Flawed Visionary

The complicated life of a 20th-century architectural giant

Arthur Erickson: a Vancouverite, a traveller, an idealist, a modernist (mostly), a gay man, a partner, a charmer, a great teacher, an unreliable boss, an irresponsible businessman, a financial failure and an elder statesman. And also an architect—as the subtitle of Arthur Erickson: An Architect’s Life reminds us. David Stouck, a retired Simon Fraser English professor and biographer, attempts to unpack the tangled events of Erickson’s 84 years in this new biography.

The story is operatic in scope. Erickson, after a long apprenticeship, rose dramatically to prominence in his thirties, and would become both famous and wealthy, a friend to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, a jet-setter extraordinaire. And then, after a humiliation and personal losses, he had a quiet final act. Stouck covers all of this dutifully; yet, to a remarkable degree, the book misses the very centre of Erickson’s life—the architecture itself.

Erickson was born the eldest son of a privileged and slightly unusual Vancouver family: his father, Oskar, was a First World War veteran and amputee, a successful businessman who commissioned a house suited to his physical needs. His mother, Myrtle—an abiding presence in Arthur’s life—was “a spontaneous, sometimes zany individual,” as Stouck puts it, devoted to the arts; she helped establish the Vancouver Art Gallery and was deeply connected in the city’s nascent arts scene. This was fertile ground for a creative soul. Articulate young Arthur soon socialized with Lawren Harris and his wife, Bess, as well as his art instructors Jack Shadbolt and B.C. Binning, and Norman Mackenzie, then the president of the University of British Columbia. As a teenager he mixed at soirées at the Harrises’, listening to the gramophone in the dark (“they have all the symphonies,” another guest exclaimed to a friend).

Stouck’s account of these early years feels Victorian in tone. Young Arthur is ever alone at the party, dancing with—but never marrying—the young women in his circle. This pattern continues through his war years (in a comfortable post in India, attained through connections), three years of university at UBC (no degree earned), then architecture school at McGill (his unlikely admission obtained through back channels) and onward. As he stumbles and charms his way toward creative fulfillment, the young Arthur remains single and chaste—even through two years of travelling the Middle East and Europe, swanning through galleries and studying ruins.

Stouck, who has written well-received biographies of Ethel Wilson and Sinclair Ross, reads Erickson in his early years as a writer. And young Arthur was a prolific one—Stouck mines a trove of his letters to his family, now held at the University of Manitoba, to good effect. Erickson reports from Egypt, from Lebanon, from Venice, from Florence, looking at architecture and art, and who knows what else. Stouck writes: “one might surmise that in 1951, Arthur, a self-described monastic, was also the captive of his austere and fastidious inhibitions … his aesthetic raptures were remarkably chaste.”

One might surmise that, yes, or one might surmise some other possibilities. Working from the letters, Stouck hints at a number of encounters and relationships with young men that did not (on paper!) go beyond friendship. There is even the suggestion of a four-way love triangle with his friend Ken Carruthers, a woman named Happy who dated Carruthers and a woman, “a sailor,” who loved Happy. Eventually Arthur and Happy ended up together (“She had red hair, and a long cigarette holder … a tam, and wore slacks. She was a real character.”).

Erickson, like many other gay men of his generation, was never entirely out—at least to the press. Still, his longtime life partner, the interior designer Francisco Kripacz, was a very visible presence in his office and his life. The biography teases out some of Kripacz’s murky personal history, about which he was evasive and creative; his family seems to have been Roma refugees from central Europe. Stouck also draws, for the first time, a reasonably full picture of their relationship. (And he reveals, I believe for the first time, that Kripacz eventually took his own life.)

Still, in many respects this is a book that smells of the archive, despite a considerable number of interviews with Erickson’s friends and colleagues, and with the man himself in his foggy final years. The narrative remains wedded to the record. The broader social and cultural context—other than in Vancouver—is frustratingly thin. Later the tale gets more interesting, as the documentary record becomes richer and as Erickson’s life approaches the baroque. But first there is Erickson’s intellectual and creative development, and the substance of his career.

