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Vital Signs Project: The Museum of Anthropology


(Objectives) (Background) (The Architect) (Museum Sequence) (Systems)
(Long Term Measurements) (Conclusion) (References)

The Intent Of The Architect

Arthur Erickson at his home, August 1981 (from Seven Stones, by Edith Iglauer)

In the architectural press articles are usually published when a building has initially opened, rather than after it has been in use for some time. Because of this, building designs are usually presented solely on the basis of the intent of the designer rather than on how a building actually performs in use. For practicing architects to improve their design skills, it is important to understand whether design intent has been met after a building is occupied and in use. Our research team felt it was important to understand the design intent of Arthur Erickson, the designer of the Museum of Anthropology, as part of our investigation of the physical performance of the building. We researched books and articles on Erickson and the Museum of Anthropology so that our investigation of the building would be more fully informed. We were also very fortunate, and greatly appreciate the fact, that Arthur Erickson met with our research team in April of 1996 to discuss his work and the museum.

The initial comments below are based on research the team conducted while undertaking the investigation of the Museum of Anthropology.

Before he designed the Museum of Anthropology, Arthur Erickson had been practicing for years, predominantly doing work in the Vancouver area. He had extensively traveled abroad to study the architecture of foreign countries, and the influence of observations from his travels are evident in much of his work. At the same time, Erickson always strove to incorporate the design of the building with the region in which it was placed. In general, Erickson worked to highlight what he considers the four principal architectural elements: site, light, cadence and space - to drive the direction of his designs.

Erickson had long held great admiration and respect for the Native American cultures and had learned much about their lifestyles and customs. For this reason he seemed an appropriate choice as architect of the Museum of Anthropology. Erickson stated that, "You have to get inside the minds of the people who made these primitive sculptures, the masks, the totem poles. You have to have experienced their fears and superstitions concerning their rain forest and their coastal mountains." Input from museum curators and attributes of specific artifacts influenced the building's form throughout the design process. Retaining the natural settings of Native American artifacts was of primary significance as the conceptual basis for the design. His desire to include the natural environment as part of the design is in part accomplished via large expanses of glass to connect the outside with the inside. Natural lighting is intentionally utilized to cast natural shade and shadow upon the exhibits. Erickson says, "On the coast, there was a noble and great response to this land that has never been equaled since."

Erickson attempted to abstractly represent these natural conditions indoors. He coupled changes in the character of the lighting with the visitor's experience of moving through the building. In addition, the spaces are scaled to the exhibits. Erickson said, "Most of my concepts have to do with how one moves, and since the site is sloped, I felt the whole movement should be down a long ramp with more and more revealed, until the whole space burst open with a view of the sea." In order to achieve that experience in the Great Hall, Erickson enclosed the northwest-facing space with broad areas of glass and a succession of concrete beams of increasing length separated by slivers of skylight. There are conflicting opinions of what these concrete piers are meant to mimic. Erickson is quoted by one source as saying the posts and beams recall the form of the frame of a tribal dwelling. Another source quotes Erickson as saying that the piers simulate massive tree trunks. In either case, the Great Hall represents the forest's edge, overlooking the prospect of the land and water.

To heighten this experience, Erickson had intended to surround the northwest side of the museum with an artificial lake, which would not only complete the native environment which it sought to simulate, but would also reflect the sunset, and bring "moving light" into the Great Hall as the water rippled. Due to the site's location perched upon a cliff above the strait, this artificial lake was intended to seamlessly blur into the waters of the Georgia Strait, creating an illusion of continuity with the distant landscape. However, this part of the design was never implemented for cost reasons.

Models were extensively used to determine the effects of daylighting in the spaces. In the Great Hall, skylights are used to temper the high contrast that would occur between the surfaces of the artifacts and the sky viewed through the glazed walls behind them. The skylights are tinted bronze and the light entering the space through them is muted, so that it does not compete with the power of the northwest glazed walls. This natural light from above is supplemented with spot lights recessed between the beams. In the Koerner Masterpiece Gallery, track lights are used in a similar fashion, to lessen the contrast between the natural light present at the outside edge and the objects on display in the interior of the gallery. Incandescent lamps with bronze filters are used in the display cases to highlight the delicate artifacts.

The comments that follow grew out of an interview the team had with Arthur Erickson on April 27, 1996.

