I was an actor once for a short film being shot at the Simon Fraser University in Burnaby several years ago and during a break while they changed the lighting, I sat with one of the other actors who was a student at the university.
As we picked at the craft table he asked me what else I do when I am not acting. I laughed and said “I play an Architect in my real life.” He looked surprised and we started talking about Architecture. Then he looked around the small concrete room we were in and said: “The Architect for this place used to design prisons.”
He of course, was referring to Arthur Erickson even though he did not know that.
Arthur Erickson is one of my idols. Ever since I decided to be an Architect at the age of five, I watched Erickson’s career. I loved him. He was a strong Canadian and an amazing Architect. I know his history and watched the evolution of his work.
Arthur Erickson never designed a prison, though there are elements of correctional design in the Law Courts in Vancouver, a design driven by the program.
But the myth amongst SFU students regarding this is rampant and I can understand why.
I have designed a prison.
What the young and emerging minds of the SFU students, and those at many universities across the country, (See: Life Sciences Centre at Dalhousie) see are masses of grey concrete, and imposing structures devoid of colour with maze-like subterranean corridors. It is easy to get lost. It is easy to bang your head. It is easy to yearn for a splash of vibrancy.
But that was the late sixties and early seventies Civic Architecture. It was an aesthetic driven by a number of factors: emerging technologies in concrete, the Energy Crisis that began at the end of the sixties, and an evolution of the commanding, dramatic and austere Architecture of the Concrete Masters such as Le Corbusier, Oscar Niemeyer and Eric Mendelsohn.
It was an Architecture of perceived permanence and strength and perhaps security. But not the idea of security that relates to prisons. It is a security in those notions of permanence and place and sustainability.
What is also deceiving now is the reality that what you see at SFU, Dalhousie University, and other buildings of that era like the Confederation Centre in Charlottetown is not what you saw in the early seventies.
I remember those places when I was young. From the outside they were commanding, new and, to me, exciting, but also austere. However when you entered you were greeted with massive works of art. You were struck by the great panels of string art, paintings and murals. Art hung from everywhere and it was huge, vibrant, emblazoned with bright oranges, reds and yellows. It was exciting.
As time went on, the art became dated it was removed. Somewhere there is a huge warehouse filled with massive colourful artwork from the sixties and seventies. (At least, I hope so.)
Nothing was put back in its place. There was no money for the frivolousness of art. There isn’t much today either.
Now we are left with the imposing walls of aged grey concrete juxtaposed by the new towering glass buildings of current Architecture. And in that way, those buildings have become a type of prison. They are prisons of the senses. They have become places to be but not to be excited. The Architecture of that time was not just meant to be a work of art in and of itself, but a canvas and the backdrop for more art.
Unless of course, you are an Architect (or the curious) and simply go up Burnaby Mountain just to see Arthur Erickson’s first big project and one of his biggest legacies and imagine it the way it was meant to be seen.