Arthur Erickson, Hon. FAIA, FRAIC, who died May 20 at age 84, was the best-known Canadian architect in history. But many friends and colleagues feel he deserved more recognition for his holistic approach to architecture and his constant reverence for the landscape. "I wish he were better known internationally," says the architectural activist Phyllis Lambert, FRAIC, founder of the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) and a close friend of Erickson's. "He had this sense of the profound communion between building and site. He was so inventive ... He was always ahead of what everybody was doing."
Erickson painted as a young man and worked in Canadian intelligence during World War II. After seeing a photo of Taliesin West, he decided he wanted to be an architect; he graduated from McGill University's architecture program in 1950. (Click here for the transcript of his 1998 conversation with the university as part of its alumni interviews series.) "We call him an artist-architect," says Cheryl Cooper, director of the Arthur Erickson Conservancy (AEC). "That's who he really is."
Over the course of his career he designed houses, government and university buildings, museums, and city plans. Among his best-known projects are the Smith House in West Vancouver, British Columbia (designed with Geoffrey Massey, completed in 1966); Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C. (also designed with Massey, completed in 1965); and the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, B.C. (completed in 1976). Throughout it all, he never lost his connection with the natural environment and with the people for whom he designed. "There's such a consistency in Arthur's work," Lambert says. "The Smith House and others grow out of the land. ... At Simon Fraser University, he translated a whole new concept of the university into architecture." (Click here for a joint interview Erickson and Massey gave at Simon Fraser University in October 2006.)
She reserves her highest praise for Robson Square, Erickson's design for a complex of government buildings and public amenities, built from 1978 to 1983 in downtown Vancouver. "It's the most extraordinary building he did and a model for the future," she says. "Instead of a high-rise government center, he made a government garden, working with the landscape architect Cornelia Oberlander. It's humane, it's environmental. How could [one] not notice it?"
A stirring memorial ceremony for Erickson was held Sunday, June 14 at Simon Fraser University. According to another close friend and colleague, the architectural photographer Simon Scott, "a couple thousand people" attended.
Erickson's reputation has many worthy caretakers. The CCA is in the process of cataloguing its significant archive of his work. The AEC is also working to preserve his architectural legacy, and his family has established a fund, the Arthur Erickson Foundation for Excellence in Architecture, to promote design innovation in Canada. Additionally, the Arthur Erickson House and Garden Foundation hopes to eventually make Erickson's own home and garden in Vancouver open to the public.
From June 24 through August 22, the West Vancouver Museum in West Vancouver, British Columbia, will present the exhibition Simon Scott: Architecture of Photography. The show will include many images of buildings by Arthur Erickson.