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Remembering Canada's Greatest Architect

Brent Toderian's picture

This weekend, friends, family, colleagues and admirers got together to celebrate the life, and mourn the death, of a man many consider to be the most talented architect Canada has ever produced. Frank Gehry may have been born in Canada, but Arthur Erickson began, remained and died a great Canadian. He was also one of the World's architectural greats, and a "citizen of the World".

Arthur was also a great Vancouverite, casting a long shadow in this city in buildings, public spaces, attitudes and influence. He was considered a major force in the creation of "vancouverism", that term that sometimes makes us cringe, but reflects the role Vancouver has taken globally as an alternative and progressive model of city-building. And he was the mentor and teacher of many other great local architects and urbanists, including Bing Thom, James Cheng, Bruno Freschi, Werner Forster, Brian Hart, John Keith-King, Joe Wai, Noel Best, Rainer Fassler, Milton Gardiner, Norm Hotson, Eva Matsuzaki, Kiyoshi Matsuzaki, Tony Robins, Jim Wright, Barry Johns, Brigitte Shim, and many more. Even our own brilliant recently-retired Assistant Director of Central Area Planning, Trish French, spent key formative years working for Arthur early on.

Recently, Arthur even grew from mere great architect, to "brand", illustrated in the naming of a mixed-use waterfront building "the Erickson", and in the ability his name-attachment had in selling out projects. This caused some local debate and nervousness (is it ever a good thing for an architect to become a brand?), but was reflective of the iconic status he had in the city and country.

I myself had the privilege of getting to know Arthur only a little bit since I arrived here in 2006, through about a dozen conversations at events about-town. Although he was still working, his health challenges had already taken their toll, and his partner Nick Milkavich (a great architect himself, who continues to lead a great design staff in the spirit of Arthur) was more engaged in the day-to-day. Still, I treasured the small chances I had to talk with Arthur. Despite his failing health, I always found him gracious, still very engaged and concerned for the city, and as charming as I had heard. I also found myself slightly jealous of the opportunities that my predecessors had, to engage with Arthur in his prime, to experience that famous stubbornness and witness that absolute confidence of urbanistic principle and architectural command. That would have been fun, and an honour.

Most of Arthur's designs were executed during a period of architectural styles that have long fallen out of favour. Like many contemporary urbanists, I don't have many positive things to say about the modernist architectural movement (although I admire good contemporary architecture, which is a very different thing), and have a clear distain in particular for the modernist planning movement, given all the damage it did to cities. Although he practiced at the same time and was occasionally confused with the 60's-80's modernists, Arthur was different. He understood urbanism and cities better. In many ways he defied architectural classification, and was way ahead of his time in sensitive design, in his gift for marrying building to site, and sustainable thinking. He became synonymous with Canadian west-coast contemporary design. He was an artist with concrete, a material I usually have difficulty appreciating. While we may debate some design-ideas with the benefit of time and learning (such as whether even a brilliantly designed sunken plaza like Robson Square in downtown Vancouver, was a good idea given that sunken plazas have been shown to generally fail as vibrant people-places almost all the time - we'll have a chance to see if new respectful design changes timed for the Square's use during the 2010 Winter Olympics will help improve the connections between the plaza and Robson Street), we don't debate the remarkable built legacy Arthur has left our city.

Regrettably, I was committed to be out-of-town this weekend, and missed Arthur's memorial service. Speaking with many who knew him well and were devastated by his death, it sounds like the event was worthy of Arthur, although as one colleague put it, "so much more needed to be said". You could probably never say enough. So this post is my own small tribute to his life, and his huge contribution to our city and to architecture. Others who really knew him, will do a much better job than I, and perhaps might comment on this post.

For some of those comments, here are links to just some of the many articles written since Arthur's death.

"700 say goodbye to Arthur Erickson at SFU ceremony" The Province

"Hundreds honour ‘poet' of architecture" Globe and Mail

"Memorial service for Arthur Erickson on Sunday" Canadian Architect

"A Canadian icon rediscovered" Macleans.ca

"Architect Arthur Erickson dead at 84" CBC.ca

To end, here also are some images of that contribution, as he will be best remembered through his designs. Although many reference the Museum of Anthropology, my personal favorites might be the Waterfall Building (perhaps the city's best model of mid-rise building), Robson Square, and the Canadian Embassy in Washington (which I've always felt was better than many have suggested). We're blessed with several new buildings to be completed soon, including the aforementioned "Erickson", and the Millennium Water signature buildings and community centre that will sit at the water-edge of the 2010 Winter Olympics Athletes Village.

The "Erickson"

Millennium Water - Olympic Village


Waterfall Building

Universtiy of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology


San Diego Convention Centre

Museum of Glass - Tacoma, Washington

Robson Square / Courthouse


Southeast False Creek Community Centre

"Vancouver's Turn"

Simon Fraser University


Canadian Embassy, Washington DC


Rest in peace, and thank you Arthur. You are missed already.

Brent Toderian is an international consultant on advanced urbanism with TODERIAN UrbanWORKS, Vancouver’s former Director of City Planning, and the President of the Council for Canadian Urbanism. Follow him on Twitter @BrentToderian



Thank you

Beautiful tribute to Canada's poet of architecture. Thank you Brent!
I often ride my bike along the seawall and track the progress of his False Creek projects and they are beautiful. The new community centre in South East False Creek is especially eye catching. I would also add that his MacMillan Bloedel Office Tower (c1969) is perhaps one of the best applications of post-Le Corbusier Brutalism to a downtown office tower anywhere in the world.

