Categorized | design critiques, world

Fresno City Hall architect, Arthur Erickson (1924-2009)

arthur-ericksonProminent Canadian architect Arthur Erickson died Wednesday May 20th at the age of 84. He was living in a Vancouver B.C. suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. This was brought to my attention through an article in Washington Post (requires login), same article without pictures on HeraldNet (no login required).

Erickson was a very accomplished architect and designed several controversial buildings including the Canadian Embassy in Washington and Fresno City Hall.

In Fresno, conversations about architecture often stray to the question “So, what do you think about City Hall?” and they are often delivered in a loaded tone. My response is that I admire the building’s bravery, in breaking from the tradition of NeoClassical and Beaux-Arts styles overused for civic building in the United States. Further I appreciate that it took on an Organic feel the building embraces.

fresno-city-hall-birdseyeThe angular metal roof line references the Sierra Nevada mountain range to the east. A gap at the peak reinforce that reference and reads through to the interior as a skylight in council chambers. The roof juts out over pedestrian walk ways, and becomes landscape. There is strong formality with symmetrical and grand sweeping entries up to the second floor and council chambers.

fresno-city-hall-interiorThe council chambers, I find particularly beautiful. Polished metal, soft wood and natural light pouring in the the sky light above make the space uplifting no mater what the topic is on the dais.

The building of course is not with out it’s flaws. And I imagine some might share those thoughts here. But there was a review written about the the Canadian Embassy in Washington that I feel also pertains to Fresno City Hall: “Erickson has given us a powerful building in a place that calls for one, and there is as well a certain entrancing, poetic quality in its forceful contradictions,” Forgey wrote in The Post in 1988. “His building is an edgy, flawed masterpiece … but a masterpiece.”

William Patnaude FAIA was the local project architect and construction administrator of Fresno City Hall. The creation is as much his as Mr. Erickson’s. I will update with Mr. Patnaude’s thoughts on Erickson next week.

I’d like to close with an excerpt from Mr. Erickson’s 1986 AIA Gold Medal Citation

“Global architect, Arthur Charles Erickson is a passionate advocate of cultural awareness, and a fervent explorer of human and natural environments. His buildings, though remarkably diverse, share deep respect for the context, incomparable freshness and grace, and the dramatic use of space and light. He has brought to his work an understanding of the community of man that, when filtered through his insightful mind and fertile imagination, gives birth to a singular architecture that is in dialogue with the world.”

Photos courtesy of and Mark Darley / Esto

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3 Responses to “Fresno City Hall architect, Arthur Erickson (1924-2009)”

  1. eric field says:

    Thanks for this.

    I’ve always wondered who designed city hall.
    It’s been a bit of a design month for me, as one of my fav’s (the Guggenheim) is up for a birthday, and she’s getting some ink in the NYT regarding her designer, and another structure he did that did not fare as well through the ages… (Kiel, you may have even brought this to my attention in a general post.)

    My cousin, who is an ironworker, spent a lot of time on City Hall, it has that pinnion of reference for me, beyond that? I have not really gone that deep into it, mentally, and I appreciate your writing on this designer.

    But back to ‘daring.’
    –In a way?
    there is the idea of ‘dealing with someone and speaking to them, treating them in a way (that) even IF they do not act ‘that way?’
    -you address them THAT way, nonetheless, hoping they rise to the occasion, and form ‘up.’
    (it’s an old technique that a lot of friends who are proffs, instructors, and mentors do in shaping their students.)
    It Can work spectacularly… though not always.

    I think of that and then I think of ‘why’ Fresno chose this building.
    -Was it just needing ’something new’ and ‘controversial,’ and attention seeking? (don’t know.) -would like to think not.

    But if it was an attempt to ‘reverse’ or shape ‘up’ a mindset
    ‘…We’re going to have this astonishng structure, and it’s going to change things…’
    (not unlike, say the Sydney Opera House, (or) the Guggenheim.)

    –I find how ‘that’ went (socially) to be far more intreaguing and far more ‘telling.’
    (Not far from the building?
    another administrative structure called ‘the Chicken Coup.’ semi-admiringly by those directing anyone towards it. City hall is usually called ‘the space-ship.’)

    In terms of getting it built? success.
    (and my cousin does excellent work.)

    In terms of initiatng dialogue ‘what do YOU think of this thing…’
    –yeah, also a success, and it’s art and design that succeeds in being controversial and gets conversations ’started.’
    -in a way. –but that’s only a fuse.

    In terms of changing the mindset of the people?
    It may be too soon to tell,
    (I don’t know when City Hall was completed,)
    based upon how the town has effectively ‘moved away from itself,’ –and (unlike the Sydney Opera House, or Guggenheim)
    people do NOT seem to enjoy living in it’s shadow, (nor) see it as a bit of a quirky, eccentric, yet VERY much loved aunt (Guggenheim,)
    –I wonder if it (Fresno and City Hall ) has failed.

    -Not the building.. the Building is a success, it does it’s job and it sort of squats there, downtown, trying to engage in conversation…
    –but like so many other things that squat downtown, trying to engage in conversation…
    it’s largely avoided, and honestly, kind of rejected.
    –I see this as no baring on the Building itself.

    I sincerely hope, (if/when) Fresno decides to embrace it’s downtown and not just ‘go there when it has to work or pay a PG&E bill’
    -it will actually engage in dialouge with this poor structure…
    As it will not ‘age’ like a person?
    -and as it sits static?
    It’s not going to get tired, get sick, or just wander off into it’s own delusions…
    It’s made of steel and concrete and is obviously not going anywhere.

    You just kind of wish that it’s ‘bold, controversial statement, desire for dialogue, seeking to get others to ’see’ and ‘think’ and ‘embrace’ ‘new and different’ things’ (how Canadian)
    –was answered with some sort of (any sort of) intelligent response,
    and not simply abandoned and referenced to from across the room, in barely comprehendng beer-breath, and belches…

    She’s a strange girl,
    but a beautiful one, (regardless,)
    -and doesn’t deserve to be sitting there on the far side of the floor staring at her shoes, (her only companion called ‘the chicken coupe’ too far to dance with.)

    good post.

  2. David Alexander says:

    Why is it not underground? We are desert. It is like a lost piece of jewelry left behind by a 21st century wagon train, beautiful but out of place. Site specific design seems to have been lightly entertained. The stainless that clads the exterior is under guaged and gives the seemingly hoped for machined quality of the skin of the edifice a somewhat wrinkled temporary feeling in its undulations. I am sure this was not the effect that was planned or hoped for. To go on would just seem like piling on. It is not the design of the interior or exterior, the building is just misplaced and underfunded relative to the exterior materials. David Alexander A fan of the architects.

  3. kiel says:

    article “Arthur Erickson, Lauded Canadian Architect, Dies” By Trevor Boddy, published June 25, 2009 with Architectural Record


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