In Cairo, Erickson saw Al-Azhar University, where the intermingling of indoor and outdoor, the use of mashrabiya screens to filter sunlight, and semi-enclosed public space meant for students all made an impression. This place would, as Stouck convincingly argues, make a useful precedent for the campuses of Simon Fraser University and the University of Lethbridge—as would the Acropolis in Athens, and Italian hill towns, and modernist buildings that he would see in Japan by Kunio Maekawa. (Stouck personally knows both the Lethbridge and Simon Fraser campuses, and he makes good connections in explaining those seminal works.)

Some of Erickson’s influences were relatively common among architects of his generation. Frank Lloyd Wright, whom he met as a young man in a visit to Wright’s Taliesin West ranch, made an impression through his bold and creative responses to landscape, although Erickson did not adopt his formal language. Le Corbusier, much more clearly, influenced Erickson by demonstrating the poetic possibilities of concrete. Tange’s concrete public buildings, with their long, horizontal, rhythmic facades, took Corbusier’s work forward—and captured the attention of the young architect.

Erickson settled into a small converted garage in West Vancouver in 1957, taught in Oregon and then at UBC, and quickly came to dominate the architectural scene in Canada. Through the early 1960s he won a series of commissions for mostly grand houses in West Vancouver and then, with Geoffrey Massey, won the competition for Simon Fraser University. But as this narrative progresses, the architecture fades into a B.C. fog of allusions as Stouck provides little physical description of the buildings.

Erickson’s first house of consequence was in Comox, for the young (and doomed) lumber heir Rob Filberg. It gets a chapter of its own here, with plenty of detail on its critical reception—and yet I had no idea, while reading the chapter, what shape the house takes, or quite how large it is, or what any of its individual spaces actually look like. Instead Stouck provides a list of ingredients—Moorish screens and details, terrazzo floors, a flared roof and large windows on a granite base—and then to explain the building he relies on two critical accounts and on Erickson’s own, breathless rhetoric. Erickson described the site as both Mediterranean and Himalayan in character. Which means what, exactly?

The Filberg house fits into a current of modernism that was, around 1960, already looking to ornament and historic detail. American architects such as Edward Durell Stone and Philip Johnson were drawing on Islamic as well as Hellenic influences in this harbinger of Postmodernism. The Lincoln Center campus in New York, widely published and imitated, was under construction at this time. Erickson was working in a specific cultural moment and a particular cultural discourse; this context is critical to understanding his work, and it is missing here.

That early historicism—mannered, sophisticated—speaks to what distinguished Erickson’s work: a fusion of historic forms and building types from around the globe with the forms and material innovations of Modernism. “Traditionally, the architect’s role was not to invent new forms but to invest existing vernacular forms with new significance,” Stouck writes, paraphrasing an Erickson speech from 1963. “The Greek farmhouse became the temple, the Tuscan townhouse the Florentine palace. Thus the ordinary was ennobled; an inner world was made manifest.”

Few others, anywhere, followed this impulse so successfully. (Louis Kahn, a generation older than Erickson, took a more abstract approach to traditional precedents, and achieved magnificent results in concrete.)

Erickson’s early masterwork, arguably never surpassed, was Simon Fraser—“the instant university,” to be designed and built on an absurdly short timeline under the leadership of Erickson and his partner, Massey. A strong composition on a dramatic site, it was a victory in design terms—clear and powerful at small and broad scales, evoking a variety of Classical and Modernist forebears without aping any of them. “He had tried to use everything he had admired in his travelling, he said. ‘This was the one chance to put them all into a composition, but there wasn’t any imitation. It was the spatial experience itself and the composition too.’” It made Erickson’s career.

It was also late and vastly over budget. Why, exactly? The details could be interesting—all the more so when later, smaller projects follow the same pattern. Stouck does not delve. Erickson managed to work most of his career with his head in the clouds, literally and figuratively. It is ironic that Stouck’s book is equally vague on details.

After the initial victory at Simon Fraser, where Massey oversaw the management of that complex project, Erickson established a pattern of delegating most of the details of design and construction management. This in itself is not a slight against him. The great architects of his generation, including Richard Rogers, Norman Foster, I.M. Pei, his friend Moshe Safdie and others, took advantage of the long mid-century boom by going global, building multinational firms, and rarely getting their shoes dirty. Erickson from the 1970s on was the absent king of a growing empire, with at one point offices in Vancouver, Toronto and Los Angeles and homes in those cities as well as in New York (and Fire Island).

