Foreword (April 30, 2011)
The RAIC Gold Medal is considered to be the greatest recognition of an individual’s contribution to the architectural profession in Canada. The Gold Medal has been in existence since 1930, yet it has not been awarded every year. Rather exceptionally, the RAIC Gold Medal has been awarded every year since 2005. And, when reviewing the history of this prestigious award, not every medallist has been an architect. Jean Drapeau, the former mayor of Montreal who oversaw his city’s glorious hosting of Expo 67–not to mention his additional achievement of displacing thousands of lower-income Montrealers while destroying scores of priceless heritage buildings through his urban renewal campaign–received an RAIC Gold Medal in 1967. Jane Jacobs, arguably one of the most important urban thinkers of the 20th century, received a Gold Medal in 1981. Her book, The Death and Life of American Cities, is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its first publication in 1961. Other Gold Medal winners may have been architects, but have had little or nothing to do with the practice of architecture in Canada. These include British architects Serge Chermayeff (1973) and Ralph Erskine (1982). With few exceptions, past recipients of the RAIC Gold Medal share one thing in common: effective leadership. As the 2011 recipient of the RAIC Gold Medal, Vancouver-based Bing Thom demonstrates remarkable leadership by consistently exerting his influence on architectural education, promoting collaboration amongst craftsmen and consultants, and ushering in new methods of community engagement.
Having a broad cultural perspective has certainly helped him. Like his mentor Arthur Erickson, a formidable traveller who drew inspiration from the Middle East and Japan, Thom is similarly well-travelled, having been exposed to innumerable cultures and communities around the world. This has certainly helped him with not only achieving a greater depth and clarity in his architecture, but in expressing a remarkable degree of cultural sensitivity. The fact that Thom is a philosophically minded Asian-Canadian with a global soul has enriched his world view while providing him with the relaxed confidence necessary to connect with tradesmen and consultants possessing disparate skill sets and opinions, along with the ability to engage in meaningful dialogue with clients on an international level.
This world view has certainly benefited Thom in Greater Vancouver, a region that has been dramatically altered over the past three decades. Former BC Premier Mike Harcourt once remarked that the centre of Vancouver appears to be inexorably shifting to municipalities like Surrey. Although this comment might elicit sneers and guffaws, the reality is that businesses and young professionals are increasingly finding themselves working and living in places like Surrey or Richmond–cities adjacent to Vancouver where Thom is actively working to improve the health, beauty and sustainability of these environments. It may have seemed ridiculous when Erickson once declared that Vancouver could approach 10 million people but today, we can see how Erickson’s prediction may indeed become a reality. It takes leaders like Thom with the foresight to begin planning for this eventuality.
Thom represents one of the last true generalists, even though he is the first to declare that there are many new and emerging approaches to being a generalist architect. As younger generations are discovering for themselves how to leverage their own strengths and beliefs at a time when the profession appears to be offering fewer and not more opportunities for future architects, there is much inspiration that can be drawn from the contributions of Bing Thom.
Ian Chodikoff [email protected]