Editorial: Visionary Leaders

The Canadian architecture community has recently lost two giants of the profession: Bing Thom and Ted Teshima.

Bing Wing Thom, 1940-2016. Photo: Thomas Billingsley
Bing Wing Thom, 1940-2016. Photo: Thomas Billingsley

Thom’s office is tucked at the edge of downtown Vancouver, and I first met him there a few years ago. At that time, he never entered competitions unless invited. He handpicked clients. He had visions for building links between cultural institutions in Canada and his native Hong Kong. I was in the presence of an immense intellect, strategist and master of his craft—but I also felt Thom had all the time in the world to chat with a curious journalist.

At a lecture in Toronto the other year, when he received the inaugural Margolese National Design for Living Prize, Thom described approaching a new project in Dallas, Texas by first meandering through the streets with quiet intent, observing the particular colours of the city’s sky, earth and river.

Similarly, he listened with seriousness to his clients—both those who paid for his buildings, but also (and especially) those who would ultimately use them. At Surrey City Centre, for instance, he built a university and office tower around a nondescript one-storey shopping mall, keeping it operational during construction because it was an important gathering spot for locals. In the final project, the mall’s roof has been removed, and an atrium soars above it.

Thom was not afraid to be outspoken. He publicly criticized the Canada House pavilion at the 2010 Olympics, and argued against a proposal for a casino in the city—positions that other architects held privately, but few aired for fear of damaging relations with future clients.

I asked Thom, after his Toronto lecture, how he came to his insights, which he backed with such passionate conviction. He replied, “Mindfulness meditation—half an hour every morning and every night.” This personal practice was perhaps also behind his relaxed, confident demeanour—a quality of presence that couldn’t help but affect everyone who was lucky enough to interact with him.

Theodore Fujio (Ted) Teshima, 1938-2016.
Theodore Fujio (Ted) Teshima, 1938-2016.

While I never met Ted Teshima, from the tributes offered at a recent Toronto celebration of his life, he was by all accounts a similarly thoughtful, kind and collaborative leader. “He was a gentleman—and a gentle man,” offered Wally Eley of Crossey Engineering, who worked with him on numerous projects, large and small, over the past decades.

Zool Samji, a client representative for the Aga Khan Museum and Ismaili Centre in Toronto and the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat in Ottawa, spoke of Teshima’s inner calmness and resolve, care for the built environment, and belief in creating quality buildings that would stand the test of time. As a team leader, said Samji, Teshima fostered an enabling and welcoming atmosphere that allowed all around him to succeed.

Raymond Moriyama, FRAIC, who brought on Teshima as a partner to his then-12-year-old firm in 1970, simply described Teshima by saying, “he was the best.” Over almost four decades of working together, Moriyama couldn’t recall a single instance when Teshima raised his voice.

His son, Paul Teshima, confirmed that Ted “never got angry.” He said, “ but you could disappoint him, which was ten times worse.” On vacations, said Paul, they would sometimes visit architectural projects that Teshima competed for but didn’t win. Teshima did not criticize them, but rather learned from them, seeing how others approached a problem that he himself had been deeply immersed in.

Thom and Teshima’s accomplishments were hard-won. Both grew their practices during a period when Asian-Canadians were still not fully integrated in Canadian society. Thom’s father had been an early immigrant to Canada, but had then returned to Hong Kong, embittered at the racist policies of that era. Teshima, like Moriyama, went through several years of childhood in a Japanese internment camp.

Some years ago, a personality study of successful architects concluded that, in general, these top dogs are obsessive, stubborn, and somewhat surly to deal with—traits we might still associate with the stereotypical “starchitect.” In contrast, Thom and Teshima were certainly devoted to their values: but they were also humble, generous, optimistic and wise. Our heroes were also exceptional Canadians, in the highest and finest sense of the word.