The Vancouver architecture practice of Bing Thom has over the past two years received the highest possible accolades from its Canadian colleagues: the 2010 Royal Architectural Institute of Canada’s award for top architectural firm, and in 2011, the R.A.I.C. Gold Medal went to Thom personally for his lifetime of achievement in design. The reason for this attention is that in an architectural landscape that rewards bland competency over creative innovation, the works of Bing Thom stand out. Bing Thom’s work is unpredictable, and in times when public and campus architecture evermore resemble beltway branch offices, predictability reigns king. While large corporate firms reliably deliver the high-end of generically urbane and green public building commissions, Bing Thom gets the strange but wonderful work—or more accurately, he makes it strange and wonderful.
For instance, take the Thom-designed Surrey Central City, where a suburban campus for 4,000 students is laminated on top of an extant 1970s shopping centre that never closed its doors, topped by an office tower and fronted by a transit-related plaza—in all, a key demonstration of the hybridity in typologies, building programs, social missions and materiality that is the hallmark of Vancouverism. Surrey Central City was made possible by pushing wood engineering to do things never seen before, courtesy of Thom’s ongoing creative collaboration with Canada’s most innovative engineers, Fast + Epp. More recently, Thom did a campus plan for Calgary’s Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, where the only component constructed to date, a mere parking garage, is alive with innovative ideas.
Failures are often more indicative of qualities in individuals – even design firms – than are successes, so two of Bing Thom’s seeming failures (both, as it happens, in Toronto) are worth discussing to understand the commitment to ideas and innovation that underlies Thom’s designs. Working for Arthur Erickson, Bing Thom took over as project architect for Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall after predecessor Jim Strasman resigned to strike out on his own, tiring of how Erickson ran his atelier. The concert hall had been designed from the inside out, and independent of a specific site, because many potential locations for the building were still in play. The acoustics consultant, Bolt Beranek Newman, had already been chosen (their other designs of the era, such as San Francisco’s Davies Hall, would prove to be as vexed as the Toronto concert hall).
Thom’s challenge was to site the building once the locale at King and Simcoe was secured (considered “out-there” at the time) and to give it exterior form. Erickson and Strasman had elaborated a variation on the office’s typical repertoire of cast concrete post and beam for the seating tiers and their soffits. Thom broke radically with this for its exterior shell, applying his knowledge of complex glass construction gained with the Law Courts/ Robson Square, where he was team leader. The resulting sweeping, ovoid roof is that rare figural object (along with Revell’s City Hall) that stands out against downtown Toronto’s boxy ground, and the first indication of Thom’s now career-long interest in curving building forms. But the boldness of Thom’s forms in an architecturally conservative city, plus the ill-received acoustics for the concert hall, gave Roy Thomson Hall little acclaim or resonance. But less than a decade later, Thom’s steep learning curve was applied to a second concert hall commission, this time for the University of British Columbia, designed after he left Erickson. A clear design and acoustic triumph, the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts has become one of the world’s most influential performing arts buildings of the past two decades. The same design trajectory then continued on to shape the Arena Stage complex in Washington, almost certainly the most-lauded American building completed last year. It is the mark of a truly great architect to learn from failures, then innovate, and there have been few more prominent such progressions than Bing Thom’s turn from Roy Thomson Hall to Chan Theatre to Arena Stage.
Bing Thom can also be seen to have won by having lost in the sad tale of the Royal Ontario Museum addition. Thom called me in for advice right after he learned that he was to be, strangely, the only Canadian among the 20 firms invited to submit credentials for the commission. After congratulating him, I bluntly opined that he did not have a chance, and neither did 18 of the other usual international suspects who formed the list. My advice sprung from a previous chat with my first editor, William Thorsell (who had left the newspaper business to become CEO of the ROM), after he returned, starry-eyed, from a preview viewing of the Berlin Jewish Museum designed by Daniel Libeskind (also on the ROM’s list of potential architects). “Do it to raise your Toronto profile,” I suggested to Bing, “but whatever you do, don’t drop a pile of unpaid staff time into a commission you cannot win.” Of course, Thom ignored my advice, threw his whole team into every aspect of the commission and came close to winning it—study his phase II competition plan treatment of collections and public spaces and weep when comparing them with Libeskind’s off-the- shelf metaphysical muddle that got built.
