Architect Arthur Erickson, Part 1

Arthur Erickson (1924-2009) was a giant of West Coast and Canadian architecture, and is hands down Vancouver's best-known architect. His professional output included over 500 works, including Vancouver's Simon Fraser University, Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto and even the Canadian embassy in Washington, D.C. For the latter job he was handpicked by then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Through his work abroad, including a cultural centre and library in the Chinese province of Liaoning and Saudi Arabia's King Faisal Academy, much of the world got to enjoy the fruits of his genius as well.

A native son of Vancouver, Erickson studied Asian languages at the University of British Columbia before joining the army in 1943. As a captain in the Canadian Intelligence Corps, Erickson might not have seen the drafting table in his future. But a glance at Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin House, pictured in Fortune Magazine, inspired him to change the face of the world through architecture. This led him to study the same at McGill, where he earned his degree in 1950. He focused largely on residential buildings until his big break in 1963, when he won a competition to design Simon Fraser University. This was the result:

Photo courtesy of Buchanan-Hermit on Wikipedia

SFU was his big break. He subsequently helped define the face of Vancouver. Works in that city include the provincial law courts, the  University of British Columbia's Museum of Anthropology and Koerner Library, Robson Square, the MacMillan Bloedel Building and so many others. A hallmark of his public buildings was the extensive use of concrete, which he affectionately called 'the new marble'. Thinking about that, I say he's right - concrete has the utilitarian impersonality of marble but its porosity and roughness make it something you don't just want to look at, but want to touch as well. In explicitly engaging the world of human experience Erickson made his work a fundamental part of, rather than a blight on, the landscape.

Residential projects were also visually rooted in the world, and made use of warmer materials like wood and brick. The sense I get from this body of work is that the solid materials are frames to capture indoor life rather than walls to hide it.

His style is said to create a continuity between inside and outside. He achieved this through flat roofs, big windows and auxiliary structures that direct the eyes towards and through his buildings. These features were prominent in both his public buildings and residential work. Baldwin House, finished in 1965, is a perfect example of a house that is integrated with its natural surroundings.

photo coutesy of Architecture Wanted with thanks

 

Where are the walls, you ask? You can find them in the trees. Rather than make the built structure the boundary between the inside and the outside, the property seems to be bounded by the nearby greenery. The corner windows really enhance this effect. Wood was the optimal choice of frame for several reasons, including the connection with the forest and the fact that it would mesh well with the wooden furniture on the inside (creating a seamless transition from 'indoor' to 'outdoor'). Looking deeper in, we get an even greater sense of interior-exterior continuity:

 

photo courtesy of: Architecture Wanted

 

The sparse, horizontal furnishing reminds us that the real beauty lies in the trees, the lake and the sky. Those vertical wood beams work with the perpendicular lines above and below to create a series of picture frames for the outdoors. Most importantly, there's lots and lots of light coming in. Because the space is all about smooth lines, there's really no suitable type of lamp except for the inset ones that can be seen above the red couches. You feel like you can walk right through the windows onto the shore, can't you?

photo courtesy of: Architecture Wanted

 

Of course, you'd want some privacy. At least for when you go to the bathroom. The 'closed-off' area continues the square aesthetic and brown hues that permeate the rest of the house. The fireplace, doorframes and doors, with their different shades of brown, make this area really cozy. That Erickson designed both the great outdoors and the comforts of home into a single house is a testament to his expressive skill.

Baldwin House is available for short-term rental, thanks to the Land Conservancy of British Columbia.

If you're looking for a place to get away from it all, including the silly boundaries we put between ourselves and the natural world, we can think of few better places than Baldwin House.

Research and Written by Josh Patlik, Student of International Development & Political Science at the University of Toronto.

Posted In: Canada, British Columbia

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