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Q&A: David Stouck on Arthur Erickson and writing biographies

arthurericksonSince its release in fall 2013, David Stouck’s Arthur Erickson: An Architect’s Life (Douglas & McIntyre), a biography of the internationally renowned Canadian architect and designer, has become one of the most celebrated non-fiction titles of the year.

At the B.C. Book Prizes on May 3, Stouck received the Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize and the Hubert Evans Non-fiction Prize. Arthur Erickson was also shortlisted for the 2013 RBC Taylor Prize, and is still in the running for the Basil Stuart-Stubbs Prize and the Melva J. Dwyer Award.

In 2005, Stouck, a retired professor, historian, and biographer, began interviewing Erickson, whose celebrity reputation at times overshadowed his creations, which include Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University and the Museum of Anthropology, Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall, and the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C. The two continued meeting until Erickson’s death in 2009.

Q&Q spoke to Stouck about his writing and research process, and Erickson’s legacy.

What drew you to Arthur Erickson as a subject? I worked at Simon Fraser University for 40 years. That’s an extraordinary building that has a lot of impact.

When I came up for retirement, I knew I should have a project. One of Erickson’s friends asked me if I would consider writing a book about Arthur. I didn’t have any architectural background, but what I really wanted to know about Arthur was why he was regarded as the country’s most important architect. Surely there must be more than the movie-star flamboyance. There must be some strong, deep reasons, especially given all the scandals that had pursued him for the latter part of his career.

How did Erickson react when you approached him? He was a little cautious at first, but that soon disappeared and we settled into a nice routine of interviews. The first year or two when he was not travelling, he’d give me a Saturday or Sunday afternoon every weekend. But then he grew frailer and, by 2007, he was beginning to show clear signs of dementia.

How did his health affect your research methods? Arthur could still remember a lot of things very clearly. I would take him physical items – photographs, essays he’d written. It was amazing how he would begin to remember all sorts of things. I’d keep a little notepad with a few questions I needed answered. Sometimes that would come to a dead end, but he’d pick up on something else, which was fine. Go where the fishing was good.

What other sources did you use? I was interviewing a lot of his friends, clients, and his family. I probably wouldn’t have taken on the project except that the University of Manitoba has a great store of letters he wrote to his parents when he travelled to the Middle East and Europe for the first time. Right from the beginning I experienced this kind of intimacy.

There are also two formal archives at the University of Calgary and the Centre for Architecture in Montreal. There was a lot of travel, too. I went to Japan, Bali, and Florence to track down the buildings that meant something to him.

What legacy does Erickson leave behind? The thing I always try to emphasize about Arthur is how important his ideas were in changing our understanding about buildings. He changed ideas about how a university should be built. He thought office buildings were horrible places to work in, especially for women, so he put the loadbearing walls on the outside instead of the inside, which really recreated what office buildings look like.

During his career, especially in the early years, he was rethinking architectural genres, I guess you’d say along utopian, democratic ideals. These buildings embody attitudes that are familiar today but were decidedly unfamiliar when he first presented them.

This interview has been edited and condensed.