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Arthur Erickson and the limits of architectural labels

May 22, 2009 | 11:50 am

Museum of Anthropology

What kind of architect was Arthur Erickson, the prolific Canadian designer who died Wednesday at age 84 and whose most prominent projects include the two California Plaza towers on Bunker Hill?

Was he a modernist? A post-modernist? A Brutalist?

The answer, as I discovered in writing an obituary of the architect for today's paper, is all of the above --and none of the above. For much of his career Erickson stayed faithful to the clean lines and ornament-free surfaces of modern architecture. But he fell under the sway of Brutalism in the 1970s, crafting buildings with rough detailing and intimidating amounts of heavy concrete.


Canadian Embassy

His Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C., meanwhile, finished in 1989, includes classically inspired columns, a trick torn right from the post-modern playbook.

If there's a lesson to be taken from Erickson's career and how critics have defined it, maybe it is that the typical slots we like to sort architects into are often too rigid to be of much use. Erickson hated to be pinned down either physically -- he was a tireless traveler for nearly all his adult life -- or philosophically. His work took inspiration not only from his heroes in 20th century architecture but from Japanese tea houses and Florentine urbanism. His only orthodoxy was curiosity. 

If that makes him tough to categorize, it also makes him unusually intriguing.

-- Christopher Hawthorne


Photo credits: University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology, top, by flickr keepitsurreal; Canadian Embassy in Washington, bottom, by flickr user ktylerconk.