It was one of the most masterly conceits of late 20th-century architecture: a whole university reduced to a single line on the horizon, stretching along cliffs overlooking a river valley. Almost 1,000 feet long and nine stories tall, Arthur Erickson’s University of Lethbridge came in 1972 at the end of a decade of experimentation in which Erickson and others had designed so-called megastructures with a force—if not a functionality or human scale—that still beguiles. Here in the plains of Alberta, he took that idea to its most elemental essence.
When I was invited to give a lecture at the university, I was quite excited to visit the structure, driving down there recently from the Canadian city of Calgary through two hours of flat prairie. Imagine my disappointment when I arrived on the campus and found myself parking in the usual asphalt morass, winding my way past the kind of academic buildings that are so mediocre, mundane, and without identity that they make big box retail buildings look good. Then I walked down a slope to—finally—see the building, but from the back and top, its roof festooned with a forest of exhaust pipes and risers.
At least the structure is still there, and is fully in use, with even some of the original fixtures and furniture still in place. Descending through the levels of the Centre for the Arts, a 1981 addition by one of Erickson’s associates, I came upon the main corridor, interrupted only by a few irritating kiosks, running the whole length of the building, pulsing with groups of students as classes let out. Those users moved past the curving seating arrangements, out to view the landscape, or down into the levels of dorm rooms that make up the building’s base. Outside, the cliffs of the Oldman River Valley undulated around the building’s mass. A trestle railroad bridge in the distance echoed Erickson’s statement, coursing its human-made way across the huge horizon of the northern expanse.
Part of the problem, which Erickson should have foreseen, was that you were always going to approach the university from the north and above, if you came from anywhere but directly from the town of Lethbridge, a small market town across the river to the east. Even then, you would see the structure as you crossed the river, but you would still have to circle back to enter, as I did—and you would thus see it from behind and above.
Erickson’s idea of how to extend the campus as it grew was very different and would have made that path more logical. He envisioned another wing to the university, of the same length but slightly offset, to make the line even more powerful, and then a large circle on the flat part of the site that would have contained student housing and other services. Every aspect of Lethbridge that both he and the clients expected to grow considerably would have its own geometry and form, carried out in concrete and anchored to the landscape.
By the time the first phase of Lethbridge opened, such grand schemes were already out of favor, as was the systems-based thinking of which this kind of large-scale and monumental architecture was part. Though the Centre for the Arts, the library, and the Students’ Union were designed by Erickson associates and are relatively forceful in their forms, the emphasis was put more on creating structures tuned to the human scale.
This was not altogether without logic, of course. I have no doubt that some of the later structures are more user-friendly. What they have gained in adaptability and friendliness, however, they have lost in their ability to define and frame the university in place with its own character. Subsequent campus planners did not do the individual buildings any favors by placing them seemingly willy-nilly, creating confusing pathways and a lack of clear differentiation of public spaces.
The question that Lethbridge raises is whether the power of architecture to work through a gesture that immediately makes a place and defines an institution can and should be carried out in that same mode or should be elaborated with smaller and more modest designs. The latter should be possible, of course. Even if the planners thought that one big move was enough, they could have then treated the big line as the equivalent of a cathedral, a temple, or a palace, and developed a supporting cast of residential and educational structures. These could have not risen up to the big structure, as traditional towns might have, but tumbled down toward what has become a dam that is holding back human structures from invading the river valley below.
Such a strategy might still be possible. A new laboratory building—the Destination Project by KPMB Architects and Stantec—currently under construction next to the original structure, has a clarity of its own. Apparently, the building will also take care of enough mechanical services to cause the removal of most of the vent stacks from Erickson’s roof. It is, however, yet another glass-skinned structure the likes of which you could see anywhere.
But as I walked through and below Erickson’s building, I was moved by the ability of architecture to make something as big and as beautiful as what nature has created. To see what has become of this structure is to realize how difficult it is for human beings, once they have done something good, to realize what it is, to appreciate it as such, and to figure out how to respond in a way that mines that achievement for all of its possibilities. This should be the task of architecture in general when it builds on existing structures, and especially when those building blocks are of the beauty of Arthur Erickson’s University of Lethbridge.