Canadian Architect

Feature

The New Generalist

2011 RAIC Gold Medallist Bing Thom discusses the necessity of reinforcing the values of the architect and the importance of remaining true to a solid foundation of craft, innovation, and establishing good working relationships.

April 30, 2011
by Canadian Architect

Interviewer Ian Chodikoff

The RAIC Gold Medal is largely about leadership and what you can give back to the profession and the community. What are your thoughts about this responsibility?

I think we are living in very chaotic times, but the present and future can still offer opportunities for architects as there is a tremendous rejuggling of priorities of what we as architects can do. From an international perspective, the whole Eurocentric focus that we’ve had in North America is now going to be much broader. You can see what’s happening in the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) countries, as well as in the Middle East. This will initiate a serious reconsideration of our responsibilities as architects. So much of our focus as a profession has lost sight of the fact that we actually have a monopoly to practice, when you consider the power of the provincial regulating bodies. The fact that our monopoly to practice comes with certain obligations-I don’t think that we as architects take these obligations seriously enough. We’ve forgotten that our client is really society, not the person that pays us. Architecture has to put itself on a higher plane or we’ll simply work ourselves out of a job.

When considering issues like complex stakeholder objectives in the public realm, and what various levels of government can expect architects to deliver, the concept of what constitutes a client has changed. What can you expect a client to demand from us?

We often accuse doctors of prescribing poison. Architects can sometimes prescribe poison too, especially in the way we shape our physical environment. I think that we are not accountable enough. For example, we lack accountability with the level of greenwashing going on in the work that we do. Architecture is like a kind of clothing. You have an obligation to ensure that the person is wearing suitable clothing designed for them. Using this analogy, you can also educate the person to ensure that the clothes they have are worn in a proper way. Because of the confusion and chaos that exists in our world, so much of our society is being balkanized in a defensive way. Therefore, we have a strong obligation to break down these barriers because the only hope for society is to maintain a constant dialogue. Architecture is a physical manifestation of that dialogue, either in the way we plan, express or site a building, or in the way we use materials to construct it. This is not just about expressing the values of whoever is paying us, but ensuring that what we provide is a reflection of society itself.

How can we preserve the concept of “authenticity” in architecture and how can our efforts extend to the current growth patterns in rapidly industrializing nations? How do we deal with the yoke of Eurocentrism that defines our profession and the global practice? How has your practice maintained the desire to remain authentic, especially when you try to bring out not just authenticity but meaning in your work?

We must certainly work toward helping change society for the better. That requires a tremendous commitment of time on the part of the architect to delve deeply into the essence of what “community” is about. With a global practice, there is a danger that we’ll quickly fly in and fly out to examine a site for our commission. We’ll get off a plane, take one look at the site, and then draw a simple back-of-the-envelope sketch. I deliberately don’t take on more than what I can handle. This is at the expense of building a reputation in the short run but it’s the long run that matters the most. One of the big problems of our profession has been the impact of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. So much of our schooling is focused on being published, becoming famous and giving speeches. In the end, it is the practice of architecture and the building of buildings that counts. One of architects’ biggest problems is that we all want to be published. What you really need to focus on is building good buildings, and then publication will follow. Publications are increasingly focused on the superficial level of what the building looks like rather than what the building is doing. This is not the fault of the publishing industry, but it can be attributed to the fact that society is increasingly pushing us toward the sound bite and the sound bite is what led to the starchitecture phenomenon in the first instance. On one hand, this has been good for architects to see the potential of architecture in society. On the other hand, there is the danger that starchitecture will remain a crutch, or a quick fix to larger societal issues.

You must certainly have battled with the challenges of a global practice with your work in China in projects such as the Dalian New Town Master Plan and the Yuxi Town Centre Master Plan and Concert Hall.

