About The City
An Interview with Arthur
Erickson and Stephen Hynes
Jay Currie and Michèle Denis
For people growing up in
Vancouver, Arthur Erickson buildings are almost commonplace. The Law Courts,
Simon Fraser University, The UBC Museum of Anthropology, the Koerner Library
at UBC, the MacMillan Bloedel Building on Georgia: few architects have
done as much to shape the public space of Vancouver. Erickson, long
ago, began to build all over the world. His Canadian Embassy Building
in Washington, D.C. has garnered world wide acclaim.
In the end, however, we wanted
to speak to Erickson about how buildings and communities dance together.
And we wanted a level of reality. We were lucky enough to secure an interview
not only with Erickson but also with one of Vancouverís most innovative
real estate developers. All the brilliant architecture in the world
is wasted if no one is willing to actually build the buildings. Stephen
Hynes has built a reputation on the strength of the innovative, no compromise
design of his loft building at Granville and 6th Avenue. Now, Hynes
and Erickson are collaborating on a building to be constructed on West
2nd near the entrance to Granville Island. The illustrations accompanying
this interview are of this proposed building.
We met Erickson at his office.
Erickson has a glint in his eye when he speaks. Almost as if he is
trying to see if you are in on the joke. He speaks quite softly but with
a surprising passion.
Chairs: Back in the late sixties, in Vancouver, there was a
plan to build a giant freeway right to downtown.
Erickson: And we stopped it.
The firm then Erickson & Massey. The engineers of the freeway, which
was a Los Angeles or Texas firm---, Iíve forgotten which---, but
one of the big, big firms doing big freeway and highway work, convention
centre and things like that; they asked us, because the city had requested
it, for some prospectives on the impact of a freeway.
So, we told them we would
do the prospectives but they wouldnít be pretty because we felt it was
a big mistake. They said, ďWe think itís a mistake, too.Ē But, there
were certain elements in the city that had this vision that you take a
road and go on forever. I think eventually they planned to double through
the park and so forth.
So, we did the prospectives
and showed them to city council that Chinatown would be completely underneath
the piers of the freeway and they turned it down.
I lived in Los Angeles for
about ten years. I never took the freeways, even when I was going down
to San Diego. I avoided them. Just took the old coastal road. You know,
itís much faster because freeways get jammed. They move fast but if thereís
any interruption youíre there for hours and hours and hours.
In many ways that was the beginning of a certain sensibility where the
idea of mixed use became a governing tenent of the development of the city.
When you look at that was it just good luck or was there an element of
I think we were in defiance of the planning that was going on and have
been ever since. I think planning is always very short-sighted, not long-sighted.
You really have to take an extraordinarily wide perspective before you
do anything and, you know, you have to look at the world and see whatís
happening. I think whatís happening is that the American city is a phenomenon
of the past.
In a sense, history is going
backwards or maybe just to another dimension. Weíre going back to the European
and Asian city, which was everything mixed up.
Vancouver seems poised and ready to do that.
I think we have a chance. There is a lot of that sort of development that
could happen. Already Iím pretty sure that this development we are working
on will be mixed use. Iíve recommended many times to the planners in this
city (they donít seem to take it up) that every mall thatís built should
have housing on top of it. Big malls should have big housing, because otherwise
when the malls go out of favour the only thing that will sustain them is
the housing thatís built in. Then theyíll change but at least theyíll survive
as a shopping area.
Steve, as a developer, when youíre looking at a site, whatís your vision?
What do you see as the ideal for sites?
Hynes: Well, thatís a complicated question. Thereís the aesthetic
ideal. Thereís the location ideal. Vancouver is prime for some blossoming
of the future. Bureaucrats strangled interest in developments and the zoning
is absurd. So, ultimately the classic developers criteria are put
to one side. You canít just say location. You have to say, ďWhat can I
do here thatís worthwhile.Ē
You have to defy the regulations. I remember quite recently in a presentation
to city council when we were reworking Robson Square, I said this is an
example of absolutely by-passing every bible in the city. You couldnít
at that time cover walkways. You couldnít plant trees, which we did. We
closed Robson St. for two years, which is a great accomplishment.
Everyone was against it.
The city engineer, everyone. And the only way you can get things through
is resistance. New ideas are threatening to the status quo and bureaucrats
preserve the status quo. Thatís what they do. Everything Iíve done has
defied the status quo.