Arthur Erickson, one of Canada’s most prominent architects, is dead. Even Washingtonians who don’t know his name know his work: The Canadian embassy, certainly the most prominently displayed foreign embassy in the nation’s capitol. It sits on the Mall, just down the hill from the Capitol, and it is a building loved and hated in perhaps equal proportions. Many people found it a mish-mash of classical and modernist references when it opened in 1989, and it has been unfavorably compared to I. M. Pei’s East Wing of the National Gallery, nearby. The embassy seems to honor its host country with a round, classical, portico-like figure facing one direction, though the columns were meant to symbolize the provinces and territories of Canada. Alas, this odd folly is covered by an overhanging slab of the building, supported on a strangely spindly column, like a toy White House sheltered from the world by a table leg and leaf. It baffles many observers.
I learned of Erickson’s death the same day that I’m preparing to participate on a panel about embassy architecture at the Finnish Embassy (see link below). So I’ve been thinking about the messages the United States and other countries send through their foreign embassy architecture. It’s never easy to separate the building from one’s preconceived about ideas about the country it represents. New Zealand’s DC embassy, for instance, is really just an ugly backwater attached to the British embassy. Is there symbolism in that? Or just an accident?
Erickson’s embassy was a better building when the public spaces—gallery and auditorium—could be accessed from street level, rather than from the main, ceremonial entrance up the stairs and under the table overhang. But live with a building long enough and you generally make your peace with it (though not always, see: FBI Building). Today, Erickson’s embassy strikes me as a reasonably friendly, slightly bland, and occasionally silly building. Perhaps another instance of confusing the country with the embassy. In any case, it doesn’t bristle with the empty energy of the Newseum, next door. Thank goodness for that.