Seeing Is Believing, The New Visual Environment
Publication:
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 23 Nov 1967, p. 182-192


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Erickson, Arthur, Speaker
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Text
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Speeches
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Inhabiting a place about which we show the most fantastic ignorance. Ways of thinking that have made it impossible for us to realize just what the city is. The tendency to particularize, to specialize. The North American city gradually being destroyed, dismembered by righteous, logical but totally insensitive attitudes. Planners, architects, engineers beginning to realize the folly of the approach, and beginning to contradict the tenets of zoning. Beginning to mix factories, residences, etc.: just as disastrous an attitude, but a way of getting out of the present situation. Examples of problems caused by such specialization. Some examples of alternative approaches. The great task of seeing the total situation; bringing different views of the situation together. The role of the architect. Functionalism and how it worked. Moving into another stage. Beginning to question the actual meaning and importance of our institutions. The human habitat in the twentieth century. The real purpose of architecture. The problem of the city. Facing the problem. What is the North American city? Coming of age. Observing and really seeing our own peculiar environment.
Date of Original:
23 Nov 1967
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English
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The speeches are free of charge but please note that the Empire Club of Canada retains copyright. Neither the speeches themselves nor any part of their content may be used for any purpose other than personal interest or research without the explicit permission of the Empire Club of Canada.
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Full Text
NOVEMBER 23, 1967
Seeing Is Believing. The New Visual Environment
AN ADDRESS BY Arthur Erickson, ARCHITECT, DESIGNER OF "MAN IN THE COMMUNITY" FOR Expo/67
CHAIRMAN, The President, Graham M. Gore

MR. GORE:

By way of introducing our speaker today, I will begin by quoting an extract from the issue of Time magazine dated August 25th this year:

"For Osaka's EXPO 70, the (Canadian) Federal Government has commissioned a $2,000,000 pavilion by Vancouver's Arthur Erickson, 43, perhaps Canada's most imaginative, and articulate, practitioner of architecture at ease in its setting. For the Montreal Fair, besides having a hand in Katimavik, the inverted Canadian pyramid, Erickson designed the gracefully tapered wooden theme pavilion for Man in the Community."

Mr. Erickson's design, by the way, was selected by Ottawa from a total of 208 entries. Last month he was further honoured by being selected as one of three reci pients of $15,000 Molson Prizes presented by the Canada Council for outstanding achievement in the arts, humanities, and social sciences.

Buildings designed by our speaker have been much praised for their functional beauty. On this point, he has been quoted as saying that he is not interested in creating beautiful buildings in the individual sense, but rather with a sense of the total fabric of society. He is also reported to have said that in creating our modern apartment buildings we have just taken the office building and tried to put living space into it--a convenient but not really satisfactory solution. (There may be some high-rise inhabitants here today who will find that latter statement particularly interesting! )

Mr. Erickson was born in Vancouver in 1924 and studied arts at the University of British Columbia. In 1950, he graduated from McGill with honours in archi tecture. He also won the McLennan Travelling Scholarship and Pilkington Award, and spent the next three years in Europe and the Middle East. In 1956, he was awarded a Massey Medal for house design and in the same year joined the staff of the University of British Columbia as an assistant professor.

In 1961, a Canada Council Fellowship took him to Japan, Cambodia, and Indonesia. In 1963 he received the Pan-Pacific Citation of the American Institute of Architects for his work in house design. In 1964, he visited Peru, Venezuela, and Brazil. As can be seen, travel has played an important role in his career and its influences can be discerned in his work. In his own words, "I have made it my serious interest to know other cultures".

His business partner in Vancouver is Geoffrey Massey, son of actor Raymond Massey. The firm of EricksonMassey employs 15 architects and has won Massey Medals for house designs, the Canadian pavilion at the Tokyo International Trade Fair of 1965, and the internationally praised Simon Fraser University in the Vancouver suburbs of Burnaby, B.C. In addition to the EXPO 70 Canadian pavilion, the firm's current projects in Vancouver include a twintowered downtown office building for MacMillan Bloedel Ltd., a home for Canada's High Commissioner in Australia, and work with municipal authorities on the planning of ultra-modern express-ways.

Mr. Erickson is in Toronto to deliver one of the Gerstein Lectures at York University, and kindly consented to address us while in the city. Ladies and gentle men-may I now present Arthur Charles Erickson, an outstandingly creative Canadian, who will speak to us on the topic: "Seeing Is Believing--The New Visual Environment". Mr. Erickson.

