Sunday, October 12, 2014

Modernist message from a master architect


Beautiful places and streets attract people. They put eyes on the street, a basic principle of urban safety. I was recently reminded of a master architect of beauty, the award-winning Arthur Erickson, an architect the New York Times called Canada's pre-eminent Modernist architect.

While in Vancouver this week I spent time with Erickson's closest colleagues and friends, an impressive group who just like Erickson were concerned about both social equity and aesthetic beauty.

Modernism has not always had a good rap. Arguably, CPTED would not exist if not for the modernist planning and architecture that Jane Jacobs so bitterly attacked. Inappropriately applied modernism led to the demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe social housing in 1960s St. Louis, the project dubbed indefensible and crime-ridden in Oscar Newman's Defensible Space.

Arthur Erickson showed another way; modernism done right! An example of his work appeared here previously regarding Vancouver's Robson Square.

The first Erickson building I ever entered was the Canadian Pavilion at the Expo 67 fair in Montreal in 1967, a kind of inverted pyramid. At the time I had no idea about architectural modernism. It just looked cool.

Later I studied at the Erickson inspired Simon Fraser University atop Burnaby Mountain in Greater Vancouver, a kind of spaceship in the sky. It too was very cool and futuristic - a fact not lost on film directors who have filmed there (BattleStar Gallactica, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Underworld Awakening).

Erickson taught it is the work quality, not the theory, that matters most in constructing beautiful places. The problem arises when modernism is done badly and applied inappropriately. This is the case in  Pruitt-Igoe, Chicago's Cabrini-Green, Toronto's Jane/Finch, and the Chichy suburbs of Paris. Unsurprisingly, crime festers in such places.

The takeaway? Build sensitively and in social context. Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. Yet too many new architectural forms do the latter and too few architects do the former.

In Erickson's own words:

"…the reaction to the bareness of ill conceived modernist buildings was to revert in the 80's to a revival of historicism in the guise of "post-modernism"… That Dark Age is thankfully over but cultural insecurity is always there, hidden in the basement of our psyches - ready to spring out whenever brave confidence falters. 

It lingers in the gated communities where make-believe has become an adult panacea. It lingers with the developers who promote kitsch because it sells.  It lingers with the newly rich and the establishment who need to consolidate social standing with class accepted standards. It lingers in every shopping centre, multiplex, restaurant, Vegas casino where illusion is needed to disguise the emptiness within." 

Arthur Erickson,  2000






2 comments:

  1. AWESOME quote by erickson at the end...great blog entry overall.

    James G

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks James. Erickson's work helped renew my faith in a type of architecture I'd long ago reviled. His quotes say it all.

    ReplyDelete

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