Masterworks Renewed: Simon Fraser University Plaza Renewal and Student Union Building, Burnaby, BC

A series of major projects update Simon Fraser University’s iconic Burnaby campus for a new generation of students.

Public Architecture’s rethink of the outdoor public spaces at Simon Fraser University aimed to update the areas for accessibility and durability, while respecting Arthur Erickson and Geoffrey Massey’s original vision for the campus. Photo by Luc di Pietro

PROJECT Simon Fraser University Plaza Renewal, Burnaby, BC


PHOTOS Upper Left Photography


PROJECT SFU Student Union Building 

ARCHITECT Perkins&Will

PHOTOS Michael Elkan Photography


TEXT Trevor Boddy

Recently, Canadian architects have had deep cause for worry about the fates of three of Toronto’s key modernist monuments: Eberhard Zeidler’s Ontario Place, and Raymond Moriyama’s Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre and Ontario Science Centre. Luckily, the news from Vancouver is more positive. In the past few years, massive public investments have ensured the continued presence of two standout design masterpieces—the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology, and the core campus of Simon Fraser University. 

The science of seismic design has advanced hugely since Erickson worked with engineer Bogue Babicki to complete the Museum of Anthropology in 1976. A seismic upgrade was long overdue for the Great Hall—the huge room opening up to Pacific vistas that encloses totem poles, house frames and potlach bowls, with its concrete portals abstracting the details of ocean-flanking monumental houses built by coastal First Nations to the north. This prior need was turned into an urgent crisis when it was discovered that the angled crossbeams linking each of the main box beams demonstrated moisture in-migration; the resulting spalling of concrete around rebar increased the likelihood of catastrophic failure.  

Surprising many of us here, during the pandemic, the university and senior government officials quietly came up with the nearly $40 million needed to completely rebuild Erickson’s Great Hall. The new frame of the Great Hall is now up, and it is all but indistinguishable from the original. Long-time Erickson associate Nick Milkovich—working with Equilibrium Engineering—has set all-new columns on base isolators to reduce structural damage from any but the most extreme earthquakes. Improved detailing for the crossbeams will result in a much longer service life. Moreover, new glass technology and advice from Arup means that the new ocean-facing windows will not need angled glass structural supports, enforcing and actually improving the visual relationship between Indigenous artifact and natural landscape at the heart of Erickson’s conception. 

Through Convocation Mall, a warm red stone works its way towards the main stage at the heart of the campus. Photo by Upper Left Photography

Minimal intervention into a superb existing design has also driven two recent commissions at the heart of Arthur Erickson and Geoffrey Massey’s Simon Fraser University campus. A new Student Union Building by Perkins & Will and a massive rethink of the university’s outdoor public spaces by Public Architecture both demonstrate how SFU can preserve and build for the future, without compromising the architectural asset that first earned it a global reputation.  

While composing the 1963 design competition campus plan with partner Geoffrey Massey, Erickson drew upon his extensive travels to search for a precedent for a university on a flat mountaintop. He briefly considered the Acropolis and other Greek hill-topping ritual centres, but thought them too small-scale for an entire university. His thoughts turned to Monte Alban, the Zapotec ceremonial city he had visited just outside Oaxaca, in Southern Mexico. Monte Alban has a long axis, framing linear ball courts and ceremonial spaces, and a range of walls, pyramids and gateways defining its long line, with a continuous public space extending from mountain edge to mountain edge.

Reflecting the master plan’s vision for a narrative of enlightened ascent, the new paving gradually shifts from a woven grid of darker tones at the base of the campus to lighter tones at the Academic Quadrangle at the top of the mountain. Photo by Upper Left Photography

SFU does the same. Erickson once joked to me that despite the torrent of words written about the campus, noone got the Mexican reference: “We even built a pyramid up there to make it easy!” At the highest point is the Academic Quadrangle, a square ringed by a raised two-storey structure containing faculty offices, designed by Zoltan Kiss in conformity with Erickson’s plan (and yes, with his grass-covered pyramid set within it). The gap below the offices frames landscape views in all directions, and classrooms are set underneath the square of hard surface decks. After a half century, the membrane running above these classrooms was at the end of its service life. Down the grand stairs, the membranes had also failed all along the main axis—including past the library-flanking core of Convocation Mall topped with its pioneering space frame, and continuing around a fountain and downstairs to the transit hub. By and large, there is only a parking garage below these areas, but things leaked from day one. (SFU’s first president
returned to a soaked car after the building inauguration events.)

