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Arthur Erickson, Prominent Canadian Architect, Dies at 84

Mr. Erickson's design for the Canadian Embassy was both lauded and reviled.
Mr. Erickson's design for the Canadian Embassy was both lauded and reviled. (The Washington Post)
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 22, 2009

Arthur Erickson, 84, one of Canada's most prominent architects whose controversial design of the Canadian Embassy in Washington drew both plaudits and scorn, died May 20 in a nursing home in Vancouver, B.C. He had Alzheimer's disease.

Mr. Erickson, who won many of the top honors of his profession, capped his career with the embassy, which Washington Post architecture critic Benjamin Forgey called "a mighty battleship of a building."

In the words of architect Philip Johnson, the urbane, sometimes egotistical Mr. Erickson was "by far the greatest architect in Canada, and may be the greatest on this continent."

But his 1982 selection to design the Canadian Embassy stirred up a controversy that never completely went away. Even though Mr. Erickson was not among the four finalists chosen by a selection committee, he was picked for the job by Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, a longtime friend. Trudeau's political opponents called the choice a sham and demanded an investigation, which Trudeau rebuffed.

Mr. Erickson, who was previously known as a strict modernist in the tradition of Mies van der Rohe, adopted a new style for the embassy with a conscious blend of the neoclassical and modern. Its colonnade and rotunda saluted the Capitol several blocks away, while its sharp sculptural angles echoed I.M. Pei's East Building of the National Gallery of Art directly across Pennsylvania Avenue.

"It shows we can stand up in Washington with the best," Mr. Erickson said of his building. "I hope it will elicit pride about our presence in the United States."

When the embassy, near Pennsylvania and Constitution avenues, finally opened in 1989, it was greeted in some quarters as a masterwork and in others as a lost architectural opportunity.

"All too frequently, Erickson's big moves terminate in miscalculations," a critic for the Toronto Globe and Mail wrote. "Condominiums have nicer lobbies."

An article on in 2002 named the embassy one of the world's "10 ugliest buildings."

"Erickson has given us a powerful building in a place that calls for one, and there is as well a certain entrancing, poetic quality in its forceful contradictions," Forgey wrote in The Post in 1988. "His building is an edgy, flawed masterpiece . . . but a masterpiece."

Behind the success of his embassy design, Mr. Erickson's career was near collapse. In 1989, when the embassy (technically a chancery because it is not the ambassador's residence) was about to open, Mr. Erickson narrowly avoided an auction of the contents of his office to pay creditors.

In 1992, more than $10 million in debt, he was forced to declare bankruptcy. He even owed $4.6 million to the Canadian government for cost overruns on the embassy in Washington. His only asset was an 850-square-foot house in his home town of Vancouver, to which he later returned as a renter. At 68, Mr. Erickson began to rebuild his career from its foundation.

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