Arthur Erickson and Geoffrey Massey

Arthur Erickson (left) and Geoffrey Massey.

Mountain part of Erickson’s design

May 21, 2009

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The death in Vancouver May 20 of renowned architect Arthur Erickson, 84, generated extensive media coverage that included many mentions of his design of SFU’s Burnaby campus.

The Canadian Press, for example, noted in a national story used by scores of media outlets: “He first achieved international acclaim  . . . for his award-winning design for Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.”

Some other examples:
  • The Toronto Star: “It was his design of Simon Fraser University in 1963 that cemented his reputation.” 
  • The Vancouver Sun: “Erickson said he reached a landmark moment in his career in 1963, when he and (Geoff) Massey won a competition to design a new Burnaby Mountain campus for the then-non-existent Simon Fraser University. Unlike other North American universities that gave departments their own buildings, they designed a campus of linked buildings”
  • The Province: “The (SFU) project would garner him international acclaim and launch his career that would see him design buildings around the world. They include the Canadian embassy in Washington, California Plaza in Los Angeles, Kuwait Oil Sector Complex in Kuwait City, the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, the Provincial Law Courts in downtown Vancouver and Robson Square.”

Erickson's family said he died in hospital in Vancouver. He had been in declining health for some time.

In a speech in 2000, Erickson said: "Great buildings that move the spirit have always been rare. In every case they are unique, poetic, products of the heart, of sensibility and with a freshness of view, which shows us the way and reminds us of our mission to inspire."

SFU’s archives note:

“SFU's design was the result of a competition held in 1963 by Dr. Gordon Shrum, the newly-appointed Chancellor of the university. The goal of the competition was to produce five winners. One architect would be awarded first prize for the overall design of SFU, while four other architects would each be invited to build a section of the university under the supervision of the winner. . .

“The design chosen was that of a young UBC architecture professor, Arthur Erickson, and his colleague Geoffrey Massey. . . The Erickson and Massey design had been the unanimous choice of the judges, and had met all the requirements that Shrum had outlined in his memo.

“Erickson's design was regarded as innovative in several key aspects. Its mountain-top location inspired Erickson to reject multi-story buildings, which he felt would look presumptuous. Instead, Erickson turned for inspiration to the acropolis in Athens and the hill towns of Italy, where the mountain was incorporated into the design itself. This concept is evident in many aspects of the university's design. For example, the manner in which the buildings are terraced to remain in harmony with the contours of the landscape and the emphasis upon the horizontal rather than the vertical expansion of the buildings themselves.

“Another innovative aspect of the design was its rejection of the traditional separation of faculties and departments into individual buildings. In emphasizing the universality of the university rather than the specialization of knowledge, Erickson wanted to facilitate interdisciplinary work and a closer relationship between faculty and students. To this end, the design incorporated buildings that would house several departments as well as classroom space. This measure satisfied the practical requirements of both students and faculty by reducing the travel time between classes, as well as fostering an intimate learning environment.

“The design of Simon Fraser University marked the beginning of what has been a long and distinguished career for Arthur Erickson, one of Canada's most renowned architects. Simon Fraser University was completed in time for the opening ceremonies on September 9, 1965, and was widely heralded across the world as an architectural success. Its innovative design complemented the remarkable pace in which it was built, creating a structure that soon became known as the "instant university".

“As the University grew over the next 40 years, its new buildings have remained true to the original design principles conceived by its founding architect.”

Lee Gavel, SFU's chief facilities officer and university architect, said of Erickson's work at SFU:

"Arthur Erickson had the vision to take a clear-cut mountain top and define a plan for a campus that has transcended political upheaval, the snows and rains of winter, and the continuing evolution of knowledge, pedagogy and research.

"The strength of that plan was an idea. The idea that a university is a community and as such will be stronger if its citizens come together in place and time to both teach each other and learn from each other. The architecture is intended to facilitate that interaction and there are those that will argue that the idea of bringing people together in one large commonly owned structure is what has lead to SFU's growing reputation as a place of interdisciplinarity, innovation and a larger world view.

"From Freedom Square to the Meadow in front of the Transportation Centre, the spaces created between and by the buildings, are as important as the buildings themselves.

"Arthur the person was a strong minded patrician gentleman. He held very strong views of what was right and wrong in architecture, and had the intellectual and creative capacity to carry them out. He watched over the growth of SFU as with his other projects, as a father with his children. If they began to stray he was not adverse to straightening them out.

As he went on to other projects over the course of his life, the style evolved but the discipline of an overarching vision in each of his projects was executed with precision and verve. But perhaps his greatest legacy is the many architects both locally and over the world who were inspired by and in many cases learned their craft through working with him. We all will miss him."


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Rod Maides

Thanks for this great bit of archival information to add to our remembrance of a talented man. As with other forms of art, there are always critics, and Mr Erickson likely had as many as he had supporters. For me, he added much to the visual quality of many 20th and 21st century communities including the Lower Mainland. One way or another, his work will be missed.


I don't know but somehow the report from The Toronto Star made me giggle a little bit. It probably was because of a cement pun: It was his design of Simon Fraser University in 1963 that CEMENTED his reputation.

Sheila M. Groves

Did we miss honoring Mr. Erickson or did I just miss it? Or is it yet to come?

Flags Flown at Half-Mast

The flags displayed by the University shall be flown at half-mast when: ...

...there has been a death amongst the Faculty, Staff, Student Body, or other group at the University and is so authorized by the Ceremonies Office. In this instance the flags will be lowered in the morning of the day of the funeral or memorial service and shall be raised to full staff late on the same afternoon.

Don MacLachlan

Sunday June 14, 2009, was a beautiful day for a memorial service for Arthur Erickson on the Burnaby campus of SFU. Details at

And yes, Sheila, the flags were indeed at half-mast, in a warm and sunny breeze.

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