Whatís happening with Robson Square now?
AE: There is a problem with it because not enough people remember itís there and also itís not very well maintained. Originally, years ago, they had public programs and they had an excellent manager ó he did what he could to get people down to the Square. The current study is to see how it can be livened up without destroying the park-like atmosphere.
TC: When you look at buildings 10, 15 years old, you designed do you look at them and say, ďIíd like to change thatĒ or ďThis seems to really work well and Iíll incorporate that in the next buildingĒ?
AE: I always say, ďHow in Godís name did I get away with it?Ē So many of them wouldnít be permitted today. Thatís the problem. But, I never use any ideas again. Once Iíve used them thatís it.
You use principles again and again, but not compositions or arrangements or whatever.
TC: With buildings, your own and other peopleís, do you see an evolution in how people think about buildings as they pertain to community? For example, the idea of a big building thatís a beautiful building and drop it right in the middle of a neighbourhood with no sensitivity. That seems to have disappeared.
AE: Well, itís the same reaction. Nobody wants anything changed. You canvass people in Vancouver and they would prefer it returned to the forest. They donít want buildings at all. This is a peculiarity that I think comes from a wet climate. Everybody wants to get inside and sit in front of the fireplace and be in a primeval forest, just not be social in any way.
The city, as such, is a very new concept to Vancouverites. I remember when there were no restaurants downtown, only in Chinatown. You never went downtown. Everything was done at home.
TC: Well, when I was first here there was a gas station at the corner of Georgia and Burrard. It was a very nice gas station and did very well. Since the downtown has been built one of the things that strikes me is we donít have a completely isolated financial district.
AE: No, because I think it was stopped from being isolated. I think all the recent building of residential towers in old office buildings is a wonderful change, because you simply want to have the streets for people.
I think the other thing is a combination of the townhouses and the towers. Itís a big step forward and itís pretty well unique. There are a lot of things that are unique about Vancouver, even if theyíre beginning. I think of the slenderness of the towers. There are no slabs here.
TC: Youíre not scared of density.
AE: No, Iím all for density, especially when you have so much open space. If this were Los Angeles Iíd be scared of density.
But, here, where you have so much open space, because youíve got to factor the sea into it and everybody adjusts. So, go as high as you want.
TC: Youíve also been quoted as saying that itís possible weíll have 10 million people living here by 2020.
AE: I said ďprobableĒ. I donít think the date makes any difference, but Iíve since changed to 20 million, because of a prediction by a European union futurist that in 2020 there will be no more countries. Countries are becoming an artifact. Theyíre no longer necessary.
They were necessary for cultural reasons and defense reasons, that sort of thing, but in the age weíre going into it isnít necessary. So, weíll have city-states. Iíve always believed that history is going backwards. When we come to 2000 weíll go back to 1000.
This futurist said there will be 35 city-states and instead of the G-7 weíll have the CS-35 and all of these will have between 20 to 40 or 50 million inhabitants.
And you have that already. You know, Mexico City has the whole population of Canada - 35 million I think. And Mexico City is a very attractive city. Itís amazing for that many people. So thatís the future and I think we have to face that and recognize that Vancouver is a very easy place to live despite or because of its climate. There are very few difficulties compared to other places, even though the bureaucracy is tedious and weíre always struggling with it, but thatís humankind.
We Canadians are very retiring I think and weíre much more conservative, which is a plus. I always say that climate is what defines character and weíre really in the category of Scandinavians. We are a northern country and the United States is a Mediterranean country. Therefore, theyíre always rushing into things and rushing out of them and by the time theyíre rushing out weíre just beginning to come into that and then we find itís not such a good idea, so we donít proceed. Thatís your freeway idea.
TC: If we look at a city with 10 or 20 million people, what happens to the idea of community? How do you create community with that many people?
AE: Well, go to Mexico City. It has a very strong community. Itís a conglomeration of smaller units.
Mexicans have a greater conviviality, a greater shared common culture and traditions and festivals and things like that. Weíre the ones that want to get inside and away from everybody.
TC: So, how do we create community here?