I’m slated to give a talk at the Vancouver Institute where I intend to discuss the naïveté that I had as a younger architect working in China, believing whatever I was doing was going to make a difference. I then learned that cities in China don’t really have a taxation system, so the only way to make good money was to take land from the peasants and then resell it to developers for significant profit. As it turned out, my involvement in China at the time was part of the problem, not the solution, and the experience proved to me how naïve I was. I kept saying to the authorities that they had about 10 times the land that they required. I knew this because I was involved in several World Expos throughout my career. I kept telling them that “you don’t need all of this land,” not realizing that the government was trying to grab as much as they could because there was an opportunity to take all the old industrial land along Shanghai’s Wang Po River and then resell it to developers for a profit. I never caught on to this. I knew they were doing this on the outskirts of Shanghai, but I never realized that this kind of real estate activity was happening in the heart of the city. This is why I decided to move my work over to Texas and Washington, DC. I am now ready to go back to China. The last time I was involved with China was for an invited competition for the Shanghai Expo 2010 Master Plan in 2004. I realize that I have been in Washington for 10 years, and in and out of Texas for seven or eight years. I am just beginning to understand how those cities work. In fact, I’m only starting to understand Vancouver. As for working globally, there is a certain amount of naïveté that we carry with us when we go to other cultures. Nevertheless, it is important to have an outsider examine the problems. I know that in Texas and Washington, they appreciate the comments I make. These comments may rattle some people, but they require this kind of dialogue or they’ll continue to navel-gaze at themselves.

How do you seek out a deeper cultural and urban understanding of the Vancouver region? How can your projects exist as catalysts for the communities in which they are situated?

We have found that across Vancouver’s 23 neighbourhoods, everybody is getting very upset because the city has been growing over the past three decades on outmoded industrial land in the peninsula of the city. Historically, areas such as False Creek and Coal Harbour did not have very many residents living nearby. Today, we are densifying the neighbourhoods in the Vancouver region and many local architects have lost the necessary skills to engage with the community. I have maintained my engagement with communities such as Richmond and Surrey while working hard to avoid superficial public engagement. Vancouverites are perhaps too Vancouver-centric. They don’t realize that Metropolitan Vancouver is the third-largest urban centre in the country, yet Vancouver proper ranks around eighth. The centre of the region may actually be Surrey, Burnaby or some other place. People on Vancouver’s West Side have an under
standing of the city that may have existed three decades ago. I think that Arthur Erickson was right when he predicted that Metro Vancouver might one day be home to 10 million people. Canada is still a wonderful place to raise your children, but we certainly could use a dose of nationalism. Vancouverites in particular cannot just drift along. I recently met an immigrant from the Middle East that moved here a little over a year ago, and he said to me that Vancouver survives on immigrants, real estate and drugs. Is that the basis of Vancouver? Perhaps he is being overly harsh but when you look at the economic basis of the city, he may not be entirely off the mark.

How do you see your role as an architect changing? Today, the public is more educated and they are more organized. How is neighbourhood planning today different from the past?

In today’s world, the planning process just takes more time. You have to expend more energy and effort, go out there to stand up for what you believe to be true. So far, I haven’t had too many confrontational issues. I certainly think that people appreciate the fact that they are talked to before anything is done.

What do you think are the significant differences between Fort Worth, Washington, and Vancouver? Also, what are the similarities when you deal with these individual communities?

Fort Worth is kind of a Medici city because the Bass family controls roughly 50 percent of the property in the downtown core. As an example of what can happen in a city like Fort Worth, I was having trouble at Tarrant College where I was trying to carve a diagonal path from the bluff to the river, and Ed Bass was absolutely determined to create a passage that was below grade and off the sidewalk. The two of us had a raging battle but in the end I won, largely because I had the public on my side; they realized that my approach made more sense. Washington is different. Arena Stage is located in a very abused part of the city, mainly due to the urban renewal process over the years. I spent a lot of time speaking with people in the community about revitalizing Arena Stage even before the concepts were presented. When I came up with the proposal, the project went ahead without resistance. This was assisted by Anthony Williams, who was the mayor at the time and who had a very strong vision of what the waterfront could be. As for Vancouver, less than 10 percent of my work is in the city. For the Sunset Community Centre, I think the community actually wanted me even more than the Vancouver Park Board. Although Sunset has been celebrated and very well received, the Park Board hasn’t even put us on the preferred list of architects. In some ways, I haven’t worked well with bureaucracy. I work well when there are people in the community with vision–whether or not it is a community association, the mayor, the president of a university, or a creative director. It usually has to be somebody who says, “OK, this is what I’d like to do,” but if it is compromised too much through a committee, it doesn’t work well for me. Maybe I push them too hard, or they are intimidated by the architectural process.