SFU’s charge to Public Architecture’s team, led by design partner John Wall, was to renew this entire length of public spaces—an astonishing 25,000-square-metre area—with an equally astonishing final budget of $61 million. Public is a firm with an unusually strong interest in design communication, working with client groups to form a consensus and to document this in a Project Charter. For SFU, the Charter lists constitutional design principles such as “Enhance the Convocation Experience,” “Provide new Social Gathering Spaces,” and seven others.  According to Wall, “Every firm should prepare a Charter for every project—it really helps keep things on track.” 

The first major design challenge Wall and his technical teammates from RDH Building Science faced was a replacement for the decking—the right material, along with a design that would reinforce Erickson’s linear concept. They quickly ruled out a literal restoration of these surfaces: Erickson’s patterned blocks of ceramic tile framed by concrete boxes allowed too many opportunities for water ingress. The University requested a minimum 50-year service life, so hardy and utterly impermeable granite seemed best.  

Chinese sources for the granite pavers would have been cheapest, but client and architects agreed on the importance of supporting a Canadian supplier, so picked Quebec’s Polycor. From this source, they selected four shades of grey granite, ranging from a mottled off-white to a cloudy dark grey. To evoke the warm-hued tones of the original earthen tile, they also selected a speckled pink-hued stone. Setting these new stones in the previous sequence of offset boxes made no sense, so instead the Public team developed a variegated patterning, with the highest concentration of dark granite set along the central axis of the Mall, a subtle visual cue from the ground plane to complement the powerful linear array of architecture above. The highest concentration of charcoal-coloured granite was placed at the lower levels of the transit hub, then lighter tones gradually introduced around the fountain and through Convocation Mall to the raised Academic Quadrangle, where the lightest colours predominate. John Wall waxes metaphysical when explaining these choices: “Erickson spoke of education as being a progress from darkness to revelation, so we chose to amplify his philosophy with our subtle phasing of different stones.” This approach is quiet, effective, and most of all, apt.

Public Architecture’s light-handed renovations included refurbishing exterior stairs and upgrading 975 metres of guardrails and handrails to meet current safety standards. Photo by Upper Left Photography

The choice of Public Architecture for the SFU commission rested in part on the strength of their renewal of UBC’s Buchanan Courtyards, completed with landscape architects PFS Studio (see CA, March 2012). The showpiece of the Buchanan renewal is an elegant tapered trapezoidal pavilion—a place to get out of the rain with a book or a dear friend—and its formal differentiation from the surrounding blocky buildings makes it an even more welcoming psychic refuge. For SFU, Public designed an analogous pavilion which is larger, and just as eye-catching in its non-Erickson forms, set on one of the highest plazas of the axis. With its panoramic mountain views, the result is a magnificent place of repose—a needed counterpoint to Erickson’s concrete frames. From the Filberg House to the Canadian Chancery in Washington, Erickson was more polyglot than dogmatic in his tastes, so I think he would have approved.

A similar panache is found in Public’s detailing of other interventions in SFU’s public realm. For example, Erickson’s original rough concrete railings are maintained, but new metallic box structures are set within and behind them, raising the railings up to the heights demanded by contemporary safety codes. This is a fine example of sensitive upgrading: keeping the original intact, but subtly enhancing its function using low-key insertions. Glass balcony and stair rails are used whenever possible, and accessibility ramps are cleverly woven into the matrix of stone, all of these ensuring a continuity of light, view and movement. With their SFU Plaza Renewal, Public has risen to their firm’s chosen name: their sensitive interventions will guarantee a long and happy life for the university’s most important gathering places.

The Student Union Building faces the renovated Convocation Mall. Along the Mall’s edges, new planters were created as part of Public Architecture’s renovation. Photo by Michael Elkan Photography.

The results are more mixed for Perkins&Will’s new $35-million SFU Student Union, set on a prime slot opposite the library on Convocation Mall. Led by project architect Jana Foit, there is a serenity in the new student quarters facing Public’s plaza renewal. A large multifunction room at top is cantilevered out over the entrance, a silvery box that slips into the greater whole with surprising ease. It is set back, and is ringed by vertical fins, an appropriate reference to the ring of concrete fins that sets the architectural rhythm of the nearby Academic Quadrangle. The humility and thoughtfulness of Foit’s massing is also appreciated. The ballroom at the top offers magnificent views of Erickson’s handiwork; from there, the Student Union gradually descends down from Convocation Mall through four levels. These stages match, but are more elegantly proportioned, than similar tiers in Stantec’s Maggie Benston Centre next door.

Perkins&Will’s Student Union Building steps down the mountain, creating generous outdoor terraces with panoramic views at each level. Photo by Michael Elkan Photography.

