Trottier Observatory + Science Courtyard

Burnaby, British Columbia | 2013-2015
SFU Observatory

Perched on top of Burnaby Mountain, Simon Fraser University is an iconic campus, marked by original architect Arthur Erickson’s terraced grid. Largely thanks to the vision of SFU physics professor Dr. Howard Trottier and funding from his brother, Montreal tech company founder Lorne Trottier, SFU set out to create a dedicated space for bringing science education and astronomy to children and the public.

SFU Observatory Courtyard
Campus Central Spine
The observatory and courtyard are located along the central east-west spine in an existing open space.

As the prime consultants on this project, we were tasked with taking 0.4 acres of underused space on SFU’s campus and turning it into a site for meaningful scientific exploration—combining flexible greenspace and interactive learning space for all ages.

SFU Observatory starry walls and berm
Connection with the Quadrangle
The landscape frames and connects one with the iconic SFU campus. Using vernacular materials and forms the Courtyard is integrated with the campus while still achieving a unique character and purpose.

We based our design process on three principles. The first was ‘Ensure integration with the campus and Ericksonian vision’—that meant carefully following the campus’s orthogonal east-west geometry, featuring board-form concrete on the observatory building, and integrating steeply sloped grass berms, common to the campus. 

Observatory and planting

The second principle—‘Model after scientific discovery and methodology’—was a fun way to subtly nod to the physics of the universe. Native plantings are arranged in a radial pattern that represents the orbit of planets around the sun. At night, the long seating plinth glows with coloured bands that reference elemental emission spectra. In the daytime this reference is visible through the black metal bands that include the periodic table icon of each element. Metal plates set into the paving offer a graphic representation of the powers of ten—the scales astronomers use to measure distance in the galaxy. Glowing stones in the pavement represent a “field of stars”. Black star-shaped seating suggests dark stars—a mystery in space. Screens around the Observatory are placed to symbolize a key component in quantum theory in which objects can appear solid yet are spaced apart. 

Observatory in the fall
Promenade Connection
The Story Line Plinth includes many features. The elemental plates, the Power of Ten bands in the glass aggregate paving, and radial planting echoing our solar system are all details that emerge while visiting the site.

Finally, the third principle was ‘Continued interest over time.’ To the end, it takes a full year to experience the evolving components of this project. Depending on the time of day or season, the landscape continually offers something new. By day, the space is used by the campus community as an outdoor retreat and learning centre. By night it hosts a thriving astronomy program. 

Observatory at night
The courtyard comes alive at night with light radiating from the elemental spectrum bands referencing key periodic elements and Starry Wall maps. Features not seen during the day expand the opportunities for exploration and discovery. The lights change to a low-intensity green for dark sky adaptation during telescope use and Starry Night events.

Today courtyard visitors use both old and new methods to observe the night sky—they can set up their own telescopes in the plaza or go to deep space in the observatory. SFU’s Starry Nights program attracts people from all over Metro Vancouver to the plaza for evening star parties and astronomy workshops—fostering curiosity and discovery in ways that are exceeding everyone’s expectations. 



CSLA National Award of Excellence, Small-Scale Public Landscape

Illuminating Engineering Society of North America: Illumination Awards

Integral Group
Bush, Bohlman & Partners LLP
Westpro Infrastructure
Ian McLennan
Lorne & Howard Trottier