Douglas & McIntyre
Arthur Erickson

Book details:

September 2013
ISBN 978-1-77100-011-6
6" x 9"
496 pages
37 b&w photographs
Biography & Autobiography / Artists, Architects, Photographers BIO001000
$34.95 CAD


Douglas & McIntyre

Arthur Erickson

An Architect's Life

Excerpt / Additional Content


Chapter 19: Bankrupt

He was excited to be working in Los Angeles. “We will celebrate the central role that Los Angeles plays in the film world with a 12-theatre cinema complex,” Arthur said to an interviewer. His initial project director, Bing Thom, told a Vancouver Sun reporter, “Downtown Los Angeles tends to be quite dead at night, with not many eating facilities, so we have decided to give a lot of emphasis to food facilities with restaurants based on movie themes—like recreating Rick’s Cafe from Casablanca.”2 There was something, however, almost fatal in these references to Hollywood and its dream-like excesses—as if, from the outset, the life that Arthur would lead in California would be given to fantasy and would exceed the restraint that had always been the source of his creativity and success.

The scale of the California project necessitated the opening of an office in Los Angeles. To the surprise of many, Arthur put Francisco in charge of the new office, perhaps because he had a U.S. green card to work there. Arthur’s employees were alarmed by this choice, because Francisco was notorious for his extravagance and lack of business sense, but those who knew this mercurial man were aware of his ambition and of his chaffing under what he viewed as the “limitations” of Canada. Francisco harboured contempt for Canada, especially Vancouver where he was viewed skeptically by many of Arthur’s close friends, and he wanted to establish himself as a designer of interiors on the larger stages of Europe and the U.S. In southern California, he would enjoy not only the sybaritic pleasures of its physical climate but the Hollywood-style fame that accrued around successful architects and interior designers.

Arthur was easily seduced into this good life as Francisco arranged it, and in the 1980s, they lived in extravagant luxury. Their first move was to buy a house on the upper reaches of Schuyler Avenue, one of the palm-lined avenues in exclusive Bel-Air. The purchase was made in Francisco’s name because, as Arthur explained to his friends, Francisco’s insecure childhood as a postwar refugee meant that he needed, above all, the security of a home of his own.

The situation of the house was ideal: from its location in the hills there were shimmering perspectives all over greater Los Angeles; there was a garden with an infinity pool; and Rock Hudson lived on the next street. But the house itself was decorated in French provincial style, compelling Francisco to set about on major renovations. Lois and Geoffrey Milsom were making changes to a house they had purchased in Newport Beach, and Francisco arranged for Lois’s contractor to work on the Bel-Air residence. The interiors were gutted and the house soon became uninhabitable, forcing Arthur and Francisco to rent a house on Sunset Plaza Drive in Beverly Hills.

The rented house had only two bedrooms, but there was a cottage across the street where guests and servants could stay and where they stored their excess belongings, including, at one point, four cars. All of this was costly. Arthur was paying $20,000 a month in interest on the bank loan for the Bel-Air property and a stiff $15,000 a month rent for the house on Sunset Plaza Drive. It was not long before they had hired a full-time cook and a butler-valet and had regular gardening and housekeeping services.

Rock Hudson provided an introduction to the Los Angeles gay community, and through him, they also came to know a number of Hollywood’s eminent personalities, including Hudson’s close friend, actress Elizabeth Taylor; producer Ned Tanen at Universal Pictures; Tanen’s wife, Kitty Hawks, a noted interior designer and daughter of legendary director Howard Hawks; and David Geffen, the record company executive and co-founder of DreamWorks.

It was Francisco’s delight to entertain in the garden all year round, to give themed dinner parties, and to fill the house with lavish sprays of flowers. Guests almost always carried away a dinner menu in calligraphy. One of those parties was an eighteen-course Japanese dinner with a koto player on a bridge in the garden. Another was reported this way in a Los Angeles paper: “Dashing Francisco Kripacz gave a little dinner party at his hilltop home Wednesday night for that grand gentleman of fashion, Hubert de Givenchy. The setting for dinner was dramatic—black china on black cloths with vases filled with white narcissi and other pale flowers for contrast.” Francisco enjoyed equally the weeks of preparation and the gossipy aftermath, in which guests were praised, caricatured, and sometimes excluded from further invitations. He was himself sometimes caricatured as the architect’s hysterical wife, but for many, his still youthful exuberance and charm were the perfect balance to Arthur’s sedate, reflective presence.

