This Week in History, 1963: Architects Arthur Erickson and Geoff Massey chosen to design Simon Fraser University

SFU was dubbed an “instant university” because it took less than three years from when it was announced to when it opened in 1965

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Sixty years ago, local architects Arthur Erickson and Geoff Massey won a competition to design the new Simon Fraser University.

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“Down-to-earth plan wins for university in the sky,” read the headline in July 31, 1963, Vancouver Sun.

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Seventy-one submissions were made to the competition, but the five contest judges unanimously chose the Massey-Erickson plan.

“We simply set out to design a practicable, flexible and compact campus, taking full advantage of the unique location,” said Erickson.

The unique location was on top of Burnaby Mountain, which was undeveloped forest and bush.

The Sun noted “the whole university is under cover, and main facilities lead off malls running the length of the complex.”

Erickson explained “we have kept away from the grand plan such as that used at UBC. There, buildings are spread far apart to allow for growth in the spaces.

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“Here, we have designed a compact grouping of buildings at the top of the mountain, allowing growth outward and downward.”

The director of UBC’s school of architecture was impressed.

“The winning selection will produce something completely new and distinct in the world of architecture,” said Prof. Henry Elder.

It was a unique competition, dreamed up by SFU’s first chancellor, Gordon Shrum. In an interview in the SFU archives, Shrum said architectural competitions normally took six months, and required full plans.

“This cost thousands of dollars, and it has nothing to do with the overall concept,” said Shrum. “All I wanted was some bright ideas about what to do up there. I didn’t care about the plumbing, we’d do that later.”

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Shrum announced a four-week competition where architects could only submit three drawings: “a plan, a section and a perspective.”

“Just ideas, you see,” said Shrum. “Nothing but ideas.”

It also wasn’t a winner-take-all competition: the five top entries would all get $5,000, “or a commission to (design) a building costing a million dollars.”

sfu design
Part of the Simon Fraser University campus plan in 1964. Sun Files

It all came together incredibly quickly. On Jan. 28, 1963, UBC president John Barfoot Macdonald released a report to the government that called for a dramatic increase in post-secondary facilities.

“British Columbia needs two new universities and six junior colleges in eight years to avert disaster in higher education,” wrote The Sun’s John Arnett.

Macdonald recommended “an immediate start on a university in Burnaby,” junior colleges in Vancouver, Kelowna and Castlegar by 1965 and junior colleges in Central Vancouver Island, Kamloops, Prince George, and the “eastern lower Fraser Valley” by 1971.

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On March 7, then-education minister Les Peterson announced plans for three new universities.

Victoria College would become the University of Victoria, Notre Dame College in Nelson would become a private university, and “a new university, Simon Fraser, probably will be built in Burnaby.”

When Macdonald released his report Jan. 28, The Sun reported another location in Burnaby, the George Derby Veterans Hospital, was the “proposed site for the new four-year college.” Burnaby Mountain was labelled an “alternate building site.”

A Province story on May 2 said there were other contenders for SFU, as well: Green Timbers in Surrey, Munday Lake in Coquitlam, Scott Road at Hwy. 10 in Delta, and at an undisclosed location in Langley.

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On May 9, though, Burnaby Mountain was announced as the SFU site. Premier W.A.C Bennett told Paddy Sherman of The Province that Shrum had found only Burnaby Mountain could “possibly” surpass UBC’s Point Grey location “in natural amenity … with a campus of unsurpassed grandeur, distinction and significance.”

After the Erickson-Massey design was chosen, it was all systems go. The SFU acquisitions and outreach archivist, Melanie Hardbattle, said “essentially, they started clearing the land for the campus in the fall of 1963. It was only about 18 months of construction before they opened the university.”

The official opening of SFU was Sept. 9, 1965, less than three years after the university was announced. The cost was $18 million.

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“It was called the instant university,” said Hardbattle.

In 2007, the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada announced the Prix du XXe siècle (Prize of the 20th Century), an award for Canadian buildings of “enduring excellence” and “nationally significant architecture.”

Simon Fraser University is one of them.

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sfu 1963
Arthur Erickson and Geoff Massey’s winning design for Simon Fraser University, from the July 31, 1963 Vancouver Province.
erickson helicopter
August 1963. Architects Geoffrey Massey (L) and Arthur Erickson get into a helicopter to check out the future site of Simon Fraser University on top of Burnaby mountain. Massey and Erickson had just won a competition to design the new university, which opened on Sept. 9, 1965. Photo by Brian Kent /PNG

  1. Architect Arthur Erickson with a model of his design for the University of B.C.'s Museum of Anthropology, which was called the Museum of Man when this photo was taken in 1973.

    In 2007, the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada announced the Prix du XXe siècle (Prize of the 20th Century), an award for Canadian buildings of “enduring excellence” and “nationally significant architecture.” There were five buildings named the first year, and two were by Arthur Erickson.

  2. Vancouver architects Arthur Erickson, left, and Geoffrey Massey, here on July, 31, 1963, had their design chosen for the new Simon Fraser University of Burnaby Mountain. Erickson is the University of B.C. associate professor of architecture. Massey is the son of actor Raymond Massey.

    Geoffrey Massey’s legacy can be seen all over Vancouver. As Arthur Erickson’s architectural partner in the 1960s and early ’70s, he helped design local icons like Simon Fraser University and the MacMillan Bloedel Building.

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