Connect the Sprawl

Surrey Central City, Phase 1, Surrey, British Columbia
Bing Thom Architects Inc.

If fully realized, the plan for Surrey’s new city centre will transform an archetypal suburban landscape of strip malls, parking lots and plan book bungalows into a vibrant high-rise metropolis. At five square kilometers Surrey’s commercial core will be more than twice the size of Vancouver’s downtown business district. After a decade of planning, the first gesture toward this grand vision is now complete. Bing Thom Architects’ Surrey Central City–Phase 1 proposes a new typology for the future of suburbia.

The municipality of Surrey, south of the Fraser River between Vancouver and the US border, began with the amalgamation of five distinct bedroom communities, each with its own local commercial area. Spurred on by relatively affordable housing prices, Surrey has become one of the fastest growing communities in Canada. Despite its low residential densities, it has recently replaced the City of Vancouver as British Columbia’s most populous municipality. Surrey now claims more than 25% of the region’s population, but has only 4% of the area’s jobs.

A decade or more ago, the Greater Vancouver Regional District (GVRD), which oversees the interests of the Lower Mainland’s 22 municipalities, published a ‘Liveable Region Strategy’ that recommended the creation of ten new urban centres, served by transit, that would decentralize work opportunities, previously concentrated in Vancouver, and relieve the pressure on the area’s infrastructure. The largest of these new centres was proposed for Surrey and, in conjunction with the municipality and the rapid transit authority, the GVRD designated an elongated rectangle of land that included the sites of three new Skytrain stations to connect the new civic centre to New Westminster, Burnaby and Vancouver. Planners predict that a generation from now, Surrey’s Central City will lie at the heart of an almost continuous urban area extending from Vancouver to Abbotsford, more than 60 kilometres inland.

In a quest to grasp the magnitude of this undertaking, and to understand the nature of city-building, the municipality retained Bing Thom Architects of Vancouver to research North American precedents and to present their findings and recommendations. While the architects identified interesting physical models in several US cities, they found the impetus for regeneration had most often been provided by financing mechanisms that were unavailable to Canadian cities under the present Municipal Act. For example, Tax Increment Financing mechanisms (TIFs) permits US cities or their development corporations to borrow money for initial infrastructure projects against the virtual collateral of future property taxes. In Canada, our system of development cost charges ultimately achieves the same net effect, but requires private sector developers to come forward with concrete proposals before those charges can be levied. In Surrey, where there was no pre-existing urban infrastructure, the high ratio of risk to return would deter any private sector developer from making the first move.

Indeed, what Bing Thom Architects discovered in the course of their research, was that in the only Canadian precedents of comparable scale, (Scarborough, North York and Mississauga), the initial stimulus for development was provided by a large injection of capital by senior levels of government. Accordingly, the City of Surrey began investigating partnership possibilities with the provincial government.

It took more than two years of discussion and negotiation before the assets and ambitions of the city and province could be brought together and channeled into a joint-venture project of the required scale. A solution materialized when BC’s NDP government declared its intention to establish a new technical university in the Fraser Valley, to improve the area’s poor participation rate in post secondary education, and to support the province’s increasingly important high-tech sector. It’s problem was a lack of land, or rather a lack of land in the right place. The deal seemed simple enough: the City of Surrey would provide the land, and the province would build the university.

However a third party came forward in the form of the Insurance Company of BC (ICBC), a provincial crown corporation in expansion mode that was looking to invest a portion of its assets in real estate while establishing a new regional office at the same time. With the encouragement of the other parties, ICBC optioned the Surrey Central Mall, a two-storey 60,000 square metre box, whose main asset was proximity to Surrey Central station and the region’s largest bus interchange. ICBC Properties then intended to redevelop the site, and have the province lease back a portion of the space for its new university.

Realizing the Vision

Arriving by Skytrain at Surrey Central station, Bing Thom Architects’ (BTA) new development dominates the landscape. With its elliptical glass tower rising 25 storeys above an otherwise bleak panorama of asphalt pavement and squat concrete boxes, the project seems to have been dropped onto the site from another place and time. In a sense it has, for if the vision of a new metropolis is to be realized here, then this project is surely a glimpse into the future.

As one begins to engage the building, any lingering sense of dislocation is dispelled. The sweeping curve of the entrance forecourt naturally draws visitors from the Skytrain station and bus loop. Passing through one of the portals in the curved north wall and entering through the atrium, the circulation node connects both visually and physically to all the major components of the complex.