In contrast to Francisco’s Hollywood coterie, Arthur was drawn to a different crowd. On a flight from New York to Los Angeles, Arthur, in first class, entered into a conversation about spirituality with a woman in the next seat who turned out to be actress Shirley MacLaine. They were well into the subject before they became aware of each other’s respective accomplishments. It was a conversation that would continue for several years. Through MacLaine’s Russian émigré lover, the film director Andrei Konchalovsky (best known in America for Runaway Train), Arthur came to know José Ferrer and his wife, Tatyana, a granddaughter of Leo Tolstoy. With their roots in European culture, Ferrer and his wife appeared to Arthur more sophisticated and informed than many who attended the parties he and Francisco hosted. His pleasure was in smaller gatherings, which might include the Ferrers and Shirley MacLaine, Canadian actor Donald Sutherland, and a troubled young Richard Gere, whom Arthur found very attractive. At these parties, nobody gossiped about facelifts and where to eat; instead, they were likely to spend the evening listening quietly to Arthur or Shirley talking about Buddhism and other spiritual disciplines. Richard Gere was especially fascinated with Arthur’s stories of Japan and his views on the Dalai Lama, and eventually, with Arthur in mind, Gere would portray an architect in the film Intersection shot in Vancouver.

When Katharine Hepburn, occasionally present at those small gatherings, was in Vancouver in the fall of 1985 to make a film, she phoned Arthur, and he invited her for an informal dinner that he prepared himself. She wanted to see the Museum of Anthropology, so Lois Milsom made special arrangements to take her there when it was closed to the public. Hepburn was struck not only by the museum and its historical collection but by Bill Reid’s Raven and the First Men, and Lois subsequently arranged for the two shaky veterans to meet.

Throughout much of the early 1980s, while his reputation remained at its peak, Arthur spent much of his time socializing with the rich and the famous; later, when called to accounts, he explained it was a necessary part of his profession. For a time, he and Francisco also kept their Fifth Avenue residence in Manhattan, where they gave especially elegant parties. For one of Pierre Trudeau’s visits to New York in 1981, they invited, among others, Arthur’s old friend and conservative socialite Patricia Buckley, fashion guru Diana Vreeland, political analyst and author Theodore White, New York Review of Books editor Robert Silvers, entertainers Diana Ross and Shirley MacLaine, and two Canadians: television producer Stephanie McLuhan, daughter of Marshall McLuhan, and financier Paul Desmarais. Arthur and Francisco, in turn, were frequently guests in the Hamptons and at wealthy retreats on the Mediterranean.

Liona Boyd, the celebrated guitarist, who knew Arthur through her close friendship with Trudeau, described in memoirs how “on impulse” she, Arthur, Francisco, and Lois Milsom flew for a couple of weeks to Italy, where Arthur was very much part of the aristocratic society of Rome and where multilingual Francisco, as another friend observed, “would swan into the Hassler Hotel in Rome, as if he had been doing so since puberty.” They dined for several evenings “in the glamorous company of Italian countesses, barons, tycoons, fashion designers, and film directors,” because Arthur and Francisco cultivated the international set “like Mikimoto pearls.” It was, Boyd wrote, “la Dolce Vita come to life.” The group subsequently headed for Capri, where again, “dinner parties with jewelled countesses and playboy industrialists kept us entertained.”

One afternoon, Boyd introduced Arthur and his friends to Adnan Khashoggi, the infamous Arab arms dealer, and they spent several hours on his enormous yacht (with its own helicopter pad and a crew of fifty). Stretched out on the deck of this floating palace, with Mozart playing from hidden speakers, Boyd noted, one never had to contemplate “the real world.”

In another “enchanted” social space, Arthur came to know Prince Charles and Princess Diana. Arthur had met Charles through a mutual Italian friend, Vittorio Annabaldi, and in 1975, Arthur and Francisco joined Charles and Vittorio midway on an excursion in Canada’s Far North, taking some choice cuts of steak and fresh asparagus with them to vary the fish and seal diet. They met again in April 1980, when Charles unveiled the Bill Reid sculpture at the Museum of Anthropology. But it was when Arthur was engaged in the design and construction of the Napp pharmaceutical laboratories near Cambridge that he and Charles saw each other more frequently. Working with the Sackler brothers, Raymond and Mortimer, the owners of Napp Technologies, was another enchanting experience for Arthur. The Sacklers, then in their sixties, were surrounded, Medici-like, by advisors and experts of all sorts, and their “court” moved from place to place, from one Sackler house to another: New York, London, Gstaad, Antibes. Francisco had a lively involvement as confidant of Mortimer’s second wife, Gheri, who was thirty-four years younger than her husband. The brothers had a keen interest in modernism and wanted a design that would challenge the boundaries of architecture, as they were doing with medical technology. Although they vetoed his first design, using glass blocks, in favour of double-glazed mirrored glass walls, Arthur found them excellent clients to work for, and he was gratified that Charles, with his strong but conservative tastes in architecture, approved of the buildings. Apparently, Charles liked the minimalist rhythm of the design, “its massive ribcage of columns and mirrored glass over a flat roof,” and would take visitors there to show them how progressive British industry could be.

