The Concrete Acropolis



“You know, Mr. Bennett, I want to have something really outstanding in the way of architecture, and I’d like to have a competition for the design of the university.”

Dr. Gordon Shrum, a 65-year old former physics professor and recently retired Dean of Graduate Studies at the University of British Columbia, was sitting down with W.A.C. Bennett, the then-premier of British Columbia, at the parliament buildings in the heart of Victoria. The year was 1962. Shrum had made the trip out to Vancouver Island to discuss his plans to build a new university — where he would serve as Chancellor — atop Burnaby Mountain. He had a team of staff, faculty, and financial backers at the ready. He had the support of the government, namely the board of education.

All he needed was an architect.

Shrum’s plan was to take submissions from up-and-coming architects across British Columbia and the rest of Canada. Along with a panel of judges, he would choose the five best designs — one winner and four runners-up. The university would be a combination of all five winning designs, and the number one choice would be allowed to supervise and guide the work of the other four. Bennett, as was his nature, took some convincing. “Fine,” he finally replied, “If it doesn’t cost anything, go ahead.”

SFU’s wide open spaces, bold use of concrete and glass, and interdisciplinary structure brought Erickson international acclaim.

The catch? Bennett asked that the university open in September 1965. Shrum had just over two years.

Meanwhile, across the Georgia Strait, a young professor and architect named Arthur Erickson and his business partner Geoffrey Massey had just opened their first firm together, Erickson/Massey Architects, in the heart of Vancouver. After designing several houses and garnering national attention, they prepared for their biggest project yet: an entry into a competition held by Dr. Shrum to design the recently announced Simon Fraser University.

Nearly 50 years later, Erickson’s architecture — Robson Square, the Law Courts, the Museum of Anthropology at UBC — is an enduring symbol of Vancouver. SFU remains a testament to both his innovative genius and the beginning of his rise to, and fall from, international acclaim. Though Erickson’s genius, extravagance, and immutable personality quickly became the stuff of legend, it was his boundary-pushing design of SFU that started it all.

The Architect

Erickson was born in 1924 in the burgeoning Shaughnessy neighbourhood of a then-young Vancouver. His parents were members of the first generation of Vancouverites — self-described pioneers whose interests lay in the promotion of art and culture in the community. With the support of both his mother and father, Erickson took an early interest in painting and illustration, eventually having his work featured at the Vancouver Art Gallery at the age of 14.

He served in World War II as a member of Canada’s Intelligence Corps, a position which sent him to India, Malaysia, and other areas in Southeast Asia. During his travels, he fell in love with Asian philosophy and art, a fascination which would go on to define much of his architecture.

Upon returning to Canada, he quickly developed a keen interest in architecture. According to a 2006 profile in Vancouver Magazine, “the story goes that Arthur Erickson’s love of architecture was born when he thumbed through a 1946 copy of Fortune and saw photos of Frank Lloyd Wright’s desert house.” Wright’s famous summer home, now the main campus of Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, is not unlike many of Erickson’s buildings — its wide open spaces and right angles evoke the expanse of our own Academic Quadrangle.

Erickson enrolled in McGill’s architecture program, where he graduated in 1950 with honours. Considered a prodigy, he turned down a chance to work with Frank Lloyd Wright, his idol, in order to continue traveling. In the years following his schooling, he explored the Middle East and Europe, tracing the history of architecture from its beginnings in Mesopotamia to the lavish castles, aqueducts, and cathedrals of Italy, Spain and France. He returned in 1954 to teach architecture at the University of Oregon, and went on to earn a professorship at UBC at age of 33. During his tenure, he continued his travels sporadically, exploring numerous countries in Africa, South America, and Asia.

His fascination with international styles of art and architecture would inspire his own style, which was unlike anything that had come before, or since. By translating the organic design concepts of Asian architecture to the expansive green landscapes of British Columbia, Erickson would change Vancouver’s image forever.

After nearly a decade teaching in UBC’s architecture department, Erickson teamed up with his roommate Geoffrey Massey, a talented businessman and the nephew of Vincent Massey, former Governor General. Together, they formed Erickson/Massey Architects, a tiny firm based out of downtown Vancouver. Their first commission to garner national attention was the Graham House, a now-demolished residence on a rockbed in West Vancouver made entirely of wood and glass. Its open spaces, use of glass, and environmentally conscious design mirrors that of SFU — like our university, it simply became a part of the landscape.

Erickson and Massey were the perfect duo: the former had the creative genius and innovative spirit to design awe-inspiring structures, and the latter had the business sense and practicality to bring projects to fruition. “It was a wonderful working relationship,” says David Stouck, SFU professor emeritus and author of the award winning 2013 biography Arthur Erickson: An Architect’s Life. “They really impressed their clients, because all bases were covered.”

