Thinking about a great Arthur Erickson building

Erickson at his best

Erickson at his best

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.

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Thinking about a great Arthur Erickson building

  1. It is a beautiful building. Ive been meaning to take the kids to see it, but its been closed for a while.

  2. I agree — this is one of the most gorgeous buildings on any campus in Canada, almost perfectly tuned to the content.

  3. John: Picked the same Arthur Erickson design as my favourite (on my Facebook Wall), but was nowhere near as eloquent about the wonders of the Museum of Anthropology. Wanted to be an architect at one time, so I worked for a couple of years for two of Erickson’s former partners, Geoff Massey and Bing Thom, before eventually finding my way into journalism at The Financial Post (where our paths crossed).

  4. The first time I saw this building I was awestruck not only by the art within, but by how well the building itself echoed the design of west coast aboriginal buildings. It had to be this big and tall to contain the house posts and totems, and allow so much light within, you were no longer aware you were actually inside another building as you viewed the artifacts. One must not forget the view of the building outside from another aboriginal village.
    Erickson’s Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto also showcases his genius for fitting a properly scaled building within a city lot in the true spirit of Urban Renewal, allowing the city to come inside and to reflect on the outer glass walls, all around the building.

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