MR. ERICKSON:

Ladies and Gentlemen, one other thing that I have been quoted as saying is that the advent of the computer is one of the greatest achievements and one of the greatest facilities of our present time. Part of the reason is that it will, I hope, free many of us from having to have a good memory. I have never been able to keep amusing stories and quotations in my mind, so I am awaiting the time when that little pocket computer will refer to the memory bank, somewhere downtown, and proffer the right bon mot for the appropriate time at the right moment.

The only thing I do remember -and this is a quotation which for some reason or other has stuck in my mind, and is appropriate today--is from Shakespeare, and I think is a fair comment on the modern city. The quotation is:

"Cease being ignorant of what you are most assur'd, Your glassy essence, and you will cease to be an angry ape,

Playing such fantastic tricks before high heaven, As make the angels weep." I think that with respect to the modern city this is exactly our situation: that we are inhabiting a place about which we show the most fantastic ignorance.

I think it is embarrassing to go into a North American city. I think it is embarrassing to bring anyone to a North American city, exciting as it may be in many re spects. And I think it is largely because somehow or other we have developed ways of thinking that have made it impossible for us to realize just what the city is.

Part of this, I think, is based on an attitude of mind that goes back many, many centuries, but which I like to call a tendency to particularize, a tendency to specialize. Because we were faced with problems in the modern world that we wanted to understand, we found that the only way that we could understand them was to separate them, examine them, analyse them, develop theories about them; and in doing so, to lose our sense of the total picture.

Unfortunately this attitude has penetrated into every aspect of our lives. To me, this is the major "hang-up" of twentieth century civilization: unless we can somehow ex pand our vision, or make our view of things a little bit more universal, we will not be able to rescue ourselves from a situation which could be critical. To see every phenomenon, including the city, as a sum of functioning parts and to be treated mechanically as a machine in need of repairs is now a built-in response.

There are signs that we are beginning to emerge from this unfortunate heritage. As an example of a change of attitude, I would like to cite the approach to city plan ning which comes under the term of "zoning". Zoning was no more than further evidence of the same attitude: that is, that in the preoccupation with the parts, we could not really understand what the meaning of the modern city was. Suddenly in the tranquil New England village, or Upper or Lower Canada village, things occurred, such as factories, railways, highways, drains, that were rather unpleasant for the residents and which seemed to be destructive and unhealthy to the residential sections of the city. Therefore these things began to be seen separately in our minds and planners began to feel that the only cure for the city was to provide a place for factories, a place for shops and stores, a place for offices, a place for residences, so there was no conflict one between the other.

This was really, I think, one of the most ingenious devices that the human has invented to destroy the city. This is what is happening to date: the North American city is gradually being destroyed, dismembered by such righteous, logical but totally insensitive attitudes.

Now we see, of a sudden, that planners, architects, engineers are only beginning to realize the folly of this approach, and are beginning to contradict the tenets of zoning and suggesting that we should do away with zoning altogether. Instead we should begin to mix factories, residences, etc. -which is just as disastrous an attitude, but a way of getting out of the present situation.

The problem I have come up against very emphatically recently with our corporation in the City of Vancouver is with the highway freeway study that is being made by

a San Francisco firm. We refer to Los Angeles and we refer to Seattle constantly as examples of non-cities, because the city that was once there has been removed for the automobiles to go through. It was definitely logical that if you wanted to build a good highway you had to remove all the things that were obstructions, which was, in fact, the city. This is the result of the specialist thinking that I refer to.

Unfortunately, all of us can do our own job very well. As architects we know a great deal about architecture. Highway engineers know a great deal about highway engi neering. Sanitary engineers know a great deal about sanitation. But to allow any one of us a free rein in an area where a great number of parts, a great number of ideas and abilities have to come together, is sheer madness. And yet this is the way we perform with respect to the development of the city.

Suddenly we realize that there is a traffic problem, and therefore we go to one person who is a traffic engineer. He gets rid of all the things which are obstructions to free wheeling traffic and, in doing so, virtually destroys the city.

I don't know how long it would take the city of Seattle to recover from its freeway system, but the city that was no longer exists. That is an intriguing problem to speculate upon.