Arthur probably met Diana through her cousin Desmond FitzGerald, whom he had known when he was teaching at UBC. At his father’s death, FitzGerald had become the twenty-ninth Knight of Glin, and Arthur and Francisco visited him in Ireland in September 1981. Arthur later wrote: “We enjoyed our brief but enchanting visit with you and your family. I shall not lose the vision of Glin Castle that early Sunday morning with dew on its vast lawns, its charming ‘folly’ appearing over the brow of fields sloping down to the Shannon, its great trees hugging the embattlement wings, our morning walk and most precious of all, the children in their outsize but very au-courant and chic dress-up, even to a matching purse but containing a doll set of china!”

When Charles and Diana came to Vancouver for the opening of Expo ’86, Arthur spent an extended period of time with them. He took them to see the Museum of Anthropology and, joined by Galen and Hilary Weston, travelled with them in a private yacht to Qualicum Beach, where they visited Desmond’s mother, Veronica Milner, a Spencer cousin to Diana. During the course of the visit, Arthur became something of a confidant to the troubled princess, who subsequently stayed in touch, phoning him on Christmas day 1992 after she had separated from Charles and, the year before she died, sending thanks to Arthur for arranging a possible holiday visit to B.C.’s Gang Ranch, where he had assured her privacy for herself and her sons. Earlier that same year, she had been with Arthur and Francisco at the K-Club in Barbuda; there she and Francisco had talked at length about health food and exercise. (There were often surprising connections within the world of the rich and famous, Arthur discovered, when a few years later he learned that Diana’s lover, Dodi Al-Fayed, was the nephew of the arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi.)

Arthur’s enlarged sympathy for Diana was rooted in his own experience. By 1982, Francisco had been his partner for twenty years. They had worked together on many design projects, had holidayed in luxurious resorts, and had travelled to parts of the world with legendary names—Machu Picchu, Kathmandu, the Hindu Kush—but their relationship was changing. For many years, Arthur had had a recurring dream in which he and Francisco became separated. They had arranged to meet for a holiday in the Caribbean, but Francisco did not show up at the appointed destination. In the dream, Arthur flew from one small island airport to the next, but there was no trace of Francisco. He would wake up shaken. The separation, however, did not happen quite like that. Rather, one day when Arthur arrived at their rented home on Sunset Plaza Drive, Francisco introduced him to a new friend, a handsome student named Jan, still in his teens, who was going to be staying at the house. Arthur knew at once that something irreversible had happened. While their relationship had always been an open one, they had never brought casual acquaintances home to stay. This change made Arthur painfully conscious of being fifty-eight years old.

Their working relationship had also changed. Being put in charge of the Los Angeles office had empowered Francisco and made him overweeningly self-confident. Where previously he had deferred to Arthur, he was now making many of the office decisions on his own. To the staff, his exuberant playfulness had become tinged with a sinister arrogance. The opportunity to work on the California Plaza project had attracted a number of bright young architects in the United States, but they found an office being run inefficiently by a parvenu with no architectural background. Arthur Erickson, around whose name they had gathered, often seemed a shadowy figure in the background, busy elsewhere. More disturbing, he seemed to be taking directions from his very lightweight office manager.

None of this played well in the business world. California Plaza was a giant redevelopment project with one hard-nosed goal—to increase, with the participation of several real estate developers, the residential and commercial activity at the financial heart of the city.

For Arthur, there were parallels in this megaconstruction to the building of Simon Fraser University: while he had charge of the overall plaza project, he was involved at the same time in coordinating the activities of developers, contractors, and other architects and engineers. “The project is prodigious,” he told Edith Iglauer, “with six groups brought together under one management.” For SFU, most of the co-ordination had been done by Geoffrey Massey, who negotiated firmly with businesses and governments alike and kept the building on track. But Francisco was no Geoff Massey, and in his published account of California Plaza, Arthur tellingly refers to “shifts and changes . . . fits and starts” and to “the forces of economics prevailing.”

