Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Star-chitect LOVED CANADA

Arthur Erickson made his mark from home base of Vancouver

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The title of this biography is an apt one: Arthur Erickson's life was a blueprint for the architect with a capital A.

Erickson, who died in 2009 at age 84, enjoyed a career coloured by a rainbow's spectrum of people, places and events that gave it an almost fictional feel, an epic poem of the modern architect's experience.

What sets his story apart from those of other world-renowned architects is that author David Stouck gives it a distinctly Canadian perspective. Vancouver was the starting point and base for a journey that reached every continent.

The city served as a medium, muse, foil and home for a man who famously claimed to "never spend more than a week in one place."

Stouck diligently recounts Erickson's childhood, describing in detail his relationships with family and friends and one of his enduring inspirations, the primordial landscape of British Columbia.

Impressively researched, An Architect's Life shares philosophical ideas that inspired the prodigious young Erickson's art, revealing his quiet confidence, optimism and anxieties.

It offers an uncanny sense of familiarity with Erickson's experience, illustrating both the mundane and fantastic facets that shaped his life.

From his twee childhood as a gifted young artist to his decidedly dream-like tour of duty in the Second World War, Erickson's story calls to mind filmmaker Wes Anderson's cinematic universes. Using detail effectively, Stouck lavishly describes settings and an eccentric cast of characters.

In 1945, for example, Erickson's special posting as a Japanese interpreter was at a mansion in Calcutta under the command of a British major-cum-Zen Buddhist scholar who encouraged his troops to do yoga in favour of military business.

The chapters dedicated to Erickson's world travels, particularly in Italy, the Middle East and Japan, make for delicious reading for anyone interested in architecture, urbanism and cultural anthropology.

Parallel to Erickson's intellectual enrichment through travel runs his struggle with his unresolved sexuality and the effect it has on his personal relationships.

Erickson's visual and intellectual gifts and observational prowess yield a treasure trove of records and insight, which undoubtedly facilitate Stouck's rich storytelling.

He documents Erickson's compulsion to study urban space. After having realized his impression of Venice was profoundly different late at night than during the day, Erickson "would try to arrive in a city late at night or in the predawn, so that his first impressions were tender ones -- of a city's innocence and its potential."

It is clear that people had the potential to cloud meaning for Erickson, a fact that Stouck regularly points out in a foreshadowing of the artist's struggle with professional practice.

The story becomes less focused once Stouck begins describing the processes and ideals behind Erickson's most notable commissions. These include his watershed Simon Fraser University campus as well as his controversial Canadian Embassy building in Washington, D.C.

Winnipeg can boast no Erickson buildings. The closest one is in Lethbridge, Alta.

The compromise Erickson made building for clients and dealing with budgets, combined with the scrutiny and expectations that accompany his professional fame, means that the biography's second half is necessarily less open and intimate.

Erickson evolves into an internationally recognized "starchitect," rubs elbows with the elite, becomes a prolific builder and settles into a long-term personal relationship

Stouck, who teaches English at Simon Fraser, describes many occasions where Erickson wilfully ignores the pleas of his clients. They parallel his ever-increasing fondness for leisure and luxury.

The book includes an ensemble cast of iconic figures, Pierre Trudeau, Frank Lloyd Wright, Elizabeth Taylor and Philip Glass, to name a few.

Stouck justifiably avoids the temptation to linger on Erickson's professional and personal failures. Instead he celebrates the people, places and ideas that helped mould one of the great modern architects.

Dirk Blouw works as an interning architect at PSAstudio in Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 16, 2013 A1

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