Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Constructing Unities: Remembering Arthur Erickson

In my local paper last week, I came across a story recounting the life and works of one of Canada's foremost architectural masters, Arthur Erickson, who was born in 1924 and passed away last Wednesday, May 20th. The article was solid enough, detailing a few of Erickson's triumphs and missteps and outlining in broad strokes the general trajectory of his 50-year career, yet the headline struck me as somewhat crass, and perhaps reflective of some of the greatest misunderstandings of Erickson's expansive body of work. The article was titled "Canada loses it's concrete wizard," referring quite obliquely (and some might say reductively) to Erickson's famous use of concrete on an almost monumental scale for projects such as Vancouver's Simon Fraser University and the Canadian Chancery in Washington, D.C. Something about that title "concrete wizard" seemed quite brutal and unfair to me. It grossly underestimates and even belies Erickson's fascination with the natural and his constant attempts to blend modern function, social imperatives and the natural world into grand spaces in which people could share knowledge and experience freely and openly, without feeling like a brutal imposition on the surrounding world.

Erickson was, at the core, a thoroughly modern thinker, embracing the legacies of functionalism and grand ambition established by the great architects of high modernism such as Le Corbusier. The modernist architects were responding to something of a crisis in artistic thought that took shape largely as a result of the Second World War, when the broad metanarratives of the Enlightenment, based on the ideal of social progress through technological advancement, had collapsed upon themselves with the exposure of the Nazi death camps and totalitarian governments in Eastern Europe. Enlightenment thinkers believed that freedom could be achieved through science alone, through a single representational language. This pervasive faith in rationality bled into a wide range of artistic fields, architecture being one of the most eager adopters of the new faith in the machine. Some factions of artists such as the Italian Futurists became fanatical about their belief in the machine as the pinnacle of human achievement and even expounded the benefits of uniting man with machine, in effect, endorsing what we now call a "cyborg." With the rise of Nazism in Germany, however, and the brutal totalitarianism of Josef Stalin, both of which were perpetuated on a thorough rationalization of even life and death, and the horrors that ensued, embracing rationalism for its own sake took on chilling new overtones that would haunt the project of modernity well into the present. In the wake of this collapse, artists and thinkers alike were left scrambling for a way to make sense of technology and its role in human societies. A belief took root in this schism that technology in itself was perhaps not a tool that humans could control to the ends of liberation and social progress, but perhaps that technology had indeed become so pervasive that the machine must now be considered the backdrop of daily life- the mechanism was no longer the tool with which we etched, painted and superimposed our dreams of liberation onto neutral communities, but had itself become the canvas. Social life and the machine had become deeply entangled and the latter had become a new medium of expression.

From this stream of though sprang a number of artistic tributaries such as Brutalism and Modernism that sought to embrace the machine as the new medium of artistic creation and apply that medium to genuine social progress. In short, the project was to use the factory as a new kind of aesthetic in an effort to create better ways to live, as opposed to simply equating the factory itself with progress. It is here we see the works of Le Corbusier finding their genesis- works that provide an important counterpoint to Erickson's projects later in the century.
Some examples of Le Corbusier's significant works. 

Note that in Le Corbusier's work, the geometrical forms are purposefully visible, and that there is little attempt to ground the building in its surroundings. The Villa Savoye (bottom) rises up from the ground in an unnaturally clean shade of white and appears austere, even office-like. These are not mistakes or architectural insensitivities. Geometrical forms and rationalism were instrumental in turning living spaces into highly functional machines that looked to maximize efficiency, just as the conveyor belts and machines of a factory looked to streamline the process of manufacturing.  It is this quite staunch strain of modernism that I feel the term "concrete wizard" tends to evoke- austere buildings that appear stoic and unforgiving in light of the postmodern love affair with intimate spaces and public displays of whimsy. But when we pose Erickson's work against le Corbusier's work, we note a number of critical differences that speak volumes about the spirit that underlies each of his monumental projects. 

