Arthur Erickson’s first masterpiece on sale

by Trevor Boddy / The Globe and Mail / Published in June 2007

 The “most beautiful house in Canada” is up for sale, and $10-million will net you a masterpiece. The Filberg house in Comox was called just that by Canadian Homes in 1961, soon after this airy, pavilion-like dwelling was completed.

The Arthur Erickson-designed house sits astride a spectacular bluff, blessed with one of the most astonishing views in the province: straight south to Hornby and Denman Islands, and past them on to the cone of volcanic Mount Baker, a hundred and sixty kilometres distant; east to the snow-capped peaks of the Coast Range on the mainland, and even west to the closer-in forests and mountain slopes of Vancouver Island.

With the possible exception of the West Vancouver B.C. Binning residence mentioned in last week’s column, the Filberg house has the best integration of modernist house with modernist landscape design in the province. The rolling lawns around the Robert Filberg house are deceiving, as according to Mr. Erickson, they are anything but natural: the slopes, views and shapes of the entire bluff-top landscape were altered by the client working closely with the architect.

“When I first arrived up there,” says Mr. Erickson, “Robert [Filberg]was on top of a small earth-mover, a caterpillar” scrapping and moving the soil of the prime ocean view land his lumber-baron father had long owned. Mr. Filberg had studied at the University of B.C. with Erickson in the early years of World War II, just before the architect-to-be joined up with British Intelligence.

“I knew him only passingly then,” says Mr. Erickson, but after receiving the house design commission in 1958, they bonded deeply: “I would go out there from Vancouver on weekends, and we would cut and scrape and revise the landscape, tenting right up there to understand the play of light.” Mr. Erickson says the design emerged organically months later, only after client and designer came to share an understanding of the site’s sun, shade, view and surrounding flora, which includes a magnificent mature oak, still standing.

At the time, Mr. Erickson was a UBC architecture professor obsessed with international travel (the Filberg house borrows profoundly from Andalusian Islamic architecture), but his own design portfolio consisted solely of several small houses, after, in his own words “being fired by all the best architectural offices in Vancouver.”

Mr. Erickson’s growing friendship with Mr. Filberg made for an unusually close mapping of architectural detail with his client’s needs. For example, more of the walls of this house are covered with glass than in any other Erickson design, tempered by outrigger shades fashioned out of a lattice of yellow cedar blocking. “Rob had a problem with depression, especially in winter,” says the architect, “so we tried to bring in as much tempered light as we could, in all seasons.”

There was never an opportunity to test whether this healing-by-design would work, because Rob Filberg killed himself shortly before house construction was completed. By the 1980s the Filberg house had passed into the hands of local surgeon, an Inuit raised in arctic Canada. With his northern background, he found the house filled with far too much light, so he removed the cedar lattices, and replaced the perimeter glass with pink-painted plaster walls and tiny off-the-shelf windows. The house that had first vaulted Arthur Erickson into international prominence had been almost totally bowdlerized.

This is where the story shifts from tragic to hopeful. Doug Field, owner of the locally-manufactured BuzzBomb and Zzinger fishing lure lines, purchased the house he had visited as a child for $450,000 in 1999. Using skills honed in restoring antique cars and aircraft, as well honed in his fishing lure business, Mr. Field and his then-wife spent a decade painstakingly restoring the house, right down to the tiniest details of metalwork and stair treads.

The Field’s astonishingly accurate restoration of the Filberg house is all the more amazing because they did it without any direction from Mr. Erickson’s office, or indeed any preservation consultant. They found pieces of a long-removed copper fireplace hood in a rummage sale, and worked to perfect their restorations from every image of the house’s interiors and exteriors they could find. Just after the Fields finished their restoration, and just before their work was recognized with an award from the Architectural Institute of British Columbia, I had the honour of being one of the first people to spend a night in the restored Filberg house (the Fields then lived next door in a conventional big bungalow.) I could lay in bed and watch the sun track over the Oceanside view, because Mr. Erickson had set master bedroom windows low enough to ensure visual contact. In the course of 30 hours, April’s slate grey sky vaults shifted to continuous downpours, then brightened, the house’s spaces and appointments equally impressive in any condition. Late in the day the cubic, high-ceiling living room’s fieldstone walls glowed with sunset light diffused through the cedar gratings.

The Filberg house’s main structure is thin steel columns, fattened at the top with cylindrical cedar up-and-down barrel-lights, the plaster roof above them undulating under a skylight to capture even more of the enthralling view. A cellist friend wished she had brought her instrument, finding Mr. Erickson’s spaces theatrical, even musical.

Indeed, Rob Filberg envisioned the house as the site of evening entertainments at a peace-promoting international think tank he had wanted to establish there, says Mr. Erickson, with cabins for visiting scholars, artists and politicians scattered around it in his site plan. The institute was not to be, as the Filberg family sold the house soon after his death, later endowing the more conventional log house where Robert grew up as Comox’s community arts space.

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The Filberg house is impressive, but what knocked me out – as in no other house in a life’s work of critic’s touring – was that surrounding landscape first sculpted by Mr. Erickson and Mr. Filberg 48 years ago. In my view, this is Canada’s finest piece of land art, a made landscape the equal of any creation by artist Robert Smithson or landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx.

Now that Doug Field has the house and grounds up for sale for $10-million, it is this landscape that I am most worried about. The house is safe, I would think, but those cliff-top lands are ripe for chopping up into ocean-side condos; an absent millionaire’s second or third house.

Neither the Filberg house nor its grounds have any historic site protection from municipality or province. I hope that a new owner with the vision and rootedness of Rob Filberg or Doug Field purchases it and keeps this true masterpiece – Arthur Erickson’s first – intact for future generations.

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