Learning Curve

TEXT Trevor Boddy

In an architectural landscape that rewards bland competency over creative innovation, the works of Bing Thom stand out. This was brought home to me the day I learned Thom had been awarded the 2011 Architecture Canada | RAIC Gold Medal, while touring Diamond+Schmitt Architects’ new Kinnear Centre, the core of the Banff Centre. I have followed the design and construction of the Banff building ever since bumping into Jack Diamond during one of his early site visits, while I was on a visual arts residency there. The corporate dullness of the resulting classroom, restaurant and library complex is the least of the Kinnear Centre’s problems. More significant is its ungainly relationship to its mountainside site, its too-ready dismissal of architectural virtues that the campus once knew, and a lack of creativity–particularly for an institution dedicated to innovation in the arts and management. This unfortunate building was better left on the steppes of North York, or in the outermost office parks of Dallas.

“What could Gilles Saucier have done with this commission and magnificent site?” I thought to myself, “Or John and Patricia Patkau, or John Shnier, or Pierre Thibault?” Or even the collaboration between David Penner, Peter Sampson and Neil Minuk, whose new ultra-low-budget Buhler Centre/Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art in Winnipeg is as much the cultural building of this new decade as Diamond+Schmitt’s Banff creation is the university barn of the last. Most of all, what could Bing Thom have done? Thom’s work is unpredictable, and in times when campus architecture increasingly resembles beltway branch offices, predictability is king. Firms such as Diamond+Schmitt, Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg and Perkins+Will Canada reliably deliver the high end of generically urbane and green campus constructions, department by department. 

Bing Thom gets the strange but wonderful commissions–or more accurately, he makes them strange and wonderful. The Surrey Central City project comprises a suburban campus for 4,000 students laminated on top of an extant 1970s shopping centre that never closed its doors, topped by an office tower and fronted by a transit-related plaza; in all, a key demonstration of the hybridity in typologies, building programs, social missions and materiality that is the hallmark of Vancouverism. Surrey Central City was made possible by pushing wood engineering to do things never seen before, courtesy of Thom’s ongoing creative collaboration with Canada’s most innovative engineers, Fast + Epp. More recently, Thom completed a campus plan for Calgary’s Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT), where the only component constructed to date, a mere parking structure, is alive with innovation.

Failures are often more indicative of qualities in individuals–and even design firms–than are successes, so two of Thom’s seeming failures (both, as it happens, in Toronto) are worth discussing to understand the commitment to ideas and innovation that underlie Thom’s designs. 

Thom took over as project architect for Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall after predecessor Jim Strasman resigned to establish his own practice in 1976, tiring of how Arthur Erickson ran his atelier. The concert hall had been designed from the inside out and independent of a specific site, because many locations were still in play. The acoustics consultant–Bolt, Beranek and Newman–had already been chosen, and that firm’s other designs of the era, such as San Francisco’s Davies Hall, would prove to be as problematic as the Toronto concert hall. Thom’s challenge was to site the building once the then remote locale at King at Simcoe Streets was secured, and to give it exterior form. Erickson and Strasman had elaborated a variation of the office’s typical repertoire of cast concrete post and beam for the seating tiers and their soffits. Thom broke radically with this for its exterior shell, applying his knowledge of complex glass construction gained from the Provincial Law Courts and Robson Square project in Vancouver where he was team leader. The sweeping, ovoid roof that resulted is that rare figural object (along with Viljo Revell’s Toronto City Hall) standing out against downtown Toronto’s boxy ground, and the first indication of Thom’s now career-long interest in curving building forms. 

Thom’s steep learning curve from this ill-received concert hall got applied, amazingly, to a similar commission he completed years later on his own. This is the clear design and acoustic triumph that is the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on the University of British Columbia campus, one of the world’s most influential performing arts buildings of the past two decades. The same design trajectory then continued on to the similarly acclaimed Arena Stage complex in Washington, DC. But all this started with a flawed and multi-authored design for Toronto, the subject of a major refit in the last decade.

Thom can also be seen to have won by having lost in the sad tale of the invited design competition for the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) expansion in 2001-2002. Thom called me in for advice right after he learned that he was to be, strangely, the only Canadian amongst the 20 firms invited to submit credentials for the commission. After congratulating him, I bluntly opined that he did not stand a chance, and neither did 18 of the other usual international suspects who formed the list. My reasons for this advice was a previous chat with my first editor, William Thorsell (from the Edmonton Journal, he had risen to editor in chief of The Globe and Mail and soon thereafter, CEO of the ROM) after he returned, starry-eyed, from a preview-period viewing of Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin. “Do it to raise your Toronto profile,” I suggested to Bing, “but whatever you do, don’t drop a pile of unpaid staff time into a commission you cannot win.”

Of course, Thom ignored my advice, threw his whole team into every aspect of the commission (study his Phase II competition plan treatment of collections and public spaces, and weep when comparing them with Libeskind’s off-the-shelf metaphysical muddle), and came close to winning it. Thom’s Toronto lessons were hard–the bland competency of its leading practitioners spark an equal and opposite market for the faux-heroic gesture, ergo Libeskind, Will Alsop, and even Frank Gehry’s Dundas Street façade for the Art Gallery of Ontario. As yet, our largest city has found no niche for Thom’s commitment to formal and technical invention driven by disciplines of (hybrid) urbanity, (hybrid) social graciousness, and (hybrid) tectonics; in other words, no room in the urban closet for anything but conservatively tailored suits and carnival costumes. To the best of my knowledge, Thom is the first winner of the top award in Canadian architecture who has never completed a building under his own credit in central Canada. Finding a niche in Washington and with a long track record in China, Thom has not completed a Canadian building east of Calgary.