It is interesting that in cities such as Rome and Paris and the older cities in Europe, also in Asia, Tokyo, they are doing these things but with a great deal more imagin ation, a great deal more respect for the city itself. Being more practised city dwellers they know more about it. So the highways are not elements which completely disrupt the city.

The highway is treated in Tokyo for instance as a building. Not in all cases, but in the more intelligent cases the highway when it comes into the city is treated as simply another building. It is not, perhaps, as perfect an engineering solution, but it is a very workable solution, and is a much greater asset to the city itself. Paris on the other hand is burying its freeway so that nothing rends the fabric of that most beautiful of cities.

One of our great tasks, then, is seeing the total situation; of bringing the demographer, the ecologist, the sociologist, the planner, the architect, the engineer, the techni cians, who can bring differing views of the situation together and not be satisfied until in every respect the solution is a true asset to the city.

One should not, I firmly believe, commit a solution unless you improve a situation, and improve every aspect of the situation.

Too often we feel--and I think this is a North American trait, which comes from the fact that the pioneer had to clear the land; he had to destroy the forest to make things grow, and he got a complex about destroying things, and he got a complex about renewing things--we feel that if we can provide something new, something nice, shiny and bright, we have solved the problem.

Usually we have not solved the problem; but replaced it with another problem that probably will have worse consequences eventually than the original one. We seem to be unable to understand the importance of the city in human terms and to come to grips with it on this basis.

Also now we are beginning to trust our machines. We seem to trust those solutions which are arrived at through factual data analysis and this sort of thing. This is one reason why the computer is such a boon to the humanizing of our attitudes towards the North American city. Here we have a machine which can absorb and collect a great number of facts and data, much more than we could as humans, and this is beginning to undermine the narrow specialist attitude towards the phenomena of the city.

The role of the architect in all this is--well--I'm convinced that we really are no longer concerned with buildings as such. We are no longer concerned with appear ances as such. This was an area that was of much concern to us about a hundred years ago, and certainly four hundred years before that -but in the early half of this century we began to be less concerned about appearances alone.

One of the early platforms of contemporary architecture you are aware of was functionalism. Functionalism was no more than an elaboration of the scientific attitude towards phenomena that required that one take things apart to find out how they worked. This has penetrated into our art forms and certainly into architecture.

This architecture was beautiful if it worked. As in a glass model of a human heart, if you showed all the different valves and how they performed and this sort of thing, this became of aesthetic value in itself.

But I think we are now moving into another stage which is much more important. This is to begin to question the actual meaning and importance of our institutions. By asking the question we are beginning to solve for the first time some of the great building problems that beset us today, such as housing, such as the office building, such as the university. We are beginning to make some kind of progress in understanding what these particular building phenomena mean in our civilizations, and to come up not with final answers but with statements of greater significance.

The Toronto City Hall for instance is a building that has given a great deal of pleasure and importance to the citizens of Toronto--this is simply because it was not just

a building but something else as well. It offered a meaningful symbol which came closer to interpreting what the city hall should be to a city.

I am particularly concerned with this aspect of architecture, and I see evidence of it everywhere in North America and in Europe. There is a tremendous develop ment and experiment in, for instance, the whole problem of housing for as yet we simply have not faced this problem. There was an experiment at Expo which was a very worthy experiment in its way. There are many equivalent experiments in Europe trying to find out just what is the problem of the human habitat in the twentieth century.

In North America it is very difficult to establish because so many other values enter into the human habitat. We have not had to face as yet the simple prob lems of overcrowding and shelter which are so critical in Europe and in Asia. So our approach to the house, our approach to the apartment building, has been again a very particularized and very narrowly functionalist one. This is why we have developed the particular human hell which is the modern apartment building.

Lin Yutang had a wonderful dissertation on this in which God was showing Man all the wonders of the world. But Man was not very enthusiastic. He showed him Niagara Falls, He showed him the great forests, the great canyons, the highest mountains, depths of the sea and so on. But Man only yawned until finally God became very angry and said, "Man, you can go to Hell", and so he condemned him to live the rest of his life in the contemporary apartment building.

The real purpose of architecture I think, as with any art, is to somehow interpret our environment to us. And again I will illustrate with the Toronto City Hall, because you are all familiar with it. It expresses its purpose to you in much stronger, I think more eloquent terms than almost any other buildings that have been built in Canada. And this is really what a building should show us: What is a university? What is an office building? What is the human habitation at this present time? What is our city?

