Arthur Erickson: Crimes against architecture

The Erickson

Among the many interesting things at the VAG right now is a retrospective on Arthur Erickson’s career. Wow. Did he ever design a lot of unpleasant buildings.

The exhibition is entertainingly at odds with the evidence it presents. You get to see photos of his residential designs in a state of decay, as the concrete slabs in the garden crack. You get to hear about how his buildings blend in with their surroundings, but the exhibit is also showing a short demo reel of Erickson buildings in the movies: they are almost always used (and SFU repeatedly) as a visual shorthand for a sterile and dystopian future.

As someone who spent a fair bit of time working and studying in Ericksonian structures atop Burnaby Mountain, I found them inhuman, dysfunctional, and confusing. The exhibition seems to confirm that most of his other buildings work that way, too.

The most supreme irony, of course, was locating this exhibit inside of the VAG, whose own building is wonderfully human, and features natural gathering-places for people at both ends. It started out life as a courthouse, and yet it has turned into a great gallery space. And it looks good, too, in a way that Erickson’s buildings actively eschew (his Embassy in Washington DC, constrained by local aesthetic standards which mandated a neoclassical style, ends up looking like an Erickson building is assaulting a miniaturized version of the Jefferson Memorial.)

By the way, it’s not as much fun to mention because it was wonderful rather than terrible, but the exhibit on Haida art on the first floor is excellent, with great pieces both modern and historic, and good explanations of the underlying aesthetic principles of this stuff. The exhibition on prefabricated housing also interested me, though half of the designs seemed to be self-indulgent exercises which ended up making houses that cost more per square foot than conventional building techniques. The other half had some merit.

And don’t forget: the VAG’s by-donation time is now Tuesday evenings, so today would be a great time to drop by. The Erickson show is worth visiting as a cautionary tale. All three of the exhibitions I have mentioned here are ending in September, so hurry on down.

5 Comments so far

  1. john trenouth (unregistered) on August 29th, 2006 @ 10:10 pm

    I haven’t seen the exhibit yet, but i do share your disdain for Erickson. Mine goes a bit farther to embrance nearly all contemporary starchitects.

    Should you wish to join their ranks its a very simple formula.

  2. maikopunk (unregistered) on August 30th, 2006 @ 10:23 am

    Arthur Erickson designed some beautiful public spaces with soaring ceilings, lots of glass, and interesting angles, but he definitely does not excel at making places that are comfortable or pleasant to work in. As a student, I spent some time working in the Museum of Anthropology. No one could deny the galleries are gorgeous, but the offices, bathrooms, even the gift shop, were all tiny. The labs downstairs were subterranean: windowless, cramped, and connected by a long, echoey hallway.
    Arthur Erickson = Ozymandias.

  3. Ryan Cousineau (unregistered) on August 30th, 2006 @ 11:11 am

    Maikopunk: I would cite the MoA as a rare Ericksonian success story. I’m not quite sure how he did it. The Academic Quadrangle suffers from a similar sense of monumentalism combined with unpleasantness; in the case of the AQ, I’m willing to admit the building is a bit of its age: there are lots of cramped spaces from the sixties. But the famous architect didn’t transcend his era.

    John: ha ha. I don’t think I have what it takes to be a famous architect: my eyeglasses are not funny enough, and I liked Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House a little too much.

    But let me try: Wired Cola is presently working on Cybermorphic House, a new kind of machine for living in.

    Now I just have to get some funny eyeglasses.

  4. David Drucker (unregistered) on August 30th, 2006 @ 5:20 pm

    Hi Ryan –

    I’d have to say that although Erickson’s buildings don’t make me cringe the ways some other architecture of the mid-70’s through the 90’s do (the worst example I can think of is Government Center in Boston, which is a crime against humanity, much less architecture). I’ll leave the practical, ergonomic issues out for a moment, but what’s more interesting to me is that his buildings (except for the MoA, which I agree with you, is an exception) also feel, well, dated and maybe even a little banal. Unlike Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies Van der Rohe or perhaps even Le Corbusier, Erickson’s buildings are so ‘quiet’ and bland that I never even realized that some of the other sites around here and elsewhere in Canada (SFU, The Vancouver Courthouse, Roy Thompson Hall in Toronto) were his. Perhaps Erickson will grow on me, but I feel kind of lukewarm toward much of it. Coming from someone like me who really loves modernism (and generally dislikes antiques), that’s saying something.

  5. Ryan Cousineau (unregistered) on September 1st, 2006 @ 12:18 am

    David: I looked up the Government Center. Ahh! Erickson on Brutalist stilts!

    I don’t think quiet architecture is per se a bad thing. I’m pretty utilitarian in my architectural tastes: if it works good, and it’s good for the neighbourhood, and it looks good, it probably is good.

    But I’m much less interested in a pretty facade than I am in the human aspects (the UI, if you will) of architecture.

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