Massey’s insight would prove instrumental in Erickson’s winning design for SFU. According to Stouck, one of the judges is reported to have said the design “sits like a well-tailored cloak on the top of a mountain.”

“What was unique about the design that he [Erickson] and Geoffrey Massey offered in the competition was that he didn’t create a bunch of high rises on top of a mountain,” Stouck says. “Instead, he saw the mountain as designing the shape of the campus.”

He mentions Erickson’s travels to Bali in Indonesia as a young man as a key influence: “What impressed him there was the way everything was conformed to the landscape itself. It was nature that determined the shape of things, not the human presence. So in his design for Simon Fraser, it’s terraced, just like the rice fields of Bali.” Erickson also looked to the Acropolis in Athens — an impressive structure, as much a part of the mountain as the grass below. Years later, Erickson would say that “the dialogue between building and setting is the essence of architecture.”


The Instant University

According to Shrum, Erickson and Massey’s design was chosen unanimously by the judges because it met all of his requirements. “I had always felt sorry for UBC students who had to walk from building to building in the rain,” he said; Erickson’s design allowed students to travel from any one building to another without exposure to the elements. Shrum also requested that there be ample space for parking, and that all the school’s large lecture theatres be together and not, as Shrum described it, “scattered all over the campus as they were at UBC.”

But Shrum’s final and most crucial stipulation — one that his advisors cautioned him would be too difficult for any applicant — was that “the university should appear in 1965 essentially as it would in 1995.” Shrum wanted a school which seemed complete on the day it opened, and could be expanded upon without fundamentally changing its appearance. In his 1986 autobiography, he deemed Erickson’s design, ultimately, a success: “Simon Fraser University looks almost the same now as it did the day we opened it, despite the great expansion that has taken place.”

As winner of Shrum’s design competition, Erickson and Massey were given two jobs: they were to implement their own design of Simon Fraser University, while also factoring in the design concepts of their four runners-up. Zoltan Kiss was put in charge of the Academic Quadrangle; Robert Harrison, the library; Rhone and Iredale, the science wing; Duncan McNab, the gym, pool, and theatre complex. Given first choice, Erickson and Massey chose Convocation Mall — in their minds, this would be the centre of the university, the meeting place for academic minds to exchange ideas and engage in discussion.

Years later, when the Mall became the centre of the radical political protests that came to define SFU’s first decade, Erickson came under fire for his design. Despite an unwillingness to publicly comment on the matter, by all accounts, he was pleased: this, of course, meant that his idea had worked.

“Erickson saw the mountain as designing the shape of the campus.” – David Stouck, author of Arthur Erickson: An Architect’s Life

As construction began in March 1964, a journalist for the national magazine Saturday Night dubbed the work in progress the “instant university.” The name stuck — during the gruelling construction phase, Erickson would joke that a project of its scale would usually require two years just to prepare the drawings, let alone the construction process.

Typical of their partnership, Erickson and Massey split the work to suit their talents. Stouck’s biography tells of one particular morning when Massey and Erickson learned that a shipment of concrete slabs had proved too thin to hold up the weight required of them, halting construction and pushing hard against their impending deadline. Massey spent the entire day telephoning suppliers and contractors, trying to fix the problem; meanwhile, Erickson spent the day researching to find the perfect species of reflecting koi fish for the Academic Quadrangle pond.

Despite minor setbacks, Erickson and Massey, along with their ragtag team of fellow architects, finished construction in time for the university to open in September of 1965, right on schedule.

Its first semester had over 2,500 students in attendance, and SFU’s groundbreaking design — its wide open spaces, bold use of concrete and glass, and interdisciplinary structure — brought Erickson international acclaim. He and Massey won multiple awards for their work, and in the years following, Erickson would go on to open offices in Montreal, Toronto, Los Angeles, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia — at one point, running all five at the same time.

“From the outset, Simon Fraser — from an architectural point of view — was radical,” Stouck says. “In the old days, university campuses consisted of buildings that were separated from each other, and these separations represented a competitive spirit between departments. To put all these departments together and, in a sense, jumble them up to make sure that there was no sense of competition among the faculties was a completely new idea.”

Stouck also cites SFU’s interdisciplinary design as a reason for its political radicalism early on. “When you bring everybody together, they’re going to start talking to each other about their disciplines in relationship to each other. Pretty soon, you have an entirely new and different idea of how education can develop [. . .] and of course, it attracted radical students, it attracted radical faculty, and that became part of its reputation.”