Take, for example, the project that launched Erickson's illustrious career on a global scale- Vancouver's Simon Fraser University. Much lauded in its day, SFU has since attracted the scorn of many students for being quite dour, and even prison-like in its design. I feel that, on the contrary, the SFU campus is a thoughtful and incredibly calculated attempt at creating a unified and flowing space for public gathering and the liberal sharing of knowledge. Constructed almost entirely from concrete masonry, the campus does indeed appear a bit ominous in the Vancouver fog, having been darkened and worn down by the constant moisture of the coastal air. Nonetheless, Erickson managed to create a spectacularly balanced school that, while brand new, and constructed from synthetic materials, seems to emerge from the mountaintop on which it rests and accommodate the spectacular forest that surrounds it on all sides. As opposed to creating a small city-type campus with a number of disconnected buildings and faculties, Erickson created a campus where all buildings were connected either by enclosed hallways or semi-covered breezeways, that worked with the grade of the mountain to vastly reduce sprawl and respect the ground upon which he was building. From the grand, open Convocation Mall, to the massive corridors of the Academic Quadrangle, all faculties are a part of the same building, a move Erickson made to encourage an interdisciplinary spirit and facilitate cooperative scholarship. Granted, many of the additions and expansions made to the campus since its birth have compromised this original spirit and detracted from the original aesthetic, the spirit remains the same, with students moving easily and quickly between departments as diverse as Physics and Music in a matter of moments. The distinctly Grecian and Athenian overtones created by the isolated mountaintop location and central courtyard surrounded on all sides by lecture halls, labs and seminar rooms, draw upon a time when all education was all education, and a single student was encouraged to excel in artistic, scientific and philosophical pursuits. 

Simon Fraser University's Burnaby Mountain Campus

SFU demonstrates the true genius of Erickson as something more than just a "concrete wizard." He constantly managed to pursue the grand narratives and ambitions of modernism, constantly creating buildings that seemed somehow socially important and capable of facilitating and nourishing truly progressive social relationships. At the same time, they harnessed the deep functionality of Le Courbusier, making the most of what little space he was given and creating efficient, well-planned and easily navigable spaces. Above all, though, his greatest works achieved both of these ends while existing in a deeply respectful and reciprocal relationship with the world around them and illustrating a reverence for the materials, environments, climates and people that would inhabit and surround them. While Courbusier and the other high modernists are indeed owed a large debt for their massive contributions to the field of architecture, Arthur Erickson managed to achieve and balance what few, if any of these masters of the art, managed to- space, the needs of the people that inhabit and use that space, and the world that sustains them both. This pursuit og grand unities between function, form, society and surrounding is reproduced over and over again in Erickson's works- from his individual buildings to his massive-scale town planning projects. 

Erickson was more than concrete, and he certainly wasn't a wizard. His architecture, at its best, was brilliant not by a slight of hand or smoke and mirrors, but by a belief in the idea that buildings shape who we are and the way we see the world, and by treating such an important project with the respect it deserves. No tricks, no gimmicks, just intent, passion and belief in the power of public spaces. 

Sunday, May 24, 2009

As Promised

I've thrown a good number of my photos from France into an online album if anyone is interested in taking a look at my horrid photography skills. Normal posting will resume soon. 

PS. go see Wendy and Lucy with Michelle Williams. Great little movie. 

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Chasing the Sun

I have returned to the Great White (or brown, as the case would have it) North with many memories, more pictures, and still more miles on my shoes. France is a wonderful, beautiful place with so much to see and do, it's a bit overwhelming. Paris is a spectacular example of history in progress- from Roman Classicism to Medieval Austerity, from Modernist Brutality to Postmodern whimsy, from the Mona Lisa to Graffiti. The world meets, chats, and does lunch in Paris. Granted, there were bad experiences and challenges, but I think that what's crucial to remember when traveling anywhere is that no matter where you go, people live and work there. There will be nice and rude people everywhere, spots of luck and patches of misfortune. A city isn't a museum, no matter how beautiful it may be, and that is perhaps the greatest lesson I can give any would-be travelers to Paris- take the beautiful with the run down and the good with the bad. You have to give yourself to Paris, not expect Paris to give itself over to you.

Provence is a bit different. The pace is much slower and more relaxed- perhaps more comfortable for tourists struggling with language barriers and time differences. But again, many of the larger towns like Aix are too chic and energetic to exist in a kind of antique-ey vacuum. I will definitely return to Aix and settled there for an extended stay and come to know the city a bit more as my own, but for now I will remember it fondly for its wonderful people, beautiful weather and scenery, and the roses.