The Student Union’s interior spaces are less convincing. Building costs were almost entirely funded by the student body, and the development of the program and some supervision of early design was aided by student volunteers. These factors contributed to a funding, programming, design and construction process that lasted a decade, and that predictably ground to a halt several times. Foit notes that it was the athletic clubs and sporting students that kept it going, building trust with the university to the point that SFU’s stadium was moved nearby, intending to complement the Student Union as a secondary campus hub. Here, a team led by Foit and colleague Max Richter worked with engineers Fast and Epp to fashion a handsome rank of bleachers under the serene long brow of a hugely cantilevered roof—proof of what the Perkins&Will team can do with a less encumbered site and more straightforward program. Unfortunately, SFU has recently disbanded its varsity football program, so the structure has become an elegant viewing stand without its main team.

During the design of the Student Union Building, a new SFU stadium was built at the southwest corner of campus. The grandstand structure, also by Perkins&Will, features a lightweight canopy that cantilevers over 16 metres to provide unobstructed view for spectators below. Photo by Andrew Latreille Photography

Perkins&Will’s large firm resources include a staffer in their Atlanta office specializing entirely in student union buildings. The specialist, working with student groups, devised a building program remarkable for its many notes, but little music. The SFU Student Society website lists a baffling range of 72 campus clubs, ranging from the Biomedical Physiology and Kinesiology Student Society to the Mechatronic Systems Engineering Student Society. Most of these got their own permanent spaces, and the building is a warren of these little rooms. The select communal areas are devoted to computer gaming, the upholstered benches of a nap room, and an awkward tiered study zone—but there are no music spaces or places for un-club-organized fun.  

At the top of the Student Union Building, an auditorium and adjoining atrium provide space for performances and informal study. Photo by Michael Elkan Photography.

What’s more, there is no student pub or food service—just a chain coffee kiosk at the front door. An atrium at centre provides welcome daylighting for a building landlocked on its sides; however, it’s largely occupied by a wood-covered wedge form that makes flanking spaces feel like leftovers. Reacting to student perceptions of the greyness of Erickson’s design, Perkins&Will’s early design documents include a photo of a jar of jellybeans as an interior design reference. That notion seems to have been adopted too literally as elevator lobbies in searing bright candy colours. More successful is the soffit of the multipurpose room facing Convocation Mall, covered with multiple bands in randomized bright colours—a welcome, yet more appropriately understated, bit of fun at core campus. 

SFU Student Union Building Section

Overall, the investments into Arthur Erickson’s works at Simon Fraser University and at the University of British Columbia is cause for celebration, even more so because of the subtlety and technical excellence demonstrated by the firms entrusted with their legacy. In an era when glowing showpieces and sculptural indulgences drive too much of the architectural press, the time has come to praise restraint and respect, along with the deep knowledge and experience that empowers these design approaches.

The renewal of the Museum of Anthropology will be completed in time for the centenary of Erickson’s birth in 2024. This, alongside the projects at Simon Fraser University and the recent restoration by Measured Architects of the second house Erickson designed for painter Gordon Smith, will give our architects all the excuse they need to come to Vancouver to see Erickson’s finest works.

Trevor Boddy FRAIC is on the board of the Arthur Erickson Foundation. With colleague Barry Johns and Sticks and Stones Productions and the support of local sponsors,
he is planning an event for Edmonton this fall that will include an all-new feature documentary premiere, panel discussion, and site tours of Erickson’s 1962 Dyde House. Details forthcoming at


Simon Fraser University Plaza Renewal 

CLIENT Simon Fraser University | ARCHITECT TEAM John Wall (MRAIC), Robert Drew (MRAIC), Brian Wakelin (FRAIC), Susan Mavor, Martina Caniglia, Alberto Buldon, Andrea Kopecka, Henry Posner, Luc di Pietro, Courtney Healey, Laura Killam, Marta Nicolau, Jay Alkana, Chris Forrest | ENVELOPE RDH Building Science Inc. | STRUCTURAL Fast + Epp | MECHANICAL AME Group | ELECTRICAL AES Engineering | LANDSCAPE ETA Landscape Architecture | CONTRACTOR Ledcor Group of Companies | AREA 24,665 m2 | BUDGET $45 M | COMPLETION March 2021


SFU Student Union Building 

CLIENT Simon Fraser University | ARCHITECT TEAM Anna Atkinson, Leah Briney, Darcy Collins, David Dove (FRAIC), Jana Foit, Harley Grusko, Hailey Holloway, Fang-Chun Hsu, Jade Littlewood, Rodney Maas (MRAIC), Irene Neven, Joshua Rudd, Jeffrey Stebar, Gavin Schaefer, Sumegha Shah | STRUCTURAL Fast + Epp | MECHANICAL Integral Group | ELECTRICAL WSP Group | LANDSCAPE Hapa Collaborative | INTERIORS Perkins&Will | CONTRACTOR Pro-Can Construction Group | CODE LMDG | AREA 10,015 M2 | BUDGET $39 M | COMPLETION 2021