What’s happening with your interest in the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG)?

We have a gallery director [Kathleen Bartels] who has been incredibly successful in putting the gallery on the map and bringing people to the facility. [Bartels] has a particularly creative vision and has been determined [to move the gallery to another site in the city]. The Board supports her, but the community is certainly divided. I came to the conclusion that if she is the director, then you have to be realistic and realize that she has been given the mandate to run the organization. So then the idea shifts to “If the gallery does in fact move away from its existing site overlooking Robson Square, what can you do to make the [vacated building] as good if not better than if the gallery had decided to stay in its current location?” This was how the idea of the concert hall came about. I was really trying to stay within a positive framework rather than focusing on the negative. I think this strategy has been incredibly successful. Everybody is relieved that we are not in a huge battle about what the future of the VAG will be. But given the current economic outlook, people are also asking the question as to whether we can have an art gallery and a symphony hall. What we’re saying is that you don’t have to look at building both institutions tomorrow, but perhaps over the next 15 years. In situations like these, you have two choices-either Canada is hopelessly going into the toilet, or you believe that we can reinvent ourselves and have a new beginning. I’m one of those who believes that Canada has an enormous future and everybody is going to want to come here. As architects in Canada, we are very, very lucky.

How do you become globally competitive and develop a sense of urbanism that allows other forms of experience to develop in Vancouver? Or Canada?

We have to allow the essence of our culture and values to be expressed through architecture. Otherwise we will constantly be painted by other people’s perceptions of what we are supposed to be. This will become a superficial reading of the direction in which we are headed. 

I would like to ask you about the subject of mock-ups in your practice, and the question surrounding innovation.

Increasingly, that’s becoming a problem. I can produce the buildings that I like in Vancouver, but to export some of those ideas elsewhere presents a challenge. In Washington, I was reasonably successful. In Fort Worth, I was not so successful in terms of bringing over anyone beyond the architectural team because the projects were either state-or county-funded. In China, it’s going to be extremely difficult because of the labour costs and approaches to manufacturing and assembly. I’m racking my brains to ensure that [my long-time engineering collaborator] Gerry Epp can fabricate his designs and materials in China. I think Gerry has to open a plant over there since he knows I’m active in China again. The specialty glass people that I use-Advanced Glazing-is another issue. We have worked together on the Aberdeen Centre and in Surrey, but the company is experiencing financial troubles. They’re the only people that can do what I like, but the marketplace has forced them out of business. I know that when Renzo Piano recently completed his museum in Dallas, he flew his people in from Italy to put up the glass roof because nobody else could do it. I can see that we will still be flying crews to China and vice versa to put up curtain walls, but this is a whole different way of working with craft than what we have done in the past. Our office has used craftsmen like plasterer Peter Gallagher for over 30 years. We are currently working with a three-dimensional plaster application for the Surrey City Centre Library–almost the way Zaha Hadid might detail her buildings. They were using these six-foot-long trowels to create these swooping forms for the balustrades. The plasterers are certainly very happy, as they are doing what they were trained to do. One young plasterer came up to me on site to thank me, as the building’s design allowed him to truly practice his craft. 

What are the central themes and challenges that you work with in your practice?

The essence of everything is the people you work with, whether it’s the staff, the clients or the craftsmen. Everything builds from there; that’s how I founded my practice, and this is what builds relationships. 

What about your professional history working with Arthur Erickson?

