Heritage on the Rocks
The demolition of Arthur Erickson's Graham house in West Vancouver upset a great many people–but all for the wrong reasons
March 2, 2008
In late November, a flurry of finger-wagging media commentators discussed the demolition of an Arthur Erickson house in West Vancouver. A wealthy developer named Shiraz Lalji (with, the insinuation went, no interest in local heritage or fine architecture) tore down the Graham house at 6999 Isleview, near Horseshoe Bay, in order to replace it with a “monster home.”
What went unreported was that there was no treasure to tear down. Erickson’s Graham house-built in 1963 for David Graham-had been steadily stripped of its original genius over decades. Erickson built a 3,500-square-foot wood-and-glass icon on what everyone had considered an impossible site. By last winter, that house was a bloated 6,000 square feet, thanks to unsympathetic, non-Erickson additions. The fireplace was built over. An elevator had been installed. The house was lost not when bulldozers arrived in the front yard; it was lost piecemeal over many years. And the culprit was not a wealthy, London-based businessman, but a community that failed to safeguard its own heritage.
The painter Gordon Smith lives (with his wife, Marion) a short drive from the Graham house in another Erickson building. (Theirs was built in 1966 and is also sited remarkably on problematic rock.) The Smith house, unlike the Graham, is a stunning example of informed preservation. All the furnishings work in harmony with Erickson’s design, and the Smiths employ “a full-time man” to keep up the landscaping and exterior.
Without the stewardship of a sympathetic artist like Smith, how can we maintain private property as a public legacy? Cheryl Cooper, founder of the Arthur Erickson Conservancy, says the fate of the Graham house should serve as a wake-up call. West Vancouver and other municipalities will, she hopes, take the demolition as an impetus for appreciating the heritage we can still save. “Look at the age of Canada,” says Cooper. “Modern heritage is half our heritage. Fifty years from now people are going to look back on us and wonder why we didn’t fight to save it.”
The day after the nighttime knock-down, architecture critic Trevor Boddy appeared on Fanny Kiefer’s Studio 4 and pointed out, “We don’t have ways to protect these houses; we don’t have adequate ways to protect our history. We’ve got the weakest heritage legislation in the Western world.” When he brought up the Smith house, he noted that they, too, have the legal right to flatten their home. Kiefer’s eyes went saucer-wide: “I know them and I can tell you-never.”
Never say never. The Smiths have bequeathed their home to the Vancouver Art Gallery, and once the VAG has it, “They can knock it down and raise money for themselves-that would be fine,” says Smith. “People will be angry with me saying that. But we have put no conditions on them. Keeping a home preserved forever is a romantic idea. But, you know, at the Graham house? Even the Grahams didn’t really know what they had.”
What the Grahams had, back in 1963, is recorded in Ezra Stoller’s photographs (those luminous shots that ran in papers and online in lieu of the pre-demolition reality: broken windows, stripped drywall). In Stoller’s photos, like the one featured in the preceding spread, we find a gorgeous multilevel house, descending in parcels of glass and raw wood down a rocky cliff. Inside, highlighted by late-afternoon sun, three figures are lounging, at ease with the masterpiece surrounding them. The photo again raises the question: how can private property be reconciled with a public heritage?
As for Shiraz Lalji, he may turn out to be no greater a villain than your average rich man who is used to having his own way. The material issue is whether we have a mechanism in place to protect Vancouver’s architectural inheritance. Do we, as a city, even know what we have? The Graham house debacle exposed our collective confusion.
West Vancouver’s senior city planner, Stephen Mikicich, told the papers he can only work to save heritage homes “by the tools that are available to us.” Rather than indulging in reactionary griping about big bad developers-or chaining ourselves to run-down houses, as one activist did this winter-let’s get ourselves some sharper tools