Skip to main content

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

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.

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.

Back in Vancouver in 1946, he began studying economics, history and Japanese with a view to a diplomatic career or perhaps anthropology or archeology. Then, by chance, he saw colour photographs of Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West in Fortune magazine.

"If you can do as imaginative and creative a thing as that in architecture, I want to be an architect," he remembered thinking, As he later told journalist Edith Iglauer for her book, Seven Stones: A Portrait of Arthur Erickson, Architect. As a westerner, he wanted to study in the east and accepted a place at McGill in 1946.

Four years later he graduated with an honours degree in architecture. "I didn't listen to my teachers much, but i had three people who influenced me - all keenly observant, original spirits," he told Ms. Iglauer. The first and the strongest was his mother, then the artist Lawren Harris, and finally Gordon Webber, a design professor at McGill. "He was very vague, never explained anything clearly, which forced you to see for yourself. I don't think I would be as receptive to everything as I am had it not been for Gordon Webber."

Surprisingly, he didn't mention Frank Lloyd Wright. The summer before his final year at McGill, he went to visit Mr. Wright at Taliesen East in Wisconsin, which he later described as "an absolutely beautiful blending of building and landscape." When Mr. Wright invited him to spend the year at Taliesen, he gladly accepted and raced back to Montreal to pack. But he changed his mind when he learned that he was likely to win the travelling scholarship awarded to McGill's top graduating student in architecture.

Give up a chance to study with Frank Lloyd Wright in favour of travelling to as many architectural sites as the $1,500 stipend would allow? Intuitively he knew he had to escape Mr. Wright's shadow and see the world with his own eyes. He eked out his funds over three years before returning to Vancouver and the workaday world of Canadian architecture in mid-1950s.

Several firms hired him and a few fired him before he hooked up with Geoffrey Massey, the architect son of actor Raymond Massey. Together they designed houses for friends and Mr. Erickson taught at UBC for nearly a decade. He quit teaching the year after he and Mr. Massey scored their huge architectural coup: winning a provincewide design competition to build Simon Fraser University on a mountaintop in nearby Burnaby. The Erickson/Massey proposal combined visions of the Acropolis in Athens with the clusters of terraced houses clinging to the hill towns of Italy. It emphasized the horizontal rather than the vertical, as though the mountain was itself part of the design. Construction began in 1964 and the almost "instant" university opened 18 months later, on Sept. 9, 1965.

After the Erickson/Massey partnership dissolved, Mr. Erickson formed his own practice in 1972. Eventually he opened offices across the country and around the world, but the firm became lumbered with debt in the late 1980s. Thinking, creating and envisaging were his strengths - the humdrum business of budgets and accounts receivables he left to others. After closing his Toronto and Los Angeles offices, he declared bankruptcy in 1992, and retreated to Vancouver where he merged with a firm of architects that is now Stantec.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, he operated from his own offices in Nick Milkovich's architectural practice. Mr. Milkovich was originally Mr. Erickson's student and later became a colleague, especially on housing projects.

Recently the two men worked together on The Portland Hotel, a public housing project in Vancouver's Downtown East Side and The Glass Museum in Tacoma, Wash.

In the last few years, Mr. Erickson's health began to fail as he struggled with the combined effects of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. He loved living in his home and garden in Point Grey, but about two months ago he needed more care and was moved into a nursing home.

Essentially Mr. Erickson was tired of living. "He couldn't work effectively any more and he had lost the people he loved the most, and he didn't want to be here if he couldn't do what he wanted to do," said his niece Emily McCullum.

Arthur Erickson

Mr. Erickson was born in Vancouver on June 14, 1924. He died there on May 20, 2009, at 84. He was predeceased by his partner Francisco Kripacz and leaves his brother Donald, two nephews, a niece and his extended family.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Check Following for new articles

Interact with The Globe