The original master plan linked the five-block, eleven-acre site by means of a chain of pedestrian parks, so that one could walk from the Colburn music centre on the northern periphery to Pershing Square, the city’s symbolic heart, on the south. Arthur’s design placed the office towers at the south end, adjacent to other city towers, with the hotel and the 750-unit residential complex to the north. But what especially interested him was to design spaces for the arts: a dance gallery, a museum for contemporary art, and a performance plaza with a covered outdoor stage to attract both tourists and far-flung city dwellers. In his book, he explained that the best presentation of contemporary Los Angeles art he had seen was in a series of converted stables on the outskirts of Milan, Italy, where each artist was given an individual “stall” entered from the loggia.

In his determination to rethink the genre of every building in light of its contemporary use, he designed the Museum of Contemporary Art to replicate a series of shops and placed them along the base of the condominiums. But this movement away from the art-museum-as-temple was rejected by the museum board and, to Arthur’s dismay, another architect was hired to provide a more traditional design.

His plan for an outdoor performance plaza with a covered stage for television specials became even more fraught. With public input, the idea for this space was to create something like a modern version of Shakespeare’s Globe theatre below street level, with seats in circular tiers above an orchestra level, onto which restaurants opened. The theatre area could function as a cabaret at night and a marketplace during the day. But this plan was rejected by a new developer, who favoured an informal space where unplanned, spontaneous events could be staged. Still, the Community Redevelopment Agency wanted California Plaza to be an appealing hub for the downtown area. To this end, Arthur played with turning the plaza into a garden, like Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens, featuring a small lake as a setting for restaurants, cafes, and performance spaces.

Central to this scheme was the involvement of the English artist David Hockney, famous for his paintings of Los Angeles swimming pools, who Arthur believed could give the water garden a fantastic dimension. Hockney’s designs could also be carried into the construction and decorating of shops, restaurants, service costumes, even tableware, so that everything in the plaza would be part of a huge stage. But Arthur frequently failed to appear at meetings to negotiate his vision with city planners and developers, and in Francisco, businessmen and politicians saw no assurance that such fantastic schemes could be successfully realized. The water garden project was put on hold and eventually dropped. The dance gallery met a similar fate. As in the rejected design for Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, the gallery was to have been situated below the plaza, with a skylight on the plaza level and, to mark its presence, a spiral of glass gesturing skyward, suggesting the arrested grace of a dancer’s movement. But it, too, was shelved.

Phase one of California Plaza, including the first office tower, the hotel, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, was given the go-ahead in 1983 and was completed in 1985. Everything was held to a strict budget, and Marcelo Igonda, one of the project architects, spent what seemed like unreasonable amounts of time searching out inexpensive materials as they proceeded. On opening, although a great deal of critical praise was given to the contemporary art museum designed by Japanese architect IsozakiArata, the project as a whole was met with indifference. Rem Koolhaas had seemed to anticipate this when he wrote in 1981 that building on this neutral site would be like “designing for a void.” About the tower, the reviewer for the Los Angeles Herald wrote that “a first-rate designer gives his second best for Cal Plaza”; the plaza was thoroughly disappointing—a series of bland, glass-wrapped semicylinders jutting from a vast deck—altogether a watered-down invention. Photographers agreed in subsequent years that the tower was best viewed from the fountain plaza looking south, with Isozaki’s red sandstone museum on the right; but the vitreous high-rise of light and dark grey reflective glass, however viewed, remains anonymous and sleekly generic in the California sun.

Arthur had lost the design of not only the art museum at California Plaza but the hotel as well, and this would become a pattern. In the early 1980s, he won a competition for the Orange County Performing Arts Center at Newport Beach, California. He would be working with a budget of $20 million. But when his future employers asked if what was said in Edith Iglauer’s book was true—that he was never in one place more than three days—Arthur answered cheekily that in fact he was never in one place more than two days. When asked, “Who makes decisions from day to day?” he replied that contractors usually went ahead; if anything was wrong, he would have them start over again. The hiring team came to Vancouver to check this out; hearing the same account of Arthur’s arrogance, they cancelled the contract. Arthur said in response: “You can’t own me, only my designs.”

Arthur’s unco-operative aloofness and his extravagance were viewed by many as the result of Francisco’s influence. Lifestyle, it seemed, had now become more important to Arthur than architecture. What his friends and employees did not fully realize was how fragile that lifestyle was.