Arthur’s Struggle

Reviewed by Darrin Morrison

David Stouck’s biography of Arthur Erickson ensures that “the complex and contradictory ‘starchitect’” will continue to be recognized for his significant contributions to Canadian architecture, despite the controversies that surrounded him and his projects. The Filberg, Smith, and Eppich residences, Simon Fraser University, University of Lethbridge, University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology, Robson Square, and Roy Thomson Hall are among the monuments discussed in the book that propelled Erickson onto the international stage.

Stouck asserts that Erickson was Canada’s “pre-eminent philosopher-architect,” a brilliant artist whose life frequently careened out of control into excess, and yet who became one of the most well-known and celebrated architects of his time. Written from this perspective, Stouck constructs an accessible and revealing account of Erickson’s larger-than-life character, exploring the architect’s hard fought battles to win and maintain clients, his rise to fame with an international practice, his celebrity lifestyle, and ultimate descent into bankruptcy.

The book’s four main parts—A Portrait of the Architect as a Young Man, The Weight of Heaven, Master Builder and Celebrity—with chapters denoting key periods/projects in the architect’s life, provide a well organized structure that supports Stouck’s premise that it was Erickson’s philosophical, artistic, and democratic approach to architecture, not his business acumen, that led to his success and celebrity.

Though the book was published four years after Erickson’s death, Stouck interviewed the architect in his declining years, along with friends, family, former colleagues, and clients, gaining access to little-known details about Erickson’s development as an artist and a man. He also sourced multiple archival documents, “footnot[ing] only matters that may be regarded as controversial.” Yet the book in fact unravels many controversies, including the decision made by close friend and then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to overrule—in favour of Erickson—the selection panel’s decision for the design of the Canadian Chancery in Washington—this despite the fact that Erickson did not even make the short list. At times, Stouck’s accounts of Erickson’s personal relationships and lavish lifestyle veer toward the sensational, but in the context of the turbulent times, his descriptions of Erickson’s excesses in the 70s and 80s seem entirely appropriate.

Each project described in the book has been carefully researched, offering insight into Erickson’s ground-breaking designs—some of which were achieved at great personal cost to the architect, as well as to his clients. While many patrons were thrilled to have Erickson envision their buildings, recurrent problems managing schedules and reigning in budgets ended up souring several personal and professional relationships and threatening future projects, even as his international reputation continued to grow. As Stouck suggests: “The matter of patrons would remain crucial throughout the rest of Arthur’s career: the path to further major achievements and a direct road to his downfall.”

The writer identifies many key influencers in Erickson’s life, including his parents, artist/educator and proponent of modern design, B.C. Binning, Group of Seven painter Lawren Harris, artist/clients Gordon and Marion Smith, and even Pierre Trudeau and other celebrities. Stouck links Erickson’s extensive travel experience in the Middle East and Europe in the early 1950s and later in Japan and Southeast Asia, to the fundamental design approaches he developed for successive projects. Stouck states that “for the young man from Vancouver, where so little evidence of human time’s passage was visible, this experience helped lay the foundation for his sense of architecture as monumental, not only serving the needs of the present but evoking buildings from the past and their relation to a specific site.”

Stouck’s examination positions Erickson as the consummate artist/architect who, when facing the financial collapse of his practice, was forced to “his retreat position . . . that of the great artist scorned in his time.” In a particularly poignant passage referencing Erickson’s altered or demolished works, Stouck captures Erickson’s thoughts about the temporal nature of architecture: “Architecture is full of heartbreak. Buildings don’t usually last that long. Most of them come down, Houses are sold and changed by their new owners. When you really put your heart into something, it can be devastating when it all comes down.”

Stouck approaches the controversies and spectacle of Erickson’s life with a reasoned perspective and suggests that “Erickson’s utopian ideals—a law court to make justice more transparent, an office building to make working conditions more humane, universities to eliminate hierarchies in the quest for knowledge . . . offer a measure by which to evaluate his achievements.” Stouck’s biography presents a compassionate portrait of one of Canada’s first celebrity architects whose life was full of contradiction, and proposes “probably the outstanding characteristic of Erickson’s architecture is its admittance of human potential and possibility, its need for fulfillment.”

This review “Arthur’s Struggle” originally appeared in Radio, Film, and Fiction. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 225 (Summer 2015): 152-153.

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