SFU, known to many at the time as “the Berkeley of the North,” quickly gained notoriety as a school for outcasts, political dissidents, activists, and starving artists. Its unique design played a big role in enticing potential students. “SFU attracted students who were not inclined to follow a crowd,” writes Hugh Johnston, a professor emeritus at SFU, in his book Radical Campus. 

Though Erickson’s popularity would continue to grow after his work on the university, Shrum’s gradually sank — his old world approach to business and scholarship clashed with the radicalism of the SFU student body, and his chancellorship from 1963 to 1968 was an unpopular one.

Still, in his final years, Shrum remained proud of his accomplishment with Simon Fraser University. In his final years, he would remark, “I am certain that nobody, in any part of the world, ever built a university in two years and six months that accommodated 2,500 students at the opening.”

The Aftermath

Five years after the construction of Simon Fraser University was completed, Arthur Erickson received a letter from the Prime Minister’s office. A newly elected Pierre Trudeau was hosting an artists’ dinner: prominent creatives from across Canada were invited to share their views on Canadian nationalism and identity, as well as a Parliament cooked meal. Erickson, as it turns out, was the only architect to earn an invitation.

Erickson’s resulting friendship with Trudeau — which grew so close that the latter’s advisors, fearing rumours of homosexuality, urged him to marry immediately — proved the architect’s introduction to the world of fame and extravagance that came to dominate much of the rest of his life.

His parties at his Vancouver and Los Angeles homes became legend. His friendships with Prince Charles, Princess Diana, Katherine Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine catapulted him to celebrity status. Erickson’s homosexuality, an open secret among friends, would remain a source of tension in his professional career in the decades to come.

Although his status as one of Canada’s star architects continued to grow with projects such as UBC’s Museum of Anthropology, Robson Square, and the Canadian Embassy in Washington, DC, Erickson’s personal life was fraught with drama. His longtime life partner, Francisco Kripacz, a businessman and designer who helped decorate the interior of many Erickson projects, encouraged the couple’s increasingly decadent lifestyle, which kept them in near-constant financial strain.

“[Kripacz] was a very extravagant man,” says Stouck. “[Erickson] was under the spell of that man for years and years. The Arthur Erickson story is somewhat of a Greek tragedy, and this was his fatal flaw, in terms of his career as an architect; on the one hand, his instinct was to live very modestly, but he was surrounded by people, especially Francisco, who wanted everything to be as lavish and exciting as possible.”

Erickson’s tragedy reached its climax in 1992, when he was forced to declare bankruptcy in Vancouver’s Law Courts — the same ones he had designed only a decade before.

However, the final years of Erickson’s life saw his career and reputation restored. After more than a decade of separation from the architect, Kripacz died of respiratory failure. Erickson’s international offices had closed, leaving just his Vancouver office — the same place where he and Massey started it all. 

There is nothing more architecturally representative of Vancouver than Erickson’s green roofs, glass windows, and angular concrete.

Erickson’s split with Massey in the mid 1970s damaged both men professionally and personally, a blow from which, one might argue, the former never recovered. “Even though he tried to surround himself with other people working for him that could manage the business,” Stouck notes, “it was never the same.”

In 2006, just three years before his death on May 20, 2009, the Vancouver Art Gallery held a retrospective on Erickson’s life and work. Sketches of Simon Fraser University and paintings from Erickson’s childhood decorated the walls as the architect fielded questions from interviewers beneath the Robson Square dome he’d designed 20 years previous. The exhibit’s curator, architect Nicholas Olsberg, reflected on Erickson’s legacy: “I don’t think the world knows what he means, and I don’t think Vancouver knows.”

Erickson remains one of just two Canadian architects to win the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal, among countless other awards. According to friends, he was known to wear the medal proudly around his neck at parties and other social occasions.

Walking down the streets of Vancouver, it’s impossible to ignore Erickson’s impact on the city. Almost 50 years after his design of SFU brought him fame and fortune, there is nothing more architecturally representative of Vancouver than Erickson’s green roofs, glass windows, and angular concrete. His final work, Vancouver’s Trump Hotel — known to many as Vancouver’s Turn, a fitting double entendre — is set to be completed in 2016, almost a full decade after his passing.

Still, it’s hard not to think of Erickson’s life — part Greek tragedy, part rags-to-riches-to-rags parable, part epic journey — as being defined by the school he helped create. Atop Burnaby Mountain, in the midst of Erickson’s own concrete Acropolis, he lives on.

Erickson design images courtesy SFU Archives, Gordon Shrum fonds (F-32-1-0-0-6).