I'm going to create an online photo album and create a public link for those who want to see all of them, but for now, here is a smattering of my favorites (click the photo to see it full-size).

Detail- Eiffel Tower

Town of Bonnieux in Luberon
Rose Festival in Aix
Notre Dame
Pont St-Bezenet (Pont d'Avignon)
Gardens of Versaille
Central Fountain in Aix
View from the top of Bonnieux
"Skyline" of Avignon
Eiffel Tower at night
Notre Dame
Outside the Hotel des Invalides in Paris
More to come!

Thursday, May 7, 2009


Bon Soir, mes amis

This will be short becaus the further south I hqve travelled, the crazier the keyboards have gotten.

We finished off our time in Paris with a relaxed day of lunch under the Eiffel Tower and then strolling along the Champs Elysee and side streets where we got to gaze quite adoringly through the shop windows along Rue du Montaigne. For those playing the home game, Montaigne invented the essay, and now has a high-end shopping district named after him in Paris. WTF. Moving on. For our final day up north, we headed to Versailles to take in the Chateau. I was a bit shocked to discover that the town of Versailles is in no way distinct from the city of Paris, but is basically a small suburb West of the city.The town, though, is quite quaint and pleasant. The Chateau is incredible, as well, if you can get past the school groups and hoardes of people. I think Versailles will stick with me the most simply because the events that occured there lmiterally changed the course of republican governments in the Western world. Marie Antoinette's private quarters and personal hamlet (no joke) are also a site to be seen. We then treated ourselves to a horribly expensive cocktail at the Astoria-owned hotel in Versailles before returning to Paris for our final dinner at a very chic bistro just about 3 blocks from the eiffel tower. A perfect enf to a crazy week in Paris.

I am currently sitting in sunny Aix-en-Provence, a beautiful town of just over 100,000 people about " hours south of Paris by high speed train and 40 minutes north of Marseilles by commuter train. We arrived here yesterday afternoon to beautiful clear skies and perfect temperatures, and once we were checked into our hotel, we quickly set about exploring the area. Aix is bizzare. Its not the tucked-away, isolated farming village I imagined it would be in the least. Its definitely a tourist town with a nu,ber of trains arriving daily from major metropolitain centres around France. Nonetheless, parts of the town come off quite museum-like, draiwing on the areas incredible past as both part of the Roman Empire and one of the first sites at which Christianity was formally practiced. As soon as you get into the side streets, though, and away from the 'main drags,' so to speak, the town changes quite dramatically. On the tiny, winding streets that cut between the old-world apartment blocks, you're just as likely to find Dolce and Gabbana, Fendi, and Dior as you are to find traditional boulangeries and charcutries. On the other side of town is a thoroughly modern shopping area and the future site of the Aix interpretive centre, La Rotonde, with a number of high end shops and boutiques. The people here are very friendly and, I suspect, very accustomed to broken attempts at French like I often venture and are often quite able to help you in English. Regardless, I will continue to soldier on with my terrible knowledge of French.

The country surrounding Aix and the other Rhone villages is quite spectacular. South of Paris, the countryside is very lush and dotted with banks of low hills and small farming villages. As you approach Marseille, though, the vegetation gets lower and scrubbier very fast, the hills rise to exposed faces of rock and the skies clear off beautifully. In turn, Aix and Marseille are full-blown Mediterranean climates with low vegetation, hot, dry summers, and lots of warm-weather produce. We will be setting out to explore more of the region of Provence tomorrow and the day after with excursions to Avignon (of school song fame) and Arles before relaxing in Aix for a couple days to prepare for the long journey home via Frankfurt. Will updqte again soon and upload qaton of pictures once I get home. Tah for now

