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Arthur Erickson, the Brand

His new condo tower is more ritzy than timeless.

Adele Weder 21 Jan

This article is one in Adele Weder's Tyee series on B.C. architecture. Many thanks to the Practitioners, Critics and Curators of Architecture grant programme of the Canada Council of the Arts, which is sponsoring this series. Adele Weder can be reached at [email protected].

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The Ritz-Carlton tower, 'catchy as a top-40 single.'

Shortly before Arthur Erickson's Graham House was claw-hammered to death last month, a few wily activists and reporters -- including this one -- snuck onto the property to pay their last respects.

As rain trickled in through the shredded roof, the site approached a wry exaggeration of the Ericksonian ideal: the boundaries between inside and out were dissolving -- literally.

The sodden carpet felt like moss-cover beneath one's feet, and the shards of drywall looked like powdered foliage. The interior was pretty much atomized, except for the carcass of a wall oven that you could identify as such only by its strangely unsullied Jenn-Air logo, shining out like the smile of a Cheshire cat after the rest of its body had vanished. The sole other identifiable human artifact was a white plastic toilet brush strewn casually in the main corridor. Perfect. Something to whisk away the skid marks of the matter that we long ago digested and is now being disgorged as waste.

Throwaway masterpiece

The death of an Erickson house can garner more media coverage than the murder of a human being, and that in itself should spook us all into taking a moment to ponder why. Some have expressed outrage towards the Lalji family who owned the Graham House and rebuffed the preservationists' pleas to restore it. Such anger can be seen as a mark of the esteem in which we hold local culture and history. Yet it's absurd when you consider how we as a community blindly support the mechanisms that allow such things to happen.

Maybe you're one who sputters: Those damn Laljis. Who do they think they are? Well, for starters, they're the owners (through Larco Developments) of the Park Royal shopping centre. The Laljis also own some authentic heritage architecture, the 1910 Edwardian Baroque Sinclair Centre in downtown Vancouver, the city's original post office. It's a very recent purchase that the Laljis owe to our current prime minister's astounding cultural indifference to culture and history. The federal government -- that is, we the people -- owned the Sinclair Centre for the ages, until Stephen Harper sold it to the Laljis a few months ago to generate some short-term cash, albeit at the long-term expense of renting back these spaces and potentially even losing them to neglect and the wreckers' ball.

Like a lot of sad stories, the tragedy of the Graham House is not that it died, but that there is little comparable to replace it, not even from Erickson himself. The original house was perhaps 1,600 square feet. That's shoe-closet space for today's West Vancouverite, but once it was a perfectly capacious living area, its small footprint allowing the luxury of large landscape. Do the Laljis -- or anyone -- really need a much bigger house? Or is the new insistence on bulimic architecture just another aspect of our super-sized times? It's hard to imagine that the new house that they'll build on that precipitous lot could compare in any way to the poetics of the Graham House.

Twisted personality

Nor, for that matter, will Erickson's glossy new Ritz-Carlton tower, $29-million penthouse and all, come close to Erickson's true high-rise masterpiece down the block, the MacMillan-Bloedel building. The twisty-formed Ritz-Carlton tower seems to be a fine design, as catchy as a top-40 single. And twisted towers are in vogue these days. But it's hard to escape the feeling that its form is driven more by fashion than by what will last the ages. It even evokes a fashion model, frozen in mid-gyration at the end of the runway.

The more nuanced Mac-Blo building doesn't photograph well; for that matter, its charms are not immediately evident when you cruise by it on Georgia Street. But when you pass by it repeatedly, and look at it closely, you can see how brilliantly and subtly it evokes the presence of a giant old-growth tree, flaring at its base and standing tall and sturdy -- there for the ages, it suggests -- in a strand of forgettable glass towers. Of course we're now aware that neither old-growth trees nor MacMillan-Bloedel -- bought several years ago by the Americans -- are there for the ages.

