Arthur Erickson designed the revolutionary Filberg House to save one man’s soul. Sixty-five years later, his masterpiece on the Comox Bluffs is worth saving, too.
BY ANDREW FINDLAY | PHOTOS BY: ERICKSON FAMILY COLLECTION/ARTHURERICKSON.COM
In the late 1950s, Arthur Erickson met his friend Robert Filberg, son of Island logging baron Robert (Bob) Filberg, at a seven-acre property he owned atop the Comox Bluffs. It was a picturesque chunk of raw land, dominated by a stately Garry oak that still stands today. Erickson was then in his mid-30s, well-travelled and well-educated, but virtually unknown as an architect, with just two unassuming wood-framed Vancouver houses to his design credits.
The young Filberg’s brief high-society marriage had recently collapsed and he was plunged into depression. He enlisted Erickson to design a house and guest cabins that would befit this panoramic acreage overlooking the Salish Sea. The affluent and idealistic Filberg envisioned it as a sort of retreat — less a residence and more a place where intellectuals, artists, politicians and thinkers would gather as guests of his aspirational think tank-cum-foundation focused on peace efforts.
The planned-for guest cabins on the Comox Bluffs never happened, but what emerged was one of Canada’s most fascinating houses. Vancouver architecture critic and writer Trevor Boddy calls it the first post-modern house in Canada. It was a design ahead of its time, many of its elements still featured in contemporary homes with their horizontal lines, industrial-meets-natural materials and large windows that bring the outside in.
But like so many other heritage homes across British Columbia, this important architectural landmark is at risk of being lost to the past.
Bringing the Light
In 1958, fame was just over the horizon for the young Vancouver-born Erickson. His renowned projects were still years away: Simon Fraser University; Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto; the downtown Vancouver complex of Robson Square, the Provincial Law Courts and the Vancouver Art Gallery; the south wing of Victoria’s Inn at Laurel Point (legend has it that Erickson took on this design after losing a wager with hotelier Paul Arsens); and many others.
Erickson had recently returned home after extended travels in post-Second World War Europe. His creative mind was filled with inspiration from the gorgeous Alhambra palace in Granada and other fine examples of Moorish architecture in southern Spain’s Andalusia, not to mention the designed landscapes of Le Corbusier, the moniker by which famed Swiss-French modern architecture pioneer Charles-Édouard Jeanneret was known.
According to Boddy, who was a close friend of Erickson’s until his death in 2009 at the age of 85, the Comox project evolved in concert with a then-illicit romantic relationship between Erickson and the emotionally troubled Filberg — a liaison that the conservative Filberg family took pains to hide. It may seem like a salacious detail, if not for the fact that it was integral to the story behind the building.
Erickson took his time sculpting and landscaping the property while sketching house design concepts. Using steel as the frame, Erickson designed the house with large windows to draw the eye toward the landscaping, but also with natural light in mind, intended as an architectural antidote to Filberg’s struggles with depression.
Fourteen-foot ceilings gave the 2,500-square-foot house a light, airy feeling. The living room walls were fashioned from locally quarried granite, while the architect used tropical hardwoods like African zebrawood and Philippine mahogany for lavish interior details, inspired by Mediterranean baroque style described as “poetic geometry.”
At the time, purists in the tight-knit world of architectural criticism scorned Erickson’s use of ornamentation, which added levity to the unadorned and stark modernist esthetic of the day. Stuffy critics took exception to decorative details like indoor and outdoor latticework made of local yellow cedar, the 16 cedar barrel lights on poles and the curved ceiling soffits.
Construction was completed in the early 1960s, and it came in over budget. Sadly, Robert Filberg lost his battle with depression and died before he had a chance to move in. In a 2002 interview for the Globe and Mail, Erickson reflected on the Filberg House and its melancholy genesis.
“My mission with the house was to try to save a lost soul — Rob Filberg,” Erickson said. “I never would have done it if I hadn’t felt that his life depended on this house. That was the vanity of it — thinking that you could change anything with the right design.”
Despite the tragedy of the owner’s untimely death and some controversy among architecture aficionados, the popular press loved the Filberg House, as it became known. It catapulted Erickson’s name onto the front page of Canadian Homes magazine, which in a 1961 issue called it “Canada’s Most Fabulous House.”
