Admirers of Arthur Erickson’s architecture will think of different buildings on news of his death. Here in Ottawa, I walk past his 1979 glass-and-copper Bank of Canada building, which firmly but respectfully embraces the bank’s old 1936 neoclassical headquarters. I like it much better than most attempts to preserve old buildings while adding a lot of new space.
But the Erickson design I’ve enjoyed most, and I’m sure I’m not alone here, is his Museum of Anthropology at University of British Columbia. With its engrossing collection of West Coast First Nations art, its stirring ocean view, and its charming indigenous-vegetation landscaping, the concrete and glass of the building itself might almost seem a secondary pleasure of a visit to the museum.
It’s not. Erickson drew, for obvious reasons, on the old post-and-beam lines of traditional northwest coast cedar lodges. Inspirations of this sort can result in a finished product that feels forced, sentimental or derivative. Yet Erickson found a genuine affinity between the old wooden buildings and his version of modernism. He had an eye.
Wandering through the museum, or around it, as I often have, I’ve never felt the building was anything short of the ideal solution for showcasing this particular collection on this precise site. In an era of Bilbao-inspired mega-museums it’s worth reflecting, on Erickson’s passing, on what can be accomplished on a much smaller scale, but with no less real ambition.