In these days when Vancouver relentlessly markets itself to global wealth, it's not Erickson's architecture but his signature that stands out like a Cheshire-cat smile. Mere weeks before the Graham House returned to dust, the Ritz-Carlton sales pitch was launched at a champagne-soaked, fur-bedecked soirée pegged for the same swank crowd that is periodically accused of crimes against architecture. Erickson smiled, Diane Krall crooned, Bob Rennie shmoozed, and black-stoled women from Holt Renfrew squeezed their bodies through the crowd. All that transpired just across the bridge and down the block from the doomed Graham House, and yet it seemed so very away from that war zone.

Erickson's architecture might be ground into dust, but Erickson the Brand is very much alive and well.

Selling the brand

At a recent interview at the office of his omnipresent partner, Nick Milkovich, Arthur appears dapper as ever, in his usual impeccably tailored suit and crisply knotted tie. Like most gentlemen who sit alongside Erickson, Milkovich seems slightly scruffy by contrast. The conversation starts brusquely: Is the unsentimental real-estate market, which encourages the demolition of aging heritage houses to max out their lot values, the same force prompting the use of a great architect's name to sell brand new condos? "Oh, come on! No!" retorts Erickson. He points out the outcry across Canada in response to the Graham House demolition, as evidence that people all over the place care about architecture.

Still, neither architect can deny the new market reality of architecture and branding. Milkovich, for his part, doesn't seem to mind that no billboard will ever holler about a Nick Milkovich Signature Project -- his own taciturn website bespeaks his self-effacing modesty. "I can't even stand to see my name on the front door of the office, let alone a building," smiles Milkovich. But does it matter if their clients are buying a label instead of architecture itself? "Arthur can't say to a client: 'You can't use my name,'" observes Milkovich. Later on, he elaborates: "We're part of a truly mercantile system -- it's crazy," says Milkovich. "The name is just a tag, but in the end, they don't talk about the architecture anyway, just the sales and maybe the finishes."

Milkovich usually does most of the talking in interviews, but in the public eye, he's the low-profile straight man who works with Arthur on almost every new project that bears the Erickson name. Erickson the man, the flesh-and-blood designer himself, has been slowly settling into retirement for some time, and it's widely presumed that Milkovich is taking on an increasing portion of the project responsibilities. The Vancouver design firms Musson Cattell Mackey Partnership and Davidson Yuen Simpson have also played a major -- if much more anonymous -- role in the design of the Ritz-Carlton. To what degree is largely irrelevant, as long as whatever transpires looks good in full-page newspaper ads.

'That's their game'

The signature name belies the fact that, more and more, the finished product is an amalgam of market forces that not only have little to do with architecture, they don't even relate much to how people actually live in them. Much of the design scheme and most of the interiors of these condos are determined by the developer and marketing team with the idea of generating great ad imagery, to the architect's frequent chagrin. "I've said to a developer once: 'I can't quite understand: are you giving them what you think they should have, or are you giving them what they want?'" recalls Milkovich, "and he couldn't answer. There's a whole team that's involved in this, and we're just one part of it. I guess they suggest things that will sell. That's their game. "

That's about as rude as Erickson and Milkovich are prepared to get. This new breed of client is their lifeblood, and no architect can be so reckless as to abandon their deference. Well, almost none. As Erickson himself once said to the crowd at the McGill school of architecture: "Are we not the whores of big business, selling our product for their commercial lust? Today's developer is a poor substitute for the committed entrepreneur of the last century, for whom the work of architecture represented a chance to celebrate the worth of his enterprise." And do Milkovich and Erickson still agree with that sentiment? They both answer with a wry laugh, which pretty much says it all.

We are, first and foremost, a city of investors and a city of shoppers, and we willingly defer to the gatekeepers of these activities.

Still, we should not so mindlessly celebrate the Erickson brand that we tend to forget what the architecture itself is (or was) all about. At the Ritz-Carlton launch there was hardly a word about the poetics of space or anything else that once distinguished Erickson from the run-of-the-mill master builders, the Erickson who created not just the MacBlo building but Robson Square, the Eppich House, the Museum of Anthropology, and a legion of other masterpieces. All are far more purely expressive of the great architect's unique vision than is the glamorous Ritz-Carlton.

We're not doing our West coast maestro any favours by celebrating his name more than his very best works.

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