Arthur Erickson not only designed the Museum of Anthropology but also acquired the major necessary funding from the federal government. He was also acquainted with the principal donors of the major artifacts, Audrey and Harry Hawthorn. Prior to designing the building, Erickson had a good understanding of both Native American cultures and the items which were to be housed in the museum. The main reason for creating totems, says Erickson, is to humanize that which is threatening, particularly the harsh elements of the natural environment, and the creatures within it.

Each segment of the ramped gallery contains artifacts from different Northwest Coast Indian tribes. The top of the ramp contains artifacts from tribes from around the immediate region. As one moves down the ramp, the origin of the artifacts moves north. There is a clear distinction between the work of the Northwest Coast Indians by region, from north to south. This is due to climactic differences. The art of the south is more free. The carvings take on a more three-dimensional form, and the carvings are more naturalistic. As one moves further north, the carvings become more formal in style. An exhibit designer, apparently unaware of Erickson's intentions, mounted a jumble of masks along the ramp instead. Erickson noticed this shortly before the museum was to have its grand opening and ordered that the museum not open until this mistake was fixed. The intent of the ramped gallery was quickly restored, using artifacts hand picked by the Hawthorns.

A similar occurrence happened with the Great Hall. The totems were arranged by an expert. All the totems faced inward, to focus their gazes at the visitor. Erickson preferred to have the totems from the different regions face each other. Erickson intended the ramp to signify a river emptying into the sea, spilling into the center of the Great Hall. The facing of the totems across this river was intended to be symbolic of their recognition and unity towards each other. The arrangement of these totems in such as way, gives the space a mystical dimension. Erickson compares this to the statues which form the columns of the Acropolis, which also look outward.

The metaphor would have been strengthened, mentioned Erickson, if the government hadn't stopped the implementation of the outdoor lake, which would have come right up to the edge of the building. The water would not only have connected the interior and exterior spaces, but it also would have seamlessly blended the immediate landscape with the strait in the distance, relating the entire landscape to the Great Hall. Despite the lack of lake, the large expanses of glass allow a strong association between the artifacts in the room and the surrounding natural environment from which they came. The issue of preservation of the artifacts was brought up during the interview. Erickson responded that the notion of cycles is integral in Native American beliefs. Everything has a life, and everything comes to an end- all must follow this natural progression. In the same manner, the totems should disintegrate with time. In fact, there was some controversy among Native Americans, of attempting to preserve the artifacts in the museum.

The museum was designed and built under a tight budget - three million dollars. As Erickson himself put it, "This building was really cheap." Erickson used Plexiglas instead of glass in the skylights, and concrete for the structure and walls, to keep within this budget. With regards to the concrete, Erickson felt that this material was appropriate because of it's neutral character, allowing the artifacts themselves to stand out. At one point, Erickson tried a lacy steel structure, but found it to be too distracting. He firmly believes that an architect should do what they can to bring attention to the object, and make the background, the walls, floors and ceiling, "absolutely neutral". For this same reason, Erickson chose gray carpet, and gray ceiling panels where there was not concrete. The neutrality of the interior of the building also helps to bring attention to the connection between outside environment and the artifacts. Erickson also mentioned the tight budget for the electrical lighting system which uses standard spotlights- "not a sophisticated lighting system."

The artifacts range from massive in the Great Hall to precious in the Masterpiece Gallery, showing the range of work by these peoples. Part of the reason for establishing the different galleries is to show the breadth of the native people's work- not just select items which give a limited understanding of the culture.

In Erickson's mind, one of the most successful aspects of the museum is the way visitors move systematically through the galleries. The ability to bring artifacts from the research collection out of storage, allowing the public to view the full expanse of the museum's collection was also very important to him. Erickson was very pleased with the way the Native American Indians accepted the museum, or in his words, "adopted the museum". Tribes hold events at the museum, such as potlatches and salmon bakes. The Haita longhouse outside of the museum is sometimes used as a steam house. This was an unforeseen, but welcomed use of the museum, and for Erickson, a major indicator of success.

Overall, Erickson said he strove for a "tranquility of space", where there is a resolution of forces to bring the building into balance.

Comments to author: vitalsigns@

All contents copyright (C) 1998. Vital Signs Project. All rights reserved.

Created: 05/06/97
Revised: 09/09/02