Arthur Erickson’s Plea for Economic and Environmental Responsibility

Arthur Erickson, the pre-eminent Canadian architect who died of Alzheimer’s on Wednesday at the age of 84, gave an amazing speech to a group of bankers in 1972. At the time, he was only seven years removed from the commission (the campus of Simon Fraser University, done with Geoffrey Massey) that would launch his long and illustrious career. Speaking at the Institute of Canadian Bankers, Erickson warned this roomful of moneymen about the dangers of Western arrogance, the threat posed by global tourism, the importance of native cultures, and the stress all this was placing on the limited resources of planet Earth. Reading the speech today is thrilling (“you, as bankers,” Erickson said, “cannot afford to be concerned with only the economic aspects of projects that you finance. There may be serious implications on the natural environment, on the urban environment, on human culture, which at some future time may even be considered crimes against mankind”) and depressing (the same speech could be given today, almost word for word). Erickson’s legacy is a large one: he designed at all scales (houses, towers, urban plans), went spectacularly broke in 1992 (amassing more than $10 million in debt), received the AIA’s Gold Medal in 1996. But today, as tributes and obits pour in from all over the world, he might be best honored by going to his Web site and reading that remarkably prescient speech he gave to a roomful of bankers almost 37 years ago.

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