The problem of the city is largely unanswered but we are beginning to face it. For instance painters, for the first time have been able to dip into the lore of the twentieth century city, and to come up with op art, pop art, kinetic art, etc.

But what they are doing, you see, is really interpreting our environment to us and making it possible for us to get aesthetic pleasure out of our immediate circumstances. I think no matter how one appraises these new forms of art they are doing no differently than any art form has done any time in history--a mirror to reality. And this is the real role of the artist.

One of the great problems is that it is difficult for any artist, for any architect, for any planner, for any engineer today to keep within their terms of reference. If you are an architect by profession, I am not sure what you are supposed to do.

Are you supposed to build houses? Are you supposed to build buildings? Are you supposed to be involved in landscape, or traffic, or cityscape? Our language has posed artificial strictures to our professions. These in themselves create barriers to our thinking. However, different organizations are being formed to day so that the whole field of the human environment can come under the examination of a group of people which incorporate the many points of view that are required to face any problem today.

The architect has sort of one foot in technology and one foot in art. And he is really in most cases not very faithful to either. However, he tries his best, and I think he does have that one quality of having been involved in so many aspects of the physical environment and having been involved in so many aspects of the city that he has perhaps a great deal of sensibility towards it. With the team that we see converging to deal with the problems of growth and development of the city, this kind of human sensibility is one of the most important assets that we have to get back.

One of the most critical questions that we have to face in the near future is what is the North American city? With respect to this question, I was in Ottawa a month or two ago. I was with some friends from Latin America who were very interested in the capital city. They were very curious about the parliament buildings and very distinguished in their own right. I took them afterwards, by accident, to the Sparks Street Mall.

These people had come from cities which have disastrous slums, inadequate sanitation, and things like that. I am sure that if I visited their cities or towns I would have been shocked at the sanitary conditions in some parts of their cities, but I cannot tell you the shock and the shame I felt over the Sparks Street Mall. This presumably was our kind of central square or market place. Rather than proper paving somebody had painted stripes across the street. There were hand-made wooden flower planters. There was a collection of indifferent looking sculpture and paintings. The whole thing was the shoddiest piece of urban design that I have ever seen. All right in a provincial town, but in the National Capital main street? I must say that the shame I felt about that was, I am sure, not more nor less than the shame they would feel about their overt slums and open sewers.

Now, this is just a different point of view, and I think one that we have to learn. After all, our whole approach has been, I think, not an open sewer approach but a sani tary approach. As a result they have magnificent city squares and we have excellent sanitation.

In North America, we have been preoccupied with organization to get our cities working. We have had so many problems in this respect--and this goes right back throughout North American history: that we have had to face always the immediate physical problems of getting things cleared, settled, working, etcetera. We really have not had time to look at things. If we have to somehow put a city together so that it looks well, we tend to do it in a rather haphazard way.

Certainly no South American and no Italian citizen would ever, even in the poorest town, put together the kind of mélange that I saw in our capital city.

Our cultural attitudes are different--were different--I hope we are changing, coming of age. We are beginning to get used to cities, beginning to enjoy them, even begin ning in a reluctant way to love them. But we can't begin to love them until we first begin to look at them. Let us begin to see what we have seldom ever observed, our own peculiar environment.

Thanks of the meeting were expressed by Murray G. Ross.

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Seeing Is Believing, The New Visual Environment


Inhabiting a place about which we show the most fantastic ignorance. Ways of thinking that have made it impossible for us to realize just what the city is. The tendency to particularize, to specialize. The North American city gradually being destroyed, dismembered by righteous, logical but totally insensitive attitudes. Planners, architects, engineers beginning to realize the folly of the approach, and beginning to contradict the tenets of zoning. Beginning to mix factories, residences, etc.: just as disastrous an attitude, but a way of getting out of the present situation. Examples of problems caused by such specialization. Some examples of alternative approaches. The great task of seeing the total situation; bringing different views of the situation together. The role of the architect. Functionalism and how it worked. Moving into another stage. Beginning to question the actual meaning and importance of our institutions. The human habitat in the twentieth century. The real purpose of architecture. The problem of the city. Facing the problem. What is the North American city? Coming of age. Observing and really seeing our own peculiar environment.