On May 20, leading Canadian architect Arthur Erickson died in a Vancouver, British Columbia, nursing home. He was 84. In a career that encompassed the highs of international acclaim as well as the lows of economic penury, Erickson produced a body of work that demonstrated both a dedication to the tenets of modernism and a sensitivity to social and environmental realities. All of his work, from his magnificent high-end residences to his dramatic civic and cultural institutions, is imbued with a restless creative spirit, and he strongly believed that architecture should be practiced as an art as well as a profession.
Born in 1924, Erickson joined the Canadian Army in 1943 and served during World War II in South Asia. After the war he studied economics, history, and Japanese with an eye on a career in diplomacy. That ambition changed one year later when he saw photographs of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West in Fortune Magazine. He immediately shifted his focus to architecture.
“Suddenly, it was clear to me,” Erickson wrote in his 1988 autobiography, The Architecture of Arthur Erickson. “If such a magical realm was the province of an architect, I would become one.”
Four years of architecture school at McGill University in Montreal followed by brief stints working for several large architecture firms in Vancouver (two of which fired him) did nothing to crush the starry-eyed optimism of Erickson’s vision about what architecture could be, and his tenacity paid off. In 1952 he began working with fellow architect Geoff Massey. With their first commission, a home for the son of a lumber magnate, Erickson got the chance to design his own magical realm. The 1958 Filberg House on Comox, Vancouver Island, with its strong horizontal banding and filial relationship to the landscape showed plainly its debt to Wright, but also revealed the sureness of Erickson’s own adept talent.
Erickson taught at the University of Oregon and at the University of British Columbia from 1955 until 1963, when his big break came. In that year, Erickson and Massey won a competition to design a campus for the Simon Fraser University. Rather than propose a traditional campus “village” of separate buildings in a garden, Erickson and Massy put forth a rigid complex of linked structures—a brutalist masterpiece of muscular, suspended concrete and terraced plazas.
Though the project was not warmly received everywhere, it opened the floodgates on Erickson and Massy and soon client requests were pouring in the door faster than they could handle them. In the intervening years Erickson’s designs would leave a significant mark on the landscape of Vancouver. His Vancouver Law Courts, Robson Square, and Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia have become civic landmarks in the city and synonymous with its identity. He also expanded his corporate empire to do work across North America and around the world.
He opened offices in Toronto, Montreal, Los Angeles, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. He even began work on a tremendous water garden in Baghdad for Saddam Hussein, but the Iraq-Iran war began the project was shelved. His most lauded designs include Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto, the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C., California Plaza in Los Angeles, Napp Laboratories in Cambridge, England, the Kuwait Oil Sector Complex in Kuwait City, and the Kunlun Apartment Hotel Development in Beijing. In 1986 he was awarded the Gold Medal from American Institute of Architects.
For a time, Erickson rode high, an esteemed international luminary who was constantly traveling the globe to check on his many works in progress. But as often happens in architecture, the business side of his life was fragile and, incapable of managing his own finances, in 1992 he filed for personal bankruptcy, listing more than $10.5 million in debts. Suddenly at the mercy of Canada’s banks, he only barely managed to hold onto his only asset: a 600-square-foot cottage.
The setback was only temporary however. His firm Arthur Erickson Architectural Corporation eventually returned to prominence, and he continued to turn out inspired works of architecture, including The Museum of Glass at the International Center for Contemporary Art in Tacoma, Washington, which opened in 2002.