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Paris, je t'aime

Bonjour, mes amis

I have been in France for a grande total of three days and am having a wonderful time. Just from the outset, I should point out that the 'y' key is in a drastically different place on this keyboard, so apologis for any insane spellinsgs. The flight here was long, but pleasant enough and, most importantly, screaming baby-free. Once we arrived at Charles de Gaulle, things got a bit overhwlming. That airport is gigantic and busy at all hours of the day. Put that on top of finding our way to our hotel near the Bastille when we have no idea how transit in this city operates and two immensae and clunky suitcases, and you have yourself a party. All things said and done, though, we arrived at our hotel alive and well after a few near misses and slight miscalculations with regard to the 'walk-don't-walk' system. People in this city who drive must wish to die. I have never been more terrified watching cars moving as I am here. No lines on the roads, complete disregard for the colours red and green. Happily, I get around well below street level on easily the most efficient and reliable transit system on the planet. We arrived in Paris on a beautiful, sunny morning at 8:30 am and spent most of the day getting settled in our vibrant neighbourhood. Bed came early as 24 sleep-free hours weighed heavy on us.

We wasted no time in going to see the city the next morning. Our first stop was, predictable, the Eiffel Tour. We did, however, overlook the fact that it was May 1st., May Day, a very important labour holiday in Europe. as a result, the streets, gardens and the tower itself were packed with people, which, while maybe a bit overhwelming, certainly made for an exciting atmosphere as we walked from the Tour across the Seine to the Place de le Trocadero and then took the moetro to the Arc de Triomphe and meadered down the Champs élysée. THe sun was bright, the skies blue, and the wine at the street-side brasserie cold as we people-watched on the champs. For the record, Paris is filled with the best-looking people on the planet. Somehow, people here combine bohemian chic, chongo, mod and hipster seamlessly into a whole lot of great outfits that make me feel like a chumpy tourist. Which, to be fair, I am, but still. We turned off the Champs and passed le Grand Palais and le Petit Palais, a couple major art museums, and headed toward the absolutely stunning Hodel des Invalides, home to a military museum and spectacular views of the Eiffel Tower, the Champs, the Seine, and the Grand Palais. From here, we headed back across the river and to the Place de Concorde and into the Tuileries, an incredible garden that lies ahead of the Musee du Louvre. After taking a few pictures and having a rest on the lawns with a drink of water, we headed back ip the champs to grab the metro back toward the Tour for dinner and to see it illuminated. When the Tour is all lit up, it is truly stunning and a site definitely worth taking in. Exhausted from our day, we grabbed a train back to our stop and turned in for the night.

Today brought more adventure (and more walking) as we headed to the Musee du Louvre itself and did the epic hustle through the Saturday crowds. It may not be possible to see all of the Louvre in a single go, but dammit if we didn't try our very best, and appreciated a good deal of it along the way. Of course, we pushed our way through agitated crowds and self-righteous tour groups to see highlights like the Mona Lisa, Madonna of the Rocks and the Venus de Milo, but I 'd say that the Louvre itself as a piece of architecture was the most spectacular of all. If the French know one thing, it's how to make the ostentatious truly spectacular.

Paris, so far, has been a fascinating city. I'm struck, overall, by two main characteristics which seem to manifest themselves all throughout the metropolitain area. First, Paris looks a lot like history's testing ground. In a singe block, you can see mixed incredibly ostentatious Monarchial-age structures, modernist\brutalist big-box apartments and whimsical postmodern experiments in the intersection of form, function, technology and fantasy. The trip from the airport to our hotel revealed, side-by side, the failures and successes of centuries of urban experimenation and regimentation, leading to a truly and sometimes bewilderingly diverse city. The upside of all that structural madness? Legitimate social vibrancy. As we left the Eiffel Tower, we passed by groups of people sitting on the lawns with bottles of wine, books, guitars, and shared food, laughing and singing together. Young people gather on corners ourside shops here not just waiting to cross the street, but to talk and joke with one another. Every single restaurant turns out to the street, not inward to the building. It's a fascinating, dynamic place where nothing is really separate from anything else. Perhaps this is suprising because France has such a long and storied history of being a place of 'high culture.' But in modern Paris, the Louvre offers just as much artistic and social excitement as the street culture just beyond its walls.

I AM SICK OF TYPING ON THIS KEYBOARD. It feels like Quest for Fire. Updates in the next few day on the second bit of Paris and the first bit of Aix. Apologies again for horrid spelling and punctuation. This computer doesn't spell-correct me like my self-righteous Mac. Bon soir.

ALSO. I have tons of pictures, but no way of uploading them. Patience, friends!