One is first struck by the quality of natural light, which floods in from the 25 metre high glazed entrance wall, but which also draws the viewer deeper into the building. It is quickly evident that the building program that includes the renovated shopping mall, the university campus and the office tower has been deftly sculpted around a series of dynamic, interconnected public spaces. The atrium itself is roughly triangular in plan and measures 75 metres on its longest side. At this point, the space flows in two directions: horizontally into the shopping mall, and up a broad concrete stair to a generous balcony that serves as the entrance to the university campus. Just out of sight, these two streams of space reconnect into the galleria, and the five-storey circulation spine exists as the defining element of the building.

The impetus for the creation of the galleria was provided by the presence of the university. Requiring large and contiguous floor plates, the natural placement of the university facilities was in the form of a three-storey podium at the base of the building. Sensing the invigorating potential of forming a symbiotic relationship between the university and the shopping mall, BTA located the campus above the existing structure. Organizing the circulation around a central void, and aligning that void with one spine of the mall below, the architects created the opportunity for a dynamic interconnected space, with the regular activity in the mall further animated by thousands of students, moving from class to class along the balconies above.

The construction of this space required great technical ingenuity as the mall needed to remain operational throughout the construction process. The upper floors of the galleria were supported on nine cruciform columns piercing the roof of the mall. When construction was complete, the mall roof was peeled off, creating the dramatic new volume, a sinuous spine more than 140 metres in length and 30 metres across. The intricate timber roof structure supports a continuous perimeter skylight, transforming the hermetic and introverted environment of a traditional suburban mall into a bright and lively interior street.

The galleria links horizontally via numerous bridges to the adjacent office tower. The result is a dynamic spatial composition animated by the continuous ebb and flow of people throughout the
day. From no single point in the building can this flowing series of spaces be appreciated in its entirety.

In form and exterior materials, BTA sought a contemporary, even futuristic look, in keeping with the youthful and technologically oriented users. Accordingly, the building’s flowing curves are clad in a combination of zinc, stainless steel and titanium. Internally, the liberal use of wood in the roofs and supporting structures of the public spaces provide a visually warm and tactile complement to the moulded plastic characteristic of a contemporary high-tech workplace. There is richness too in the complexity of these structures and the articulation of detail arrests the eye and lends counterpoint to the flow of space.

The message is clear right down to the details. There are no quick fixes, and the ills of suburbia cannot simply be swept away. Drawing upon, rather than ignoring, from the existing context, BTA have defined a typology that connects the present to the future, suburbia to the metropolis. Inspired by the vitality of urban life, the project draws its unique energy from the juxtaposition of complementary uses and activities. Within this neo-suburban environment, its public spaces hold as much promise for human interaction as any urban street or square.


With BC’s change of government and the meltdown in the high-tech sector, the province has shelved its plans for a technical university. ICBC has decided to contract rather than expand its operations. And one year after completion, Surrey Central City is only 25% leased, with J.P. Morgan as its anchor tenant. The mall appears to be thriving and local residents have taken the building to heart.

Client: ICBC Properties Ltd.

Architect team: Bing Thom (Principal), Michael Heeney (Executive Director), Chris Doray (Design Director), Francis Yan (Associate Director), John Camfield (Technical Director),Stefan Aepli, Allan Alomes, Mark Aquilon, Sarah Bjornson, James Brown, Matthew Cencich, Kori Chan, Stewart Child, Rosalyn Chung, Clint Cuddington, Stuart Curran, Dan Du, Robert Emslie, Brian Gee, Stephanie Gerbrandt, Jennifer Notte, Shinobu Homma, Sharif Hossainy, Helmut Kassautzki, Eileen Keenan, Greg Leano, Tanya McLean, Michael Motlagh, Jun Nan, Pavlina Ryvola, Robert Sandilands, Patrick Schilling, Peter F. Smith, Eric Stedman, Johannes Visser, Andrew Weyrauch, Michael Wong, Matthew Woodruff, Tony Yip, Luciano Zago, Yong Zhang

Structural: Jones Kwong Kishi, Structurecraft/Fast + Epp (roofs and North Wall glazing)

Mechanical: Keen Engineering

Electrical: R.A. Duff Associates

Contractor: PCL Contractors Canada

Area: 100,000 m2

Budget: $135 million

Completion: November 2003

Photography: Nic Lehoux unless noted

Jim Taggart is a Contributing Editor at Canadian Architect.