But in many cases this led to generic, insensitive buildings, detailed by underlings and executed at a distance—particularly overseas. Erickson was the poster boy for all of this; he designed 22 projects in the Middle East, of which 19 remained unbuilt. And in his office, the growth led to illness: Erickson was a reluctant delegator, and his business practices involved magical thinking. He hoarded financial resources, and—as Stouck strongly hints, following many other accounts—misappropriated funds that should have gone to consultants and suppliers. He left his biggest office, in Los Angeles in the 1980s, run by Kripacz, who was neither a manager nor an architect and who was spendthrift to a comical degree with the office’s funds. (“His ‘lesser’ needs included a daily luncheon delivery of salade niçoise from high-end restaurateur Michel Richard and a vast collection of costly, often fragile sweaters, maintained by a Japanese weaver.”)

This led to a series of near-rescues from wealthy and distinguished Canadians (who eventually noticed that he was driving a Maserati) and then, ultimately, personal bankruptcy.

The work also suffered. Erickson’s reputation peaked in the 1980s, well after his creative high points. Becoming the focus of a national controversy in 1982, when Trudeau overrode a selection committee to award him the new Canadian embassy in Washington, also did not help. (That building’s unfortunate “flirtation” with Postmodernism, typical for the era and for Erickson’s generation, has dated very badly.)

He was passed over for work at Expo 86. Although he was awarded the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal that year (1986)—a lifetime achievement award that Stouck correctly pegs as a major accolade—his greatest work was already a decade into the past. After 1992, when he went bankrupt, he eased into retirement. Finally settling in to work at the office of a former student and employee, Nick Milkovich, he accomplished little in the decade or so before dementia and illness set it.

There is a telling image from one of his employees of Erickson drawing, while his team works on a project, with his back to the office and his desk facing the window: when he went to lunch, they ran in to see what he had been working on. I would like to know, too, in much more detail than this book provides.

The Vancouver-area buildings that the author clearly knows well, including Simon Fraser, the great Museum of Anthropology at UBC and even the late-period Waterfall Building, all get reasonably clear and full descriptions. But Stouck generally seems not to have the confidence or the skill to explain the architecture. This is a major failing. The biography of an architect must do the work of describing how a building sits on its site, how it is composed, and the essence of how it is conceived and constructed.

Among Canadian architects, Erickson is viewed by wise heads as the greatest of the 20th century. I am inclined to agree. But Erickson’s body of work deserves a champion: it is deep, varied and often resists easy readings, and some of his favoured materials and modes—all that chromed steel and mirrored glass—do not look good in today’s eyes. It requires explanation, and in some cases a defence.

The book’s visuals do little to help. This biography is one of the first books to emerge from the new Douglas and McIntyre, and no doubt the house is being conservative about production costs, but a book about architecture that has few architectural photographs—and not a single plan or detail drawing!—is, simply, incomplete. (The 2006 Arthur Erickson: Critical Works offers both some good photography and pithy, wise essays on the work. Read it as well, or instead.)

Incomplete, too, are Erickson’s vision and the development of his hometown. His influence is felt through the work of former students and some former employees, notably the late great Ron Thom, Vancouver’s Bing Thom and James Cheng, and Toronto’s Peter Clewes and Rudy Wallman. But Vancouver remains a city with an anemic architectural culture. And Erickson’s own work is fading. Robson Square is in a mess. Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto has been renovated, sensitively but thoroughly. Several of the early houses have been demolished. Erickson, who started out so strongly, finished his life as a brand on a Ritz-Carlton—The Erickson—whose form he sketched out vaguely, and whose design was realized by others. It was a sadly appropriate final act. The Vancouver critic Adele Weder bemoaned this fact a few years ago: “we’re not doing our West Coast maestro any favours by celebrating his name more than his very best works.” This biography does him a few favours, by filling in the contours of the man, but the work, which has outlived him, needs a comprehensive accounting. For the sake of Vancouver and of Canadian architecture, I hope this is remedied before it is too late.