01 . 05 . 2017

Architect Arthur Erickson’s Bank of Canada legacy

AUTHOR John Geddes

Why some of the celebrated Canadian architect’s work has been discarded

As the Bank of Canada’s roughly 1,600 employees move back into to their landmark Ottawa headquarters early this year, few are likely to pause to admire any of the 50 rather plain oak-and-tubular-steel desks scattered through some of their shared meeting spaces.

There are, after all, more interested changes to take in. While they were working from temporary offices for about the past three years, the entire complex—both its original, glowering granite building from 1937, and the glassy 1979 addition that surrounds it on three sides—underwent $460-million worth of renovations.

For instance, an irregular glass-fronted pyramid now juts out of a plaza at one of the capital’s most prominent intersections, the corner of Bank and Wellington streets, forming a new entrance to the bank’s museum. State-of-the-art ventilation, energy, and security systems were integrated into those 1979 buildings, comprising two striking 12-storey towers joined by a soaring atrium—all designed by the late Arthur Erickson, arguably Canada’s most famous modern architect.

Surplus furniture designed by the great Canadian architect Arthur Erickson.

Surplus furniture designed by the great Canadian architect Arthur Erickson.

Erickson, who died in 2009, also designed those 50 easily overlooked blond oak desks on steel legs. He was a stickler for the relationship between his buildings and the stuff inside them. As a result, the bank had to grapple with what to do with his furniture during the massive renovation. Not all of the Erickson-designed pieces survived.

Not that he lacks defenders. The bank’s reno project happened to coincide roughly with expansions and upgrades at two other standout Erickson buildings in his hometown of Vancouver, the downtown Robson Square complex and the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology. All the alterations prompted his admirers to organize the Arthur Erickson Foundation Stewardship Council to fight for the preservation of his vision.

The council’s chair, Montreal’s formidable Phyllis Lambert, founder of the city’s Canadian Centre for Architecture, said the new group “intervened strongly” to persuade the bank to retain a scaled-back version of the tropical garden Erickson put in an interior courtyard. On the furniture front, though, the Erickson enthusiasts can’t claim total victory.

Surplus chrome-and-glass desks designed by the great Canadian architect Arthur Erickson.

Of 220 Erickson-designed desks, the bank told Maclean’s those 50 were kept for use in meeting rooms in the refurbished buildings. The other 170 were offered to other federal departments, but nobody wanted them. Like the bank, they found that his unadorned 1970s design didn’t fit with the computer-oriented needs of today’s bureaucrats.

Those unwanted desks were “recycled in an environmentally conscious manner,” the bank said, by an office furniture company called Teknion. Dozens of sleek, chrome-and-glass tables, also designed by Erikson, fared much better: They will all be used throughout the renovated headquarters. The bank is also reupholstering, in their original green, the classic, modernist Cesca chairs, which Erickson matched with his own custom-designed desks and tables.

Tara Akitt, permanent collection and programs supervisor at Design Exchange, a museum of Canadian design in Toronto, said finding buyers for the desks would have been difficult, since “private collectors and institutions are few and far between in Canada.” But she added, “While the desks are minimal in form, it makes them no less valuable.”

On the exact fate of the 170 desks deemed surplus, Teknion did not respond to questions by the time this story was published. However, the bank’s spokesperson said by email, “The wood in the Erickson desks was recycled for re-use and the metal components were also recycled (e.g., scrap value).”

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