That experience was unique. When I worked with Arthur, he gave me free rein and this allowed me to make all kinds of mistakes while exploring my potential.

What about the issues concerning public art? Wasn’t your building at 938 Howe Street one of your earlier explorations of working w
ith public art?

That was certainly an interesting building for the time. It has always been a very delicate process for me to communicate with public art committees when I have my own artists in mind that I want to work with. I was fortunate enough with Aberdeen Centre in that they were able to accept that one of my staff members would be the public artist, and that’s how we created the Mondrianesque glass on the façade. In the case of artist Chung Hoang for the 938 Howe commercial building project, this was a building that I had actually developed myself with my own money. But with the Surrey City Centre Library, I proposed to the public art committee, mayor and city council to use Gordon Smith. Here was an opportunity to work with one of the greatest living artists in British Columbia, if not Canada, an artist who was in his nineties. The result we achieved was the largest painting or mural that he has ever produced, and it will be the dominant public art component in the building. It takes that kind of relationship to be able to get the artist that you want to work with you, but if the artist is chosen by the committee alone, the art will probably have nothing to do with the building.

When examining architectural elements in your work, such as the metal cladding for the SAIT Polytechnic parking structure, the curtain wall for Aberdeen Centre, and the wood and glass applications for Arena Stage, I see a definitive link between art and architecture. Can you speak to this holistic method in your practice?

One of the writers I find very interesting is Ludwig von Bertalanffy who wrote General Systems Theory in 1969. This book really criticized the linear-reductive method of thinking of Descartes and others. Bertalanffy wrote about systems located within systems and interactions found between systems. The book remains contemporary in that it was already talking about the many things that we take for granted today. For example, in a binary computer system, we have on-off, on-off, yes-no, yes-no, but with the increasingly rapid frequencies of computational power, a computer system can become one rather than only containing individual elements. It’s that gap between on and off where creativity is actually located. We might say that this kind of holistic thinking is rather Asian in that we can live in a world of contradictions. And so, perhaps the architecture that I produce speaks to this idea. Architecture is in many ways infinite. The community comes into the building and the building extends back out into the community. There is a sense of endless flow-a sense of the infinite, yet within that infinite there is the finite. In fact, when a building is finished, it is at the beginning of its life, and not the end. When people fuss with your building, it means that they have taken ownership. If they are scared to touch your building, then it is not their building.

You established your own office in your early forties, so what advice can you give the profession today?

I think you have to look both ways. You have to go back into history and see what architecture was like before it became a profession. In many ways, professionalization has done a lot of harm to architecture. But on the other hand, you also have to look to the future to know there is going to be a new order. Maybe architecture as a profession is irrelevant. As generalists, architects are still incredibly valuable, but there will be new generalists who will be different from what we see today. Young people need to go and travel. There is a situation of decay in North America and more generally in the West that is debilitating. You need fresh insight from other parts of the world such as China, India and Brazil. Then you can come back and understand how they are learning from our mistakes while making their own progress. It’s like going to the PNE (Pacific National Exhibition) to see the House of Mirrors. What’s happening elsewhere is reflecting back to us in distorted ways, and we’re often shocked by what we see. CA

