Architect Arthur Erickson: 1924 – 2009

The Arthur Erickson designed UBC Museum of Anthropology.
The Arthur Erickson designed UBC Museum of Anthropology.

By David Covo

Arthur Erickson, who died May 20, shortly before his 85th birthday, was Canada’s most celebrated architect, our unofficial Architect Laureate and, with two degrees from McGill (BArch’50 and an Honorary Doctorate in 1975), surely one of the University’s most distinguished graduates.

His estate includes thousands of drawings, models and materials in archives at McGill, the Canadian Centre for Architecture and the University of Calgary. He leaves a staggering legacy, shaped by more than five decades of building around the globe, using a surprisingly simple palette of materials and formal geometries to express powerful ideas about architecture and the nature of the city.

His well-crafted buildings are profoundly intelligent. They dissolve conventional distinctions between art and science, space and structure, building and landscape, architecture and urban design, but are absolutely

contextual in how they address site, climate, culture and history, daylight and the natural colours of materials. They are without exception, not merely beautiful but delightful, and they are unimaginably

original in how they anticipate, interpret and redefine our expectations. They often seem impossibly ‘right’ for their place and time, and they can be breathtaking.

Erickson’s best-known projects include stunning private residences, as well as projects such as Simon Fraser University and Vancouver’s Macmillan Bloedel Building, with Geoffrey Massey; the UBC Museum of

Anthropology; Roy Thompson Hall, Toronto; the Canadian Chancery, Washington, DC; and many, many more.

One project, the Robson Square and Law Courts Complex in his native Vancouver, is the most perfect example of urban design in Canada, a convincing vision of what a city centre can be like when inspired architects, landscape architects and planners work together. The three blocks of Robson Square are, in Erickson’s own words, a fragment of utopia. He first used that expression to characterize the nature of a university campus, but shouldn’t every building present an opportunity for a glimpse of utopia? A beautifully crafted sequence of stairscapes, terraces, waterfalls and pools, Robson Square provides an unexpectedly civic context for a high-density, lowrise government centre. It is an inventive, effective interpretation

of a complex building program based on a vision of a justice system that is accessible and transparent, “a new attitude to the courts”

Erickson once described this intention as “probably the most important aspect of my work: getting people to see things in a different light.”

He was unique.

David Covo is former Director of the McGill School of  Architecture.