The surprising story of SFU’s blue pyramid

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Photo courtesy of Krista Loewen.

When a person turns 100, they become a centenarian. But what is it called when they reach the halfway point? This question led me to discover the word ‘quinquagenarian.’ This year, Simon Fraser University and its art collection will become quinquagenarians. Through a variety of sources, the SFU Art Collection has accumulated an ad hoc and varied mix of artworks, including the Academic Quadrangle’s Blue Pyramid.

The collection’s size and diversity — approximated at 5,500 works in total — has grown through acquisitions overseen by a variety of SFU faculty and directors, and through donations from collectors, artists, and corporations looking for tax write-offs. A handful of these are on display in the SFU Galleries’ Geometry of Knowing exhibitions, and over 1,000 works of art are shown on SFU campuses in public locations year-round.

This series of articles about the Collection will provide background information and historical context on particular works on display, and a few hidden in the vault, to show how the collection represents and contextualizes a quinquagenarian SFU.

The SFU Art Collection began in the Academic Quadrangle. Gordon Smith’s coloured tile mosaic, found on the west end of the AQ and overlooking Convocation Mall, was the very first piece to be included in the collection. Arthur Erickson, the chief architect of SFU’s Burnaby campus, was an intellectual colleague of Smith’s, and he also designed Smith’s house.

Erickson had the idea that art should be integrated into the architecture of the campus, as opposed to being added after the fact. The AQ is an auspicious location to begin to look at the history of the SFU Art Collection, both in how Erickson’s brutalist design makes a literal frame of the landscape, and that it’s probably one of the most-travelled outdoor areas of SFU.

The Terry Fox memorial and Carlos Basanta’s “Oval Reflections,” a.k.a. the egg-avocado, feature most prominently due to their proximity to the AQ walking path. Despite this, neither have the contentious history of the blue metal pyramid obscured behind the grove of shrubs in the AQ.

Donated to SFU in 1977 by collector Ian Davidson, the pyramid is titled Energy Alignment Sculpture, Pyramid in the Golden Section. It was designed by Bridge Beardslee, a sculptor from California.

The Vancouver Art Gallery commissioned the blue, tubular steel pyramid in 1976 for the project Documenting a Power Line. Intended to be aligned to the North Star, it conforms to the proportions of the Cheops pyramid in Egypt and the golden ratio (1:1.618), and, prior to its donation to SFU, was installed at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre plaza.

After its arrival to Burnaby, the pyramid, which the artist describes as “an attempt to make discoveries about light and energy patterns within the city,” became the subject of debate around its location in the AQ.

Prior to being anchored to its concrete base in 1978, the pyramid rested freely on the gravel courtyard within the grove of shrubbery, and was victim to pranksters who took advantage of its mobility. One of the pyramid’s significant sites of relocation was the other pyramid in the AQ: the terraced mound of earth meant to represent Burnaby Mountain.

One of the most outspoken voices against locating Beardslee’s pyramid upon its permanent location in the gravel courtyard was Blair T. Longley.

Longley, who later became associated with various political parties including the Green, Rhinoceros, and Marijuana parties, made an impassioned plea — documented by the SFU Art Collection through various news clippings and letters addressed both to the SFU Art Gallery director and to Beardslee himself — to locate the sculpture atop the AQ mound and to align the sculpture with Magnetic North, as opposed to True North as per the artist’s wishes.

Longley’s arguments, which invoke his seemingly genuine and earnest interest in “pyramid power,” as well as his belief that “for the pyramid to function it needs to be oriented with the earth’s magnetic field,” are inspiring — even a minimalist work of art can instigate an impassioned conversation around the artwork’s meaning.

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