Exhibition offers a glimpse of architect Arthur Erickson’s home

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Vancouver architect Arthur Erickson, photographed in his living room at 4195 West 14th Ave.Selwyn Pullan

Iconic Vancouver architect Arthur Erickson would have turned 100 years old this June 14. To celebrate the centenary, the West Vancouver Art Museum has an exhibition that features a re-creation of his living room and many of the original artworks, cherished pieces and books he had on display in the home where he spent much of his life, at 4195 West 14th Ave., on a 66-foot-wide lot in Point Grey.

A key part of the exhibition is architecture photographer Selwyn Pullan’s large-scale photos taken in 1965 and 1972, large enough to show the dings in the furniture and tatty wallpaper. It’s a rare peek behind the curtains at the man, not the iconic architect, says Hilary Letwin, the museum’s director. He did not live in a house like the photo-ready ones he designed; instead, he lived in a converted garage and shed – basically, an early laneway house on a lot that was all about the garden. It is a mini Versailles within a gridded street network.

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Mr. Erickson’s garden.Selwyn Pullan

“It’s going to be a surprise for people, because we are so accustomed to seeing his incredibly pristine interiors designed for other people,” says Ms. Letwin. “We are trying to get away from the myth of Arthur and give people insight into the man.”

The Pullan photos alone could have been the entire show, says architect Clinton Cuddington, who sits on the board for the Arthur Erickson Foundation. But with the help of the Erickson family, who supplied several pieces, they decided to bring the living room photograph to life, including a Gordon Smith painting that hung above his fireplace.

“We wanted to create a very intimate relationship with the work that is often not present at a gallery,” says Mr. Cuddington. “We are hoping the viewer will feel as if they are in Arthur’s living room.”

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Mr. Erickson’s house has several built-ins and a kitchenette enclosed behind a dark teak cabinet.Selwyn Pullan

The exhibition runs until July 20, but the Foundation has another project that is set to get under way – the restoration of Mr. Erickson’s Point Grey home. It’s something of a feat that the group has managed to save a modest 860-square-foot house in the heart of one of the city’s most expensive neighbourhoods. Under normal circumstances, it very likely would have been sold off and promptly bulldozed years ago. Mr. Erickson died in 2009, but it was important to him that his hidden paradise was preserved.

“Arthur, I think, was a complex character that managed a public life with a retreat back into a private, cloistered environment,” says Mr. Cuddington, who worked alongside another icon, architect Bing Thom. Mr. Thom was with Arthur Erickson Architects in the 1970s.

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The garden is like a more rustic version of a Japanese landscape.Selwyn Pullan

The property, says Mr. Cuddington, brings into question our desire for big, showy houses, our need for space. It teaches us “valuable lessons about how much density an individual requires, and how one needs to be rooted to the site, and the place they reside,” he says.

Mr. Erickson lived at W. 14th from 1957 to 1992. When he purchased the double-size lot, it only had the garage, built in 1917, along the northern property line. Back then, people often lived in the garage while building the house, explains architect and Erickson house tour guide, Brian Broster, standing in the large garden, which is like a more rustic version of a Japanese landscape.

Mr. Erickson connected the old garage to a shed, while maintaining the thick cedar shingles on the roof and infusing daylight into the home via dome skylights. As a testament to Mr. Erickson’s resourcefulness, the front cladding is large travertine tiles he salvaged from the old Hotel Vancouver men’s room. Inside, he brought in old streetcar benches upholstered in horsehair.

The house desperately needs some updates if it is to continue standing. Winters are freezing, says tenant Bruce Bingham, an old family friend of the Ericksons, who’s lived at the property for 12 years and tends to the garden. He could barely open the glass front door when he moved in due to the sinking foundation.

“We don’t want to mess with it too much,” says Mr. Broster, who’s part of a committee that’s following a conservation plan based on Mr. Erickson’s wishes for the property. “We want to really respect what Arthur did.”

The plan is to create a space that will occasionally be open to the public, for heritage tours, or lectures.

From the lane, the house is clad in board-and-batten plywood and resembles a boat house. A glimpse through the windows shows that inside it’s a celebration of efficiency, with several built-ins and a kitchenette enclosed behind a dark teak cabinet. There’s a ladder that climbs up to the bed on top of the closet. His study, where he’d do his best thinking, overlooks the garden. A pathway circles a large mound that Mr. Erickson created to ensure privacy.

But it wasn’t all serenity now. Mr. Erickson’s parties were the stuff of legend. Pierre Trudeau was said to have enjoyed the in-ground hot tub. In honour of a dance troupe, black swans were brought in to swim in the pond. Rudolf Nureyev was said to have danced naked on the mound.

Architect James Cheng heard all the “wild” party stories in his career working for Mr. Erickson. He and others at the firm would end the day at Mr. Erickson’s for impromptu dinner parties. The legendary architect was also a great cook.

“When I first saw it, I thought, ‘Wow, he’s a world-famous architect and he lives like this?’ recalls Mr. Cheng, seated in the boardroom of James K.M. Cheng Architects.

“He lived in a minimal amount of space, and everything was multi-use. I realized his house is just one way of living – not to show off, but for him to enjoy.”

Tall cedar hedge, bamboo, poplars and fencing surround the entire property. In recent years, the neighbour next door built a big house close to the property line, but in Mr. Erickson’s day you would have felt entirely hidden away. Like the house, the garden will undergo some sensitive editing. The trees and hedges are tall and overgrown, and the rhododendrons are giants. A moon terrace hovers above a large dark pond, surrounded by ferns, salal, huckleberry and moss-covered brick pavers. Mr. Broster takes delight in the precision of the design, such as the way the edge of the terrace lines up with the edge of the decking, and how the garden feels like an infinite space from certain angles.

It’s not a high-end house, says Mr. Broster. But it’s a thoughtful place, with Italian leather and Thai silk on the walls, and small chrome columns that echo the larger scale chrome columns of Mr. Erickson’s second Eppich House, which still stands in West Vancouver.

To architecture enthusiasts, the property will forever be a unique opportunity to stand in Mr. Erickson’s private space, glimpse what he saw when he reflected upon his work, see what he cherished most. And in a broader sense, the property is a welcome oddity that will stand forever among big houses in pricey Vancouver, where square footage is the ultimate prize, and rules constrain design.

“You could not build this today because you can’t build against the property line in the back,” says Mr. Broster.

It’s a remarkable property, for “the fact that he lived in this so humbly and quietly, and it’s a unique thing that the urban planners aren’t approving anymore at the city.”

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