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The half-truths of archibabble

Arthur Erickson, Vancouver architect and “Canada’s most famous architect”, died May 20th at age 84. Quickly following the death of any artist, eulogies are the ultimate tribute to genius and innovation. Greg Buium, writing for CBC, is probably not the only Canadian for whom Erickson’s celebrity status has “faded into our collective memory”, though he seems quite taken with Erickson’s life work. Nicholas Olsberg, guest curator for the Vancouver Art Gallery retrospective Arthur Erickson: Critical Works, calls Erickson a Canadian visionary who has always known “how to make poetry out of architecture.” And Lisa Rochon, architecture columnist for the Globe and Mail, writes that Erickson “sought to inspire humanity through architecture–nothing more than that.” High praise, but is it justified?

While nobody likes to speak ill of the dead, modernist architecture is as controversial–and as unpopular in some circles–today as it was sixty years ago. Breaking with tradition, modernist architects such as Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Arthur Erickson and Eero Saarinen created bold, concrete structures that spoke of a new era of wide open spaces, cars, and speed. Traditional built form was sacrificed to make way for intensely high skyscrapers with repetitive windows, entrances disguised in non-hierarchical facades, massive size, and the new materials of concrete, glass and steel. Eb Zeidler’s Eaton Centre (1972), Mies Van der Rohe’s TD Centre in Toronto (1967), and Erickson’s Simon Fraser University Campus (1963) are some leading examples of modernist architecture in Canada. But you don’t have to go far to see the influence of modernist masters: simply take a trip to your local Veteran’s hall, public school, community centre, apartment block, or Canadian university (Waterloo, Victoria, SFU, York, or UBC for starters). Because modernist architecture took hold at a time of rapid urban expansion in the US, Europe, and Canada, there are examples aplenty. Le Corbusier’s ideas for cities of highrises, elevated on pilotis standing in parks, were adopted in the US, Canada, and Europe in the postwar era, particularly in the design of low-cost and public housing. His design ideas, and those of other famous modernists, became known as the International Style. But what architects hold up as an era of unrestrained experimentation with built form, planners, urbanists, and others condemn as damaging to the urban fabric of cities.

Jane Jacobs, in the Life and Death of Great American Cities (1961), criticized modern architecture for its long, blank facades, pedestrian-hostile forms and massive scale. She also exposed the modernist-influenced planning codes, by-laws, and plans that threatened to re-design cities completely around cars, razing historic neighbourhoods to the ground and replacing them with multi-lane freeways. Indeed, Zeidler’s initial plan for Eaton Centre initially planned to demolish Old City Hall, the Church of the Trinity, closing off seven city streets; the modified plan was only slightly less devastating, and inspired a score of similar malls devastating city after city in Canada, as stores were pulled in off the street, then closed during the 1990s. It was decades before the Eaton Centre’s hostile, inward-looking form was modified, returning the Yonge Street facade to more pedestrian-friendly streetfronts. Van der Rohe’s TD Centre followed modernism’s trend to separate pedestrians completely from cars, with the first underground concourse in the city; the dark, labyrinthine PATH system was expanded from this site.

Designed for a machine age, modernist buildings often seem ill-designed for human use: the elevated “walkways” around Toronto City Hall (Viljo Revell, 1961-65) close the space off visually and force people to enter a major public space by walking under hideous low concrete beams. And once inside, one is met by…more concrete. The plaza is terribly designed, concrete, with little seating or vegetation to mitigate Toronto’s fierce winds, and little attention to pedestrians’ movement through the space. Try finding the entrance to Erickson’s Provincial Law Courts building at Robson Square in Vancouver (1973-79). The concrete pyramid, stepped back with planters and featuring a wall/ceiling of glass on one side, is massive, imposing and frankly uninteresting. Erickson’s adjacent Robson Square, which has been closed for four years for construction, is all bland concrete with one interesting water feature and thankfully, lots of stairs for seating. Where the Law Courts meet Hornby Street, one is confronted with an impenetrable low concrete structure with lines of planters. Yet to be absolutely modern, as Milan Kundera writes in Immortality, means never to question the content of modernity. It means to be forever hopefully about the grand ideas of modernity and to avoid looking at modernity as it is lived in actual detail. Rochon praises “the roar, almost deafening, of water cascading down the side” of the Law Courts, and Olsberg praises Erickson’s commitment to make the Law Courts reflect the transparency of the Canadian Legal System: “There’s that wonderful thing you see in the law courts, of the barristers out there on the balconies conferring with their clients. No one can hide.” Yes, not even from the noise ricocheting off the glass and concrete in a thousand directions; but the Courts are infinitely more beautiful on the inside than their facade would suggest.

