Friday, May 22, 2009

arthur erickson

Architect Arthur Erickson died on Wednesday. My experience with his work is the 5 years that I spent at Simon Fraser University - which he designed. I didn't study architecture, but I definitely lived, worked, played, slept in his biggest project.

My least favourite part of the Erickson experience was the leaky places. Tarps and buckets were part of our everyday existence all during the rainy season. They weren't in every corner or every room, but they were always evident, every day, somewhere in the building. I was at the university in the 80s, when the building was 25 years old, but I heard that this had been a factor for many years.

I also wasn't crazy about the naming and numbering of the rooms within the connecting "complexes." Making a site map for new students must have been a daunting task for the university administrators, because the place was multi levels, counting up from the ground, wherever that part of the building was anchored. Because the building is on the curved top of a mountain, you could stand in one hallway and have a door to your left open to a level 4 room, while the one on your right opened to a level one. It took some learning and getting used to. Part of student life included helping visitors and new students find classrooms and offices, because getting around the place just didn't make easy sense.

The other thing that was kind of crazy was traversing the academic quadrangle, where many of the lectures and small group tutorials took place, and where many of the profs had their offices. The quadrangle is a rectangular doughnut shape, partly on stilts, with a vast green space and pond in the middle. To get to your room, you had to run around the doughnut. This required a good knowledge of which way to go - clockwise or counter-clockwise, to make it most efficiently to your destination. Cutting across the centre space was an option, but most of the time, weather conditions discouraged this. In the winter, it was cold and wet and your feet would get bogged in the muddy grass. In summer, you could get distracted and end up lying on said grass, and falling asleep with a book covering your face.

These grumbles aside, I think Simon Fraser University is a masterpiece. It is visually spectacular from the outside and also inside. Everywhere you look, you are conscious of being on a mountaintop. The whole thing is contoured to the slope of the mountain so when you go up or down inside or around the building, you are also following the terrain. There are glorious open spaces like convocation mall, and lots of delightful resting spots and lounges to cozy up the many concrete corridors and corners. I napped frequently between classes on the upholstered benches of a place I called "the kryptonite pond lounge." Everything was in one large building, made of of connecting complexes, so academic disciplines were not segregated into separate buildings or regions of the campus. Navigating was complicated, but also fun - like a treasure hunt or adventure some days to find a new part of the campus. Walking from class to class took me past places and things I wouldn't see if the design had made "better sense." I commuted to campus, so I never had the residence experience, but I was employed by the recreation department, and spent many hours in the gym working as a fitness instructor. The gym, pool and running track were excellent, and conveniently located less than five minutes' (covered) walk from the learning areas. Surrounding the university building there was a network of running/walking trails that ran up and down hills, through the woods and to a nearby park. The overall feeling I got from the building was that it was grand, modern, spectacular and also encouraging of community in its layout and quirkiness - part monolith, part rabbit warren. I was glad to be there.

question: have you lived, worked, played in an Arthur Erickson building?

mompoet - remembering


Pearl said...

neat. we saw him and him talking about the campus in 07. Hubby's visited there. I haven't. those buckets about sound like a Frank Lloyd Wright signature touch.

Anonymous said...

I have to admit to getting hopelessly lost and frustrated almost every day of my first week on campus. The Quad is a source of nightmares for me. LOL.

In later years, I worked up there on various films. The look of SFU is perfect for futuristic settings. If you watch "The Sixth Day" with Arnold S, you'll see that the campus features prominently for the jump in a big car chase scene!

Kristene said...

Oops, I'm not anonymous!!

Mompoet's dad said...

There is a link on the SFU web pages:

Mompoet, an SFU student for five year, has described her reactions to the architecture. Her dad taught math there for 31 years. It's impressive, but the bleak gray sameness sometimes gets to you during the 10.5 months of rain each year.

Mompoet's dad