Many of these same patterns–a commitment to technical and programmatic innovation, a sinuous formal repertoire, unconventional but apt urbanism–are apparent in one of the most underpublished key Canadian buildings of the past few years, Bing Thom Architects’ (BTA) Sunset Community Centre for a park on Vancouver’s south Main Street, near the Punjabi Market. Weddings in the Punjab crucially include a parade of bride and groom around the village or neighbourhood, and local families were forced to book wedding halls in Surrey, 25 kilometres away, because there was no adequate facility nearby. A large room on Main Street was Thom’s key addition to the standard Vancouver community centre recreation-related program (the half-century string of these buildings are one of Vancouver’s undersung marvels of social integration and healthy living). Diagonal pedestrian desire paths across the park site informed Sunset’s crossed pair of internal streets, which double as
avenues for wedding processions on even the rainiest of days. Thom’s favoured organic forms are evident here and are rationalized by him as being inspired by the flowing forms of silk saris, drifting above the park’s greensward of a summer’s evening. BTA has long been a green firm without defaulting to the recent sustainability look that The New Yorker critic David Owen calls “LEED Style.” Green features include an investment in geothermal, unusually well-disposed and controlled daylighting, and a refreshing concern for the energy content of materials and energy expended during construction. Drawing on the expertise of Fast + Epp (proving they are masters of all materials, not just wood), the latter concerns led BTA to revive the 1950s intermediate technology of tilt-up concrete construction, at a scale seldom attempted in Canada. Sunset’s internal streets are framed by walls constructed in this manner, their pours superior to nearly all local conventional cast-in-place concrete, and much cheaper and less consumptive of energy and materials.

Collaboration with Thom and his firm for a major project of my own in London taught me much about how they think and work. My Vancouverism: Architecture Builds the City exhibition had been commissioned for Canada House on Trafalgar Square, and was accepted as a marquee event for the 2008 London Festival of Architecture. Our ambitions exceeded the tiny exhibition rooms within the sandstone walls of Canada House, a former gentlemen’s club designed in 1824 by Sir Robert Smirke, architect of the British Museum. We had obtained generous donations of cash and cedar wood from BC and national forest organizations, and I had negotiated with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) and London authorities the use of a tiny zone between the walls of the top heritage-grade building and its wrought-iron fence facing Trafalgar Square. The Square is one of Europe’s busiest urban spaces, with nearly 2 million unique visitors per month.

For the Trafalgar Square installation, Thom remembered a design idea from an intern who had passed through the office several years earlier–the shaping of cedar blocks into rounded male and female ends, then drilling and beading them along a cable, which, when post-tensioned, would make a rigid serpentine of wood. Vertical connectors were devised and tested by the engineers and their related fabricators StructureCraft Builders, and we built our self-supporting cedar wall 35 feet high and 200 feet long in the heart of London. Thom’s dedication to the project was amazing, right up until opening night, when he personally assembled borrowed and jury-rigged light pots to uplight the exhibition’s red cedar structure, casting a glow (and aroma) that set an eerie, West Coast atmosphere throughout Trafalgar Square. 

Just as impressive, Thom took our sculptural creation–never intended as a commercial product–and adapted its concepts to serve as the undulating walls of the Kogod Cradle at Arena Stage’s Washington complex. As it was for London, this required a long design dialogue with clients and approving authorities, convincing them of the safety and voluptuous merits of serpentine wood walls.

The key to Thom’s tack in all of these projects is the forces in his life, and the dedication to ideas and originality that has set his course from the very beginning. Immigrating to Canada from Hong Kong in the 1950s, the diminutive Thom scrapped his way through what was otherwise an all-white westside Vancouver high school at the time (Magee), his parents refusing more Asian enclaves further east. Thom began working for Erickson as an office assistant, even before entering architecture school. Having had a similar start, I know the wonderful overview of practice that is possible then, before the templates and received wisdoms of a formal education. By the time Thom graduated from architecture school at the University of British Columbia, he was a thriving force in Erickson’s office, and was afforded the rare privilege of a theoretical and not practical undergraduate thesis which used number theory, the I Ching (one of the oldest classical Chinese texts), and the geometric reconciliation of sphere and cube to interrogate the nature of architectural problem-making and problem-solving. He turned down Ivy League graduate schools to attend Berkeley, attracted by the combinatorial thinking of Notes on the Synthesis of Form-era Christopher Alexander, but was repulsed by the emergent Pattern Language cult there, focusing instead on urban design, politics, and systems theory. He and wife Bonnie backpacked through China in 1972, and Thom turned down an opportunity to work for Louis Kahn, opting instead for a stint with Fumihiko Maki.

 There is no figure in contemporary Canadian architecture who has so deftly inherited Arthur Erickson’s double dedication to formal and tectonic innovation–true Modernism, not the fey Neo-Modernism that is thought by too many to be the same thing–combined with a commitment to civic commentary and social engagement. Why he remains a mystery to so many clients and colleagues in this country is a mystery to me, but Bing Thom has sorely earned the accolade of the RAIC Gold Medal. CA

Vancouver architecture critic and curator Trevor Boddy hopes to arrange a 2013 Canadian tour of Vancouverism: Architecture Builds the City. His HybridCity was part of the recent WE: Vancouver, 12 Manifestos for the City exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery.