Thinking About The City

An Interview with Arthur Erickson and Stephen Hynes

by 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. 

Two Chairs: Back in the late sixties, in Vancouver, there was a plan to build a giant freeway right to downtown.
Arthur Erickson: And we stopped it.
TC:  We being?
AE:  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.
TC: 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 planning involved?
AE:  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.
TC: Vancouver seems poised and ready to do that.
AE:  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.
TC:  Steve, as a developer, when youíre looking at a site, whatís your vision? What do you see as the ideal for sites?
Stephen 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
AE: 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.