At the Helm

What do a few imaginatively recycled but otherwise ordinary industrial buildings at the foot of the Burrard Bridge and a handsome 35-foot wooden sailboat reaching across English Bay have in common? Bing Thom.
The simple compound by the bridge is his office and studio–modest in appearance, compact in scale, not always easy to spot, much like Bing himself. Under-designed is how he and partner Michael Heeney describe it, but it provides a perfect home for an architectural practice founded on Vitruvius’s proposition that great buildings are well crafted, intelligently planned, and not merely beautiful–but delightful as well.
The boat is called Sonya’s Spirit. Like his buildings, it operates in elegant harmony with the environment. And like the studio, it is a place of refuge and reflection, providing a frame of reference for action that is in perfect tune with the forces of nature.
The office is organized around three large spaces on two levels. These are the studios–undivided and high-ceilinged, cluttered but not untidy. Workstations are distributed around the periphery, and common worktables with shelves of reference materials fill the inside zones. There are models everywhere–big models that you can walk around and models that you can hold in your hand, small-scale models of sites and buildings, large-scale models of a room or wall assembly, and full-size fragments that explore complex joints and innovative combinations of materials. Some are exquisitely crafted in wood and paper; others are nothing more than bits of Styrofoam held together with pins and tape. Most are beautiful; all are eloquent. According to Bing, none are precious.
There is also a collection of full-size mock-ups in the parking lot. Bing and his colleagues build these with the assistance of professional craftsmen and use them to engage the risks associated with adventurous design thinking. These mock-ups–and Bing and Michael describe each house they build as a kind of mock-up–give everyone, including clients and builders, opportunities to evaluate feasibility, aesthetics, even performance.
The concern for craft and program and the exuberant delight in invention that characterize the studio’s built work is everywhere. It’s a vision that’s clearly shared by everyone on the team and Bing has something to say to each person about every sketch, model, material sample or computer image as he makes his way through the studio with easy grace and a familiar economy of motion.
He moves the same way in the boat, where he talks about architecture and architectural education, the city and local politics. We take turns at the helm but it’s his optimism about the power of architecture to shape us as a society that guides the conversation.
When we’re not sailing, he draws as he talks, usually with a brush pen on a napkin. Occasionally, we exchange books. Recently, I gave him Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman and opened my mail a few weeks later to find a copy of Jun’ichiro_ Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows. I use one of his napkin sketches as a bookmark. CA

Architect David Covo is an Associate Professor of Architecture at McGill University, and Past President of the national sport governing body for sailing in Canada.