Selected Projects
Randall School Development + Rubell Collection Museum, SW Washington DC, USA, 2010-present
Tianjin Financial District Towers, Tianjin, China, 2010-present
Shui Wan Cun Towers, Shenzhen, China, 2009-present
Surrey City Centre Library, Surrey BC, Canada, 2009-2011
Private Residence, Calgary AB, Canada, 2008-2011
Arena Stage, SW Washington DC, USA, 2001-2010
Aberdeen Phase 3, Richmond BC, Canada, 2006-present
Surrey City Hall, Surrey BC, Canada, 2007-present
Tantalus Winery, Kelowna BC, Canada, 2007-present
Harwood Condominiums and Heritage House, Vancouver BC, Canada, 2005-Present
Tarrant County College, Fort Worth TX, USA, 2004-present
Whistler 2010 Legacy Plaza (proposal), Whistler BC, Canada, 2007-2010
Sunalta Redevelopment Plan, Calgary AB, Canada, 2008-2009
SAIT Parkade, Calgary AB, Canada, 2006-2009
Festival of Architecture, London, England, 2008
BC-Canada House Entrance, Beijing, China, 2008
SAIT Polytechnic Campus, Calgary AB, Canada, 2006-2008
Fort Worth Bridges, Fort Worth TX, USA, 2007
Sunset Community Centre, Vancouver BC, Canada, 2004-2007
Aberdeen Condos, Richmond BC, Canada, 2002-2007
Crow Creek Bridge Proposal, Tulsa OK, USA, 2006
Tulsa Conceptual Development Plan, Tulsa OK, USA, 2005-2006
Trinity Uptown Plan, Fort Worth TX, USA, 2004-2006
Acadia Residence, Vancouver BC, Canada, 2002-2004
Shanghai Expo Masterplan 2010 (competition), Shanghai, China, 2004
National Association of Realtors (competition), Washington DC, USA, 2004
Georgia Hotel Tower Proposal, Vancouver BC, Canada, 2002-2004
Aberdeen Centre, Richmond BC, Canada, 1999-2004
Central City/ SFU Surrey, Surrey BC, Canada, 1999-2004
788 Richards, Vancouver BC, Canada, 2003
Janacek Cultural Centre (competition), Brno, Czech Republic, 2003
Anacostia Waterfront Initiative, Washington DC, USA, 2003
Royal Ontario Museum Expansion (competition), Toronto ON, Canada, 2001-2002
Yuxi Concert Hall, Yuxi, China, 2000-2002
Yuxi and Dayingjie Town Centre Masterplan, Yuxi, China, 2000
Arts Club Theatre Proposal, Vancouver BC, Canada, 2000
Nike Research Campus, Surrey BC, Canada, 1998-1999
Vancouver Aquarium Expansion, Vancouver BC, Canada, 1997-1999
Victoria Inner Harbour Study, Victoria BC, Canada, 1998
Saskatoon Waterfront Study, Saskatoon SK, Canada, 1997-1998
Surrey Performing Arts, Surrey BC, Canada, 1996-1998
Hong Kong 97 Expo, Hong Kong, China, 1996-1997
BC Place Convention Centre Proposal, Vancouver BC, Canada, 1995-1997
Pointe Tower, Vancouver BC, Canada, 1993-1997
Chan Centre, Vancouver BC, Canada, 1992-1997
Sun Sui Wah Restaurant, Vancouver BC, Canada, 1993-1996
Downtown Convention Centre proposals, Vancouver BC, Canada, 1994-1995
Mayfair Lakes Golf Clubhouse, Vancouver BC, Canada, 1991-1995
Dalian New Town Masterplan, Dalian, China, 1993-1994
Richmond School District Maintenance Facility, Richmond BC, Canada, 1992-1994
Dynasty Restaurant, Vancouver BC, Canada, 1993
McKinney School, Vancouver BC, Canada, 1993
Chili Club Restaurant, Vancouver BC, Canada, 1992-1993
West 15th Tower, Vancouver BC, Canada, 1990-1993
Canada Pavilion, Expo 92, Seville, Spain, 1989-1992
855/899 Homer St Tower, Vancouver BC Canada, 1989-1992
938 Howe St Tower, Vancouver BC, Canada, 1981-1991
New World Harbourside Hotel Renovation, Vancouver BC, Canada, 1988-1990
Yacht Club, Vancouver BC, Canada, 1989
Point Grey Condo, Vancouver BC, Canada, 1984-1988
Northwest Territories and Hong Kong Pavilion, Expo 86, Vancouver BC, Canada, 1985-1986
Private Residence, Vancouver BC, Canada, 1984




Canadian Architect

Canadian Architect

Canadian Architect is a magazine for architects and related professionals practicing in Canada. Canada's only monthly design publication, Canadian Architect has been in continuous publication since 1955.
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