ideas. On one occasion when Lois Milsom was driving them to an event and they were jammed together in the front seat of her Rolls Royce, Arthur tried to persuade Pierre that Canada should only have five provinces, that the maritime and prairie provinces should be collapsed into one each – that only physical geography mattered –, while simultaneously Pierre was telling Arthur that in the new courtrooms there should be no lighting over the judge’s podium, that everything should be done to make figures of authority seen to be more human. No doubt such suggestions had significant influence on Arthur’s thinking about justice because it was Pierre Trudeau’s legal reforms in 1967 that had redefined his relationship with Francisco Kripacz and his status as a citizen. Previously, in the eyes of the law, Arthur had been a criminal.
Excerpted from Arthur Erickson: An Architect’s Life. Copyright © 2013 David Stouck. Published by Douglas & McIntyre. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.