AE: I think we almost have to do it intentionally. And it may happen. My house rejects the area I live in and the only reason I can live there is by rejecting the whole neighbourhood because I canít bear the neighbourhood, insofar as itís so ó you know, Iím not being snobbish but itís just so full of the frightful compromises that everybody makes. It bothers me; I canít look at it.
So, I get out of my car and my car door is right next to my back door and when I come in Iím looking at just wilderness.
SH: Yes, but ironically, in the midst of that rejection, your place becomes sort of a focal point of that community.
AE: Yeah, because of the frogs.
TC: Itís interesting when you actually do something that is without compromise people sit up and take notice and suddenly you become a stop as people are driving by and, ďThereís Arthur Ericksonís house. You canít see it but itís in here.Ē
SH: And thatís the man with all the arrows in his back. Thatís the other side of that.
TC: Steve, when you were building the your lofts on 6th Avenue my bet is that you had a lot of very irritated and confused inspectors walking through.
SH: I donít know, I think a whole corps of inspectors came through that building one way or another.
TC: When you started that you had a very deliberate conception of what the building was going to be. Now itís finished. Itís been occupied for over a year. Did building a bunch of lofts with live/work spaces turn out to create a community in that building?
SH: It wouldnít have if it was just simply the description that youíve given, because lofts are not inherently community building in any sense, but, yes, it did. Thatís because my design was intentionally oriented towards breaking down what I perceived as architectural barriers.
TC: Such as?
SH: Well, theyíre all around us and we donít see them really because theyíre very much like our language. We use it. We donít notice it. The typical experience of any kind of large multi-unit building in Canada or in the world is that occupants come through whatís not really the front dooróitís the garageóand enter little boxes that lead them into tubes that disperse them into what we call the units.
The strangest thought to me is that buildings are in stacks. Kitchens tend to be up against kitchens and bedrooms tend to be up against bedrooms. You see a master bed up against another master bed and a couple in each bed both making loveó theyíre twelve inches apart. Theyíre sharing intimate space, in one sense, but they donít know each other and they donít want to know each other and they meet each other in the hallway. Itís almost embarrassing. Itís an unpleasant environment.
To me itís dragging the city streets into the building. I think we owe all of this to the 1940s & 50s in a real way, and the urbanization and suburbanization of our cities, the dependence on automobiles and that sort of thing. Youíll notice motorcyclists play with each other. At least they used to. They donít have anything around them. Car drivers donít.
In that building on 6th what I did was consciously took a building with its standard organization with double corridors and I ripped it apart. So, itís a high rise connected with catwalks and overpasses. Then I put huge windows in front of everybodyís unit, so you can look out of your window and see who else is out there.
I took the elevators and I put them in a centralized area. That made sense from the point of view of that circulation and put windows in them, which look into each other, but in a somewhat awkward way. That was an important thing. What you find is that people get into the elevators and they talk to each other because theyíre on elevators. I mean what if there are windows on the floor and the lights turn off and the doors close. Itís kind of shocking, like what, and people start talking and theyíre looking into the other elevator to see whoís there.
Now thereís a real sensitivity. Theyíre looking for other people and theyíre looking to interact as opposed to trying to avoid it and it has absolutely worked. The final addition to that is they have an organized meeting space, just a coffee place, right at the elevators right in front of the mail boxes right at the entrance to the building.
There were two motivations for that. One was it was a meeting area that was neutral. I expect in the live/work studios we have a lot of single women who are working as decorators or engineers or whatever on their own and they wouldnít necessarily want to invite in people who they didnít know. So, hereís a neutral area to meet. Itís intimate enough so that the operators will know who you are and will see that youíre meeting with someone.
The other thing itís just a social thing. You run into each other and talk about what youíre doing. The idea for me was to build within a very unforgiving kind of environmentóI think Vancouver, despite its benefits in many ways, is a city without a soulóa little community where people really felt that they belonged.
Theyíre designers and a lot of media sorts and web people and internet and all that. Itís a percolating little community. People are supporting each other in that sense and more are trying to get in. Thereís a waiting list now, you know, for the view, which is irritating.
NEXT PAGE: MORE INTERVIEW