Boddy considers it a masterpiece that highlights Erickson’s gift for designing buildings that have a “dialogue with nature.” In layperson terms, it simply means that Erickson deeply appreciated the relationship between building and landscaping, or nature, as Boddy calls it. They are inseparable, each complementing the other, and in the eyes of an architecture critic, the Filberg House symbolized this relationship.
Revolutionary and controversial in the early 1960s, this sort of design is now a hallmark of contemporary west coast architecture.
Showing Its Age
Sixty years after the house made magazine headlines, Boddy believes it still deserves recognition but says it’s at risk, at the mercy of whoever happens to own the house at any given time. And indeed, over the years, the house has seen its share of renovations that were an affront to the original design.
For example, one owner preferred darkness over light, so had windows removed and walls plastered over, among numerous other alterations. The folks at the Arthur Erickson Foundation in Vancouver would call them abominations. Luckily, in 1999, the Filberg House got a saviour in the form of Doug Field, the son of Rex Field, who invented the Buzz Bomb, a famed fishing lure that seeded a successful family business empire.
The younger Field lived next door to the Filberg property and over the years had witnessed its death by a thousand cuts under a succession of owners. After he bought it, Field undertook a painstaking restoration, true to Erickson’s original design. He was meticulous. No detail was overlooked. Field even found and reinstalled the striking original copper hood that was mounted above the hearth in the living room, but which had been removed by a previous owner.
“It was remarkable because Doug [Field] had no plans or documents to work from and he had no background in architecture. He was into restoring old cars, but applied those skills to the Filberg House,” Boddy says.
Several years after Field’s restoration, Boddy had the opportunity to spend a few nights in the Filberg House. He remembers lying in the master bedroom and watching Mount Baker glowing in the morning sunrise. It reinforced for Boddy the beauty of Erickson’s skills as a landscape architect; in his opinion as beautiful as his artistry with building design.
Two decades and multiple owners later, there are reports that the Filberg House is showing its age. Cracks are splintering the walls, the yellow cedar latticework is weathered and the property is looking unkempt. This concerns Boddy, who says the house needs heritage designation. The problem is that current regulations in B.C. protecting buildings that have historic or architectural significance are weak and the fact that it is privately owned further complicates matters.
According to a city planner with the Town of Comox, the Filberg House has no municipal heritage designation. Similarly, Corinna Filion, a spokesperson for the B.C. Ministry of Tourism, Culture, Arts and Sport, says the house isn’t listed on the Canadian Register of Historic Places or under B.C.’s Heritage Conservation Act.
In the case of the Filberg House — or any privately held building — a heritage designation by the province or local government would need the consent of the owner. Even with this designation, a current or future owner could simply apply for a heritage alteration permit to make changes. So, in theory, the seven-acre property and the house could be levelled and redeveloped. And that would be sacrilegious to Arthur Erickson fans.
In an ideal world, a non-profit society would own and manage the Filberg House, making it possible to apply for restoration support to the Heritage Legacy Fund, an arm’s length provincial government organization. But that’s not the case.
Linda Thomas is executive director of the Filberg Heritage Lodge and Park Association, which oversees the nine-acre Comox property where the Filberg family lived in a 1930s Arts-and-Crafts-style waterfront home until the patriarch’s death in 1977. Predeceased by his wife and children, Bob Filberg gifted the estate to the Vancouver Foundation. In 1978, the Town of Comox purchased the property, then established the association to manage it as a park.
“Unfortunately, [the Filberg House] is not something that I am very familiar with as it is not part of the mandate for the Filberg Heritage Lodge and Park Association,” Thomas says.
On the Brink
And so, the story of the Filberg House continues. In 2020, the house, then owned by a Calgary couple, sold again for $2.75 million to a woman originally from Denman Island. A request for an interview with the current owner went unanswered.
Considering that it’s an iconic Canadian post-modern house designed early in the career of one of Canada’s greatest and most renowned architects, the Filberg House languishes in a surprising limbo of obscurity.
For many of us, it’s a footnote from early in the career of a famous architect: a glass-walled, rectangular curiosity in which one could easily imagine 007 sipping a Martini while gazing, square-jawed, upon the rippled waters of the Salish Sea. For others, it’s a one-of-a-kind Canadian architectural treasure, perched on the precipice of ruin.