Arthur’s Legend – The life and legacy of Arthur Erickson.

Posted on July 5, 2010


I am a long-time fan of Arthur Erickson, the seminal Canadian architect who sadly passed away in 2009, and I’ve been meaning to write about his work since I started this blog. Having recently returned from a trip to his home town of Vancouver, where I was very fortunate to get a chance to visit a couple of his buildings, now seems like an appropriate time to write about the man and his work.

Born in 1924, Erickson originally studied Asian languages at the University of British Columbia, before joining the Canadian Army Intelligence Corps in 1943, where he saw service in India, Ceylon and Malaysia, eventually rising to the rank of Captain. After the War, he graduated at the top of his class from McGill University in Montreal and in 1950 he returned to the University of British Columbia as an associate professor to teach architecture. Whilst there he started a  firm with Geoffrey Massey designing houses, and, in 1963, the pair submitted the winning design for the Simon Fraser University. In 1973 he was awarded the Order of Canada, and in 1981 promoted to Companion – the highest honour in the Canadian system of honours. He is responsible for many of the most important buildings in Canada, including the Simon Fraser University, the Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver’s Law Courts, as well as being the architect personally selected by former Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, to design the Canadian Embassy in Washington, DC.

Vancouver Law Courts

So, with this in mind, you might imagine that his buildings would be protected as a part of Canadian heritage. Sadly, not so. One of his most beautiful houses, the Graham House, was recently leveled after falling into disrepair. The idea that such monuments of Canadian design are being torn down to make way for new homes that could not possibly equal the simplicity and beauty of Erickson’s designs is tragic. Canada not only loses one of its most beautiful homes, but also loses a part of its history and culture which future generations will no longer be able to enjoy. Can you imagine Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Fallingwater” being left to crumble or bulldozed to make way for a block of flats?

Erickson's Graham House was demolished in 2007.

However, this means that there are still examples of his work for private sale, and, if you can spare a couple of million Canadian dollars, you could own your very own piece of architectural history. For instance, you can purchase a five bedroom Erickson designed home in West Vancouver for a mere $3,298,oo. I briefly stopped by this property, and although its low profile doesn’t immediately suggest its asking price, it is a deceptively spacious and modern building and well worth the asking price. Interestingly, it is the interior of this property that features in the film Twilight: New Moon as the vampire’s family home.

Inside the West Vancouver Erickson designed home used in "Twilight: New Moon"

A horrible, horrible movie.

However, if three mil is a bit out of your price range, you can book a stay at Erickson’s Baldwin House.

I was fortunate enough to wander around the Museum of Anthropology at a more leisurely pace and inspect the concrete structure more closely. This building is a fine example of Erickson’s post and lintel design ethic and draws interesting parallels between his modernist designs and the construction techniques of the First Nations. The native totem poles, visible through the vast glass windows, balance with the vertical concrete posts of the building. The setting is exquisite too, nestled in amongst the trees with a view across the water that underscores the raw power of Vancouver’s natural environment.

Erickson's Museum of Anthropology. Photo by yours truly.

Erickson’s designs are distinctly modernist in flavour, with an almost futuristic quality, so it is not surprising that they should feature so prominently in the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica television series.

Several of his designs, including the previously mentioned Simon Fraser University building, as well as his Waterfall building are used as locations in the series. Scott Firth, one of the team responsible for the shows locations stated:

“Arthur Erickson’s buildings totally suit the style of the show… He’s one of our favorite architects, and you’ll see quite a few of his buildings in ‘Caprica.’ They’re quite striking. They’re really sexy buildings.”

Side by side comparison of BSG’s Riverwalk Market and Erickson’s Simon Fraser University.

Erickson courted much controversy in his lifetime. Not only was his selection and his ultimate design for the Canadian Embassy in Washington DC contentious, he also came under public scrutiny in the 90s, when he accumulated massive debts amounting to $10 million and was forced into bankruptcy. Erickson and his long-term partner Francisco Kripacz, an interior  designer, also faced accusations of tax evasion and using company funds to finance their lavish lifestyle.

However, none of this should detract from the incredible work Erickson produced in his lifetime. His awards speak for themselves and his buildings look as fresh and modern as they did when they were designed. The fact that so many of his buildings are used in productions such as Twilight and BSG to represent the cutting edge of architecture are a fitting compliment to his abilities.