Thom’s Toronto lessons were hard—the bland competency of the cities’ leading practitioners sparks an equal and opposite market for the faux heroic gesture, ergo Libeskind, Wil Alsop’s Sharp Centre at the Ontario College of Art and Design, even the reworking of the Dundas facade on the Art Gallery of Ontario by Frank Gehry. As yet, Canada’s largest city has found no niche for Thom’s commitment to formal and technical invention driven by disciplines of (hybrid) urbanity, (hybrid) social graciousness, and (hybrid) tectonics; in other words, there’s been no room in the urban closet for anything but carefully tailored suits or carnival costumes.
Many of these same patterns – a commitment to technical and programmatic innovation, a sinuous formal repertoire, unconventional but apt urbanism – are apparent in one of Canada’s most under-published but innovative buildings of the past few years, BTA’s Sunset Community Centre, created for a park on Vancouver’s south Main Street, near the Punjabi Market. Weddings in the Punjab crucially include a parade of bride and groom around the village or neighbourhood, and local families were forced to book wedding halls in Surrey, 25 kilometres away, because there was no adequate facility nearby. A large room on Main Street was Thom’s key addition to the standard recreation-related program for Vancouver community centres (the half-century string of these buildings are one of our city’s under-sung marvels of social integration and healthy living). Established pedestrian pathways across the park site informed Sunset’s crossed pair of internal streets, which double as avenues for wedding processions on even the rainiest of days. Thom’s favoured organic forms are evident here (perhaps the reason the project has not received the profile it deserves) and are rationalized by him as being inspired by the flowing forms of silk saris, drifting above the park’s greensward on a summer evening. BTA has long been a green firm without defaulting to the recent sustainability look New Yorker critic David Owen calls “LEED Style.” Green features include an investment in geothermal heating, unusually well-disposed and controlled day-lighting and a refreshing concern for the energy content of materials and energy expended during construction.
Drawing on the expertise of Fast + Epp, the latter concerns led BTA to revive the 1950s intermediate technology of tilt-up concrete construction at a scale seldom attempted in Canada. Sunset’s internal streets are framed by tilt-up walls, their pours superior to nearly all local conventional cast-in-place concrete and much cheaper and less consumptive of energy and materials.
The key to Thom’s tack in all of these projects is found in the forces that have influenced his life and his dedication to ideas and originality that has set his course through them. A rare 1950s immigrant from Hong Kong, the diminutive Thom scrapped his way through an otherwise all-white Westside Vancouver high school, his parents refusing more Asian enclaves further east. Thom started working for Erickson as an office assistant before even starting architecture school, and having had a similar start, I know the wonderful overview of practice that is possible then, before the templates and received wisdoms of a formal education. By the time Thom graduated from UBC, he was a thriving force in Erickson’s office and was afforded the rare privilege of a theoretical, not practical, architecture school thesis. He turned down Ivy League graduate schools to go to Berkeley; he was attracted by the combinatorial thinking of Notes on the Synthesis of Form-era Christopher Alexander, but repulsed by the emergent Pattern Language cult there, and focused instead on urban design and systems theory. He and wife Bonnie backpacked through China in 1972, and Thom turned down an opportunity to work for Louis Kahn but accepted one to work for Fumihiko Maki.
There is no figure in contemporary Canadian architecture who has so deftly inherited Arthur Erickson’s double dedication to formal and tectonic innovation – true modernism, not the fey Neo-Modernism that is thought by too many to be the same thing – combined with a commitment to civic commentary and social engagement. Why he remains a mystery to so many clients and colleagues in Canada is a mystery to me, but Bing Thom has sorely earned his accolade.