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The esteemed and outspoken Canadian architect Arthur Erickson at one of his buildings in Vancouver on Feb. 6, 2001. (JOHN LEHMANN)
The esteemed and outspoken Canadian architect Arthur Erickson at one of his buildings in Vancouver on Feb. 6, 2001. (JOHN LEHMANN)

Obituary

'The greatest architect we have ever produced' Add to ...

Is it any wonder that Arthur Erickson always imagined buildings ensconced in their settings?

He grew up in the wet, lush climate of British Columbia, a land of tall trees, towering mountains, crashing waves and ancient reminders of totem poles and longhouses.

Scenery was rampant, landscape was monumental and both evoked reverence and a wary respect for rigorous weather and a desire to create human shelters in structures that were in harmony with their environment.

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His buildings, which are legion, include the University of Lethbridge, the inverted pyramid for the Canadian pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal, the Canadian Embassy in Washington, and Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto.

But it was his native British Columbia that is the most abundant repository of Mr. Erickson's architecture, beginning with the Filberg House in Comox, Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, the Museum of Anthropology and the Koerner Library at UBC, the MacMillan Bloedel building, the downtown Law Courts and the Robson Square Complex in Vancouver.

"He was ahead of his time which is why he was not properly recognized," said Phyllis Lambert, founder of the Canadian Centre for Architecture. "He has created architecture of the earth out of the earth," and "He has done it with extraordinary humanity."

But where did his vision come from?

He was innately curious, he hated regimentation and grew up in a family that encouraged him to think for himself. And he travelled, first because he was sent to India and Malaya during the Second World War and then because he won two travel grants at seminal points - the first after he graduated from McGill University and the second before he won the design competition for SFU - journeys that enabled him to explore the world before he was hemmed in by credentials and overheads.

On his pragmatic, self-directed odysseys through the history of architecture as practised in Europe and the Far East, he learned about the boldness of ideas, how style is inseparable from climate and place, the significance of light and cadence and the paramount importance of site. For him, as he wrote in The Architecture of Arthur Erickson, "the dialogue between building and setting" was the "essence."

"He was so curious, he went everywhere and he observed everywhere and he was able to synthesize all that into a concept about living on this earth," Ms. Lambert said. "It reminds me very much of [Pierre]Trudeau; when he left Montreal and the world opened up for him. And [Mr. Erickson]did the same thing, he travelled all over the world. And I think of these two characters, who were soulmates in so many ways, but Arthur was able to do it in a way that helped people understand how they can live, not politically, but physically, in nature and in cities and learn a kind of transcendental value."

Former governor-general Adrienne Clarkson, a friend since she first interviewed him in the mid-1960s for CBC, said: "He was the greatest architect we have ever produced because he understood modern materials and he wanted to deal with them and he understood how to handle large-scale projects."

Arthur Erickson was born in Vancouver, the older of two sons of Oscar Erickson and his wife Myrtle (née Chatterton).

His parents met in Winnipeg and were engaged before his father went overseas with the 78th Winnipeg Grenadiers in the First World War and was seriously wounded when a shell burst between his knees at Amiens. After surgeons amputated both legs, everybody - including the patient - thought the marriage was off, but his fiancée was adamant. As she said later, "I'd rather marry a man with wooden legs than a wooden head."

Mr. Erickson remembered his father as a kind and humble man who behaved as though he were totally normal. His mother was gregarious, an excellent cook, an aficionado of Canadian art and an expansive hostess who kept the house teeming with visitors.

He began painting when he was about 13, using the bedroom walls as canvases for a rich jumble of plants, fish and animals. By 16, he won an honourable mention for two of his abstract pastels in a show at the Vancouver Art Gallery and attracted the attention of Group of Seven Artist Lawren Harris.

He entered the University of British Columbia in 1942. Within a year he had enlisted in the Army Reserves and was taking intensive training at a Japanese language school. By 1943 he had a commission in the Intelligence Corps in the Army and was stationed in India as a commando in a field broadcasting unit. He was then deployed to Malaya and was about to be dropped behind enemy lines when Japan surrendered.

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