Olsberg says that Prince Charles takes visitors to Erickson’s NAPP Laboratories in Cambridge, England (1979), a building Buium describes as having “a futuristic effect reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey“, to show them how innovative British industry is. It is doubtful that HRH could be more inaccurately described, considering his stance on modernist architecture and his advancement of traditional built form. The Royal Architect’s Association just awarded Maggie’s Centre at Charing Cross Hospital the award for London Building of the Year in spite of Prince’s condemnation of the building, the latest in an escalating feud between the Prince and modernist architects in Britain.

Erickson’s masterpiece may well be Vancouver’s Museum of Anthropology (1976), which recalls the form of traditional native longhouses. Featuring a soaring Great Hall of glass and concrete, it highlights the collection of totem poles and other massive sculptures from the Haida, Gitxsan, Nisga’a, Oweekeno and other First Nations. The Rotunda perfectly frames Bill Reid’s impressive sculpture “The Raven and the First Men”. Visitors enter the museum through beautifully carved doors completed by four master Gitxan artists. In this work, the architect managed to fuse form and function, modernism and the ancient past.

While modernist architects may revel in the Erickson’s design of Simon Fraser University, SFU students likely agree with Olsberg that even “architecturally well-versed people are made uneasy [by the design]…I think they find that it’s a little too fierce.” Rochon writes that Erickson “stripped architecture down to structural bones made of honest materials.” Yet this severity is more than a little inhumane: common myths about the university and its gloomy environs are that it has the highest suicide rate in the country, and that when it rains “it looks like the walls are bleeding.” Acres of dismal grey concrete, built low to the ground, with rows of tiny windows aren’t exactly a good fit for one of the rainiest cities in the country, yet Erickson once described concrete as “the marble of our time.” Many architects revel in the idea of designing an entire campus, as it is basically a miniature city, and the closest they will get to realizing a complete vision for a massive site. And like many a Canadian university campus in the 1960s, SFU was a blank slate.

Whether or not today’s modernist-leaning architects will admit it, many of Erickson’s buildings are quickly becoming relics of the past. Their love of the modernist style speaks more to a bygone era than the built form itself, for modernist architecture was built at a time when architects were finally free of the conventions of history. When new was considered inherently better. When the opinions of the masses, of those who lived in dense inner city neighbourhoods or worked in beautiful 1930s walk-ups, could be ignored in order to build the next monolith or freeway. When cities were destroyed to make way for the new, the bold, the futuristic. England’s architects fume because this type of innovation lasted but a couple of brief decades before public opinion converged upon them, and historic preservation and public meetings to discuss the effects of architecture became de rigeur. Many architects are now fighting to preserve well-preserved examples of modernist architecture, often clashing with the public. While we have no Prince Charles encouraging traditional building design in Canada, we have scores of architects, landscape architects and urban planners who counter modernism with neotraditional community design, transportation-oriented design and environmentally conscious architecture. People do matter, and architecture cannot afford to be mere sculpture any longer. In this context, many of Erickson’s most famous works become symbols of an anti-urban past.

So despite the praises of Buium, Olsberg, Rochon and countless other architects and critics, Erickson’s passing reminds us that to err is human. While he and other modernists may have been visionaries, they succeeded most in raising architecture to a form of sculpture. But sculpture is merely meant to be viewed and experienced; built form, however interesting and unusual its form, has a function. People use it; they congregate in it; they depend upon it to be functional and in many cases, inspirational. Elevating concrete to marble status in a grey, overcast environment may be artistic, but it is certainly not appreciated by those who confront its bleakness each day. Blank, open urban plazas devoid of vegetation and seating areas may comprise a blank canvas, but they will never encourage people to sit and stay awhile. Genius is said to be misunderstood; I count myself with those who misunderstands the supposed genius of Erickson, listening instead to the persistent practical knowledge of the inner city, its people, and its spaces.


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