What a legacy he has left this city. Mr.Erickson, you will be missed but never forgotten.

Brent Toderian's picture

words of respect from another Great...

With her permission, I've attached below the text of Cornelia Hahn Oberlander's words at Arthur's memorial - Cornelia is one of Arthur's few peers in professional status in Canada, and is considered our Country's premier landscape architect. Her own husband, Peter Oberlander, also passed away not that long ago. He was also a giant of Canadian urbanism, the founder of the UBC School of Planning.... his own accomplishments could go on and on. He, as well, is dearly missed.


Ode to 35 years of collaboration with Arthur Erickson and more than 40 projects.

It was 1954 when we met at the Vancouver Art Gallery where you gave a lecture showing us the most beautiful slides of your travels around the world, seen through your keen eyes. It was truly uplifting and we all felt that you had brought to us in Vancouver a new way of looking at the world. You talked to us about the city as the greatest achievement of mankind, and spoke of your dreams to improve our places of work, learning and leisure in the city.

You stimulated new thoughts of how we should live and socialize in the city, which culminated in the team-work of “Group 58” showing us new ideas for our city dominated by high-rises. You wished us to shoulder social responsibility for the betterment of all in the city.

Your travels brought back new ideas such as the discovery of the gardens of Japan which express the totality of all arts and architecture. You were inspired to implement these in your own garden which became a sanctuary for your inspiration and contemplation for all your projects. It became a garden of viewing, reflection and discovery. Over the years, the preservation of this special garden was made possible by your friends and colleagues.

Your first dictum to any building is the site. All your projects show your commitment to nature and the deep understanding of it.

You demanded achieving a fit of all your buildings and instinctively you understood the importance of nature and bringing it into harmony with glass and concrete. Thus it was easy to interpret this relationship of building and site as a team. In all your thoughts you were innovative and you expected the team to perform with excellence. You challenged all of us to interpret new concepts, such as at Simon Fraser University, the UBC Museum of Anthropology, the BC Provincial Courthouse Complex, the Chancery in Washington, DC, and many houses in the forests of the Pacific Northwest.

In your writings, you eloquently observed that the dialogue between a building and its setting is the essence of architecture. One of your first major contributions in the world of architecture was winning the competition for Simon Fraser University in association with Geoffrey Massey in 1963. Here you created a new cultural significance for an educational institution. You challenged the site on this mountain top with new solutions for the students to learn and socialize, and you achieved an integration of activities within the buildings on different levels.

The Provincial Courthouse Complex was your next landmark project. Instead of building a 55-storey high-rise you put the building on its side thereby making it possible to have a green roof over three city blocks. You saw to it that we built a linear park for all citizens to enjoy throughout the seasons, day and night, and that we could traverse from one street to the other surrounded by greenery. It took many years of research, risk taking and responsibility for the team to make this possible.

Today visitors to Robson Square do not realize the learning curve for greening roofs in 1974. The team had to analyze the loads on the roof, research light-weight growing medium, and choose plant material that could withstand pollution. You challenged us to bring biomass into the city 30 years ago. All this grew out of your deep love for the forest and the ecology of the Pacific Northwest, which you explored early in your life. This project is a work of art and must be retained in its entirety as your legacy.

The Museum of Anthropology at UBC, embodies your spirit of land and sea. The Haida houses are placed at the edge of the shell and shingle beaches and tell about the life of our Native people. One day you asked me into your office to see the first sketches of the Museum and the site, and said ‘What would you do Cornelia?’ I replied, we should echo the landscape of the Queen Charlotte Islands with the grasses and plants used by our native people as depicted in the book “This is Haida”. Thirty-five years later, this is still a work in process. We hope that by next year, at your birthday, there will be water in the pond to complete your vision for the museum.

The downtown eastside Portland Hotel in Vancouver, one of your most important contributions to the city is a home for drug afflicted people. A roof garden with blueberry bushes and apples trees, as well as cushions of lawn allow the residents to soothe their spirits, or they might find solace in the contemplative courtyard garden on a lower level.

How is it possible that we could do all these projects together? Although we grew up in different parts of the continent we had similar backgrounds. We both roamed the woods, loved the mountains and the sea and learned to appreciate nature early in life. Instinctively we both understood ecology and were taught design by teachers trained in the Bauhaus method.

From you Arthur I learned so much. Your comment when I presented you with the architectural plant for all the planter boxes, as well as the flying planters at the courthouse, namely Taxus media Hicksii (Yew), you gently said, “But Cornelia there are many greens”. What is Arthur talking about? Oh – I guess I don’t know too many plants. This started my mind spinning and I took a crash course at UBC in plant material – so I could bring different ‘greens’ to Robson Square. Thus, your comment will never be forgotten.

Arthur, I sing an ode to 35 years of collaboration with you.

We all will miss you and your constantly inquiring mind.



A bit of advice. If you need to cash in on the Arthur myth . . . don't display photos of his work . . . least of all his recent work and do not visit . . .

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