3 min

Remembering Arthur Erickson

Canada's most celebrated architect

BEAUTIFUL BUILDINGS AND GLAMOROUS PARTIES. When Canada's preeminent architect wasn't designing amazing homes and original buildings, he and his longtime partner, Francisco Kripacz, were toasting the rich and beautiful.

“You’re home early,” I said to Arthur Erickson when he appeared at about 9:30 one night in the fall of 1991.

Arthur often stayed with me on visits to Toronto and, on this particular evening, he had attended a small dinner party with Pierre Trudeau and novelist Robertson Davies. When I asked about the “famous Canadians” dinner he simply shrugged and said with his characteristic bemused smile, “Let’s go out –– somewhere with dancing boys!”

Before long, we were shoulder to shoulder with the crowd at Katrina’s, then the hotspot for go-go boys. I spied a buff, 20-ish guy in a York University T-shirt and asked him what he was studying.  “Architecture” came the curt reply. I started to introduce him to my architect companion but one glance at Erickson’s gray head caused the student to turn and flee.

“Well, Arthur,” I said, as we both smiled broadly, “an hour ago you were dining with Pierre Trudeau and Robertson Davies but now you’re just another old fag.”

The gym bunnies hadn’t always snubbed Arthur Erickson. The buffed and the beautiful once vied for invitations to parties hosted by him and his longtime partner, Francisco Kripacz, at their homes in Vancouver, Los Angeles, Manhattan and Fire Island.

For one particularly memorable party in Fire Island Pines on Jul 7, 1979, Kripacz had filled their soaring, Erickson-designed beach house with gold and silver balloons. At midnight, the house’s retractable roof opened and the balloons ascended into the starlit sky.

Amidst clouds of dry-ice fog, singer France Joli then appeared to belt out her disco hit “Come to Me” for the boogying men below.

Later, this party would be described in a number of memoirs as an iconic “last waltz” before AIDS cast its long shadow over Fire Island and the gay world.

It would prove to be a milestone for Erickson and Kripacz as well. Before long they would sever their personal relationship, while still maintaining a business partnership. (A talented designer, Kripacz created the interiors for many Erickson buildings.)

In the early ’80s, Kripacz moved into a house in Beverly Hills with a fetching young Californian and worked out of Erickson’s LA office.

Erickson made Toronto his home base and lived in a converted Rosedale garage that bore a remarkable similarity to the house he had lived in for many years in Vancouver’s Point Grey. His Toronto living room was dominated by a rectangular Roy Lichtenstein canvas and I remember standing beside it during a 1986 party celebrating his gold medal from the American Institute of Architects. He was the first Canadian to receive one and wore the medal with boyish pride. The party had been organized by Erickson’s new live-in partner, Alan Steele, a square-jawed American with blond hair and horn-rimmed glasses.

But this party, too, would prove to be elegiac.

Even as he was receiving one of the architecture world’s highest honours, the Erickson Architectural Corporation was foundering. At its height, the company maintained five offices around the world but soon the business, and Erickson himself, became overextended.

When large building projects in the Middle East began to unravel in the late 1980s so did the Erickson Corporation. Nasty stories began to appear in the newspapers about high living and personal excess. By 1992, it was all gone –– the offices were closed, the homes in Toronto, New York and LA were vacated, the Lichtenstein was carted off to the auction house. By then Alan Steele had died from the effects of HIV/AIDS. Kripacz’s partner in LA, too, had succumbed to the disease and Kripacz himself was HIV-positive.

Erickson’s equanimity during this dreadful time was remarkable. In the summer of 1990, I had rented a house near Santa Fe with him and Alan Steele. Deeply angry about his failing health and their collapsing fortunes, Steele would frequently vent his rage on Erickson.

When I asked him how he stood it, Erickson expressed such love and compassion for Steele that I found myself blinking back tears. The Zen-like aspects of Erickson’s work have often been commented on but his personality, too, had a Buddhist sensibility: calm, detached and suffused with a gently humorous view of life’s vicissitudes.

Of any “name” person I’ve known, Erickson had the least ego. He never needed to dominate a dinner table. It was only with prodding that he might tell you of trekking with Trudeau in Tibet, of time on the beach with Princess Diana, or of gossiping about spiritual teachers with his good friend Shirley MacLaine.

The wheel of samsara turned for Erickson as he knew it would. He returned to the house in Point Grey (it had been saved from foreclosure by a foundation) and resumed his architectural work. The death in 2000 of Kripacz, the great love of his life, was a cause of much sadness but Erickson carried on –– teaching, travelling, and designing. Such fine buildings as The Glass Museum in Tacoma and Vancouver’s Portland Hotel would follow.

I last visited him five months before his death and was saddened to see him so frail. But even with his memory diminished, he was still remarkably present. His keen eye for beauty was alert to the birds in his garden, to the design of a book I gave to him, to the cut of his elegant shirt.

A remarkable architectural legacy survives him, particularly in his native city. But for his friends, his legacy is also the example of how one can greet life with calmness, humour, insight –– and acceptance.