Seeing the world through Arthur Erickson's eyes

October 14, 2022
View of buildings from a boat in Jaipur (F-299-1-0-0-0-8)

Giraffes in the Serengeti…a polo match in the Hunza Valley…architecture along the waterways of Jaipur…ice skaters performing in the Canadian Government pavilion at Expo 70 in Osaka, Japan…These are some of the many sights Canadian architect Arthur Erickson captured on 8 mm film during his travels through India, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Japan in the late 1960s and 1970s.

In creating the winning overall design for Simon Fraser University with his colleague Geoffrey Massey in 1963, Erickson drew on the knowledge he gained during his travels and his architectural studies, drawing influence from sites such as the Acropolis in Athens and the ruins at Machu Picchu.1 His views on architecture and landscape in general were informed and inspired by his extensive travels through diverse areas of the world. During the Second World War, he served as a member of the Canadian Army in Malaysia, India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and, after graduating from McGill University’s School of Architecture in 1950, he used a travel scholarship to visit areas in Japan, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East.2

A frame from Erickson's Afghanistan film (F-299-1-0-0-0-6)

In 2021, ten of Erickson's original travel films were donated to SFU Archives by the Erickson family, along with additional archival material. The films provide a unique opportunity to see some of the world through Erickson's eyes and to gain insight into what interested and, perhaps, inspired him. Watching the footage captured through the lens of his film camera, one has the feeling of being there, next to Erickson, sharing his experiences as he travels by boat in India or makes his way through the streets of a city in Afghanistan.

As one might expect, a significant portion of the footage is focused on architectural structures and landscapes in the countries he visits, whether it is taken on land, from the water or up in the air.

In his footage of the Canadian pavilion at Expo 70, which he designed with Massey in 1969, Erickson captures the building from multiple angles and spends several minutes filming the kaleidoscopic effect of the spinning silkscreen umbrellas created by artist Gordon Smith. Yet Erickson not only documents the fair's built structures, he also captures the energy of its attendees and its formal participants, such as the dignitaries visiting the pavilion, performers, guides and representatives of other nations. Similarly, beyond merely recording Erickson's activities, the footage of cities and villages and their inhabitants found in many of the films provides a glimpse into scenes of daily life and landscapes that may no longer exist fifty-some years later.

Spinning umbrellas at the Canadian Government pavilion, Expo 70, Osaka, Japan. Expo '70 film (F-299-1-0-0-0-10)
Francisco Kripacz with a group in the Hunza Valley (F-299-2-0-0-0-1)

We also see a more personal side of Erickson’s life through the many appearances in the films of his life partner and travel companion, Francisco Kripacz. Kripacz designed the interiors of many of Erickson’s buildings, including Roy Thompson Hall, the Eppich Houses and the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C. In one particularly memorable scene in the Hunza film, Kripacz and another man are transported in a small box across a river using a pulley system.

Although many of the films are not dated, the use of both 8mm and Super 8 film indicates that they were likely produced after 1965, when the Super 8 format was first created by the Kodak Eastman Company. Both formats were used primarily for home movies and other amateur films. Over the years, with the advent of new technology, the use of the film and the equipment required to play it has declined dramatically. Therefore, the best way to ensure its long-term accessibility is through digitization.

Erickson films in their original canisters

The travel films were digitized earlier this year and they are now available for viewing in their entirety online in SFU AtoM. The remaining audiovisual material, in obsolete formats like u-matic and betamax, is next on our list for digitization and we are excited to see how this additional footage adds to or complements that of the films.

1"The Design for Simon Fraser University and the Problems Accompanying Excellence" by Gene Waddell. Item F-326-1-0-0-0-1 in SFU Atom.
Arthur Erickson Foundation website (accessed October 11, 2022).