Looking Forward

TEXT Adele Weder

Twenty-five years ago, as Vancouver prepped for Expo 86, the representative of the Northwest Territories approached Bing Thom with a modest proposal. Their pavilion architect had resigned from the project, and, desperate for any sort of pavilion, they asked Thom to use their meagre funds to embellish a series of rented construction trailers. Thom declined but suggested that he instead take the budget and design a proper building from scratch. He made a point of travelling to the Arctic to understand it better, and even arranged to have a chunk of local iceberg transported to the pavilion. The result was a geodesic plywood form with a minimal number of cuts, sheathed in polypropylene and sparkling glass granules, evocative of an iceberg. From there Thom ended up creating the entire pavilion programming: interior space, exhibition, documentary film, even the menu on offer. It was this pavilion that drew the longest lineups at Expo. It was also exemplary of the architectural imagination as it is supposed to be: inclusive, culturally resonant and not predicated on big wallets.

This idea of architect as master builder, creative overseer and cultural producer has informed the ethos of Bing Thom since his professional beginnings. It doesn’t follow that he’s always been in a position to assume such a comprehensive role: over the years his firm, like others, has been periodically jostled by the whims of politics and the pressures of a market economy. But Thom’s formative years were spent in the idealized 1960s and ’70s, which–for better or worse–imbued many young architects with a quixotic vision. That was the era when Thom studied architecture at the University of British Columbia, working part-time for one of his professors, Arthur Erickson.

 His post-graduation tenure at Erickson’s was relatively firm, but the imprint of the master would be enduring. So would his sojourn at the studio of Fumihiko Maki in Japan. Then, three months of travel in China with his new bride, at a time when travel in China was almost unheard of. The travels were not really about architecture, but about an idealistic young couple figuring out how socialism worked–or didn’t. As Thom recalled in a recent interview, they travelled third-class in the hulls of decrepit old boats, in bunks alongside 200 others, at the height of the Cultural Revolution: “But we were very naïve socialists, so everything was heaven.” 

When Thom founded his own firm in 1982, he confronted an exceptionally bleak market. Interests rates were hovering near 20 percent and new construction was at a standstill. Bereft of clients, the emerging architect made his own work. His first client was himself: he designed and built his office/studio on the edge of downtown Vancouver. Built into the crook of the Burrard Bridge, it is conceptually more like a bunker or beaver’s dam than a beacon. Years later, he would apply the same nesting approach to the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts. Near the western tip of the University of British Columbia peninsula, the Chan Centre was designed for a “trophy site,” vaunted for its potential for an expansive ocean view. Thom was instructed to raze the site’s lush grove of conifers to procure the view, but he convinced his UBC clients to reconsider their approach. The concert-hall experience would be much more powerful, he argued, if the trees were saved and concert-goers could wander into this small, ethereal forest at intermission. The UBC brass ultimately agreed; and as every nighttime visitor to the Chan Centre knows, Thom was right. 

In their architectural introspection, these projects reflect Thom’s own persona: he is soft-spoken and declines to dive into the networking game that’s often so crucial to professional advancement. Instead, he manifests his presence more in the public arena, in the debates regarding our collective future. When the architecturally bereft Canada House was unveiled at the 2010 Olympics, plenty of bewildered citizens bemoaned its sheer awfulness; Thom was the one prominent architect who denounced it loudly, repeatedly and on the record.  

Thom has also ventured boldly and vociferously into the ongoing debate about the future of the Vancouver Art Gallery–whether to abandon its current site and build an eye-popping new standalone building on a different site, or to maintain its present site and harness the force of imagination to expand and transform it. Few of his peers have waded publicly into this important civic discussion: it’s risky to provoke the ire of a potential mega-client. 

Thom’s attention to the arts speaks to the firm’s farsightedness and also the best kind of self-interest. He recognizes that architectural culture is part of the larger cultural force; and for architecture to thrive, the arts must thrive as well. To this end, he has established a foundation that directs a portion of the firm’s revenues to social and cultural activities. Roughly $400,000 of the firm’s revenues have been redirected towards support for the Vancouver Children’s Festival, the PuSh Festival, and other cultural activities. He has also served as the lead sponsor of the Arthur Erickson Lecture Series at the University of British Columbia School of Architecture. 

For several months in 2008, I worked closely and on contract with the firm compiling interviews and internal writings that could be archived as concise explanations of the firm’s projects and value systems. Instead of garnering a dress circle of acolytes or clones of himself, Thom cultivated a team with strongly diverse skills. Along with co-principal Michael Heeney, the BTA frontliners include Venelin Kokalov, Shinobu Homma, Ling Meng, John Camfield, Francis Yan, James Brown and Helen Ritts. “We’re trying to find what I call authenticity, and what it is that makes this place unique rather than how this place is like every other place,” Thom said during one of many interviews at that time. “But now you have global forces; you have steel and concrete and glass everywhere, so how do you use local material? How do you create a local patina? How do you sustain the local craftsmen? So on every project, wherever it is–whether it’s Calgary or Washington–when I go to the city, I start by searching for the colour of the land. I look at the colour of the earth: how is it different from the colour of the earth in Vancouver? And what are the cloud patterns? What is the particular patina of the blue in the sky?”

Thom is not the only architect who asks these questions–and his early mentor, Erickson, pondered them more deeply than perhaps anyone else. The crux is whether architects actually grapple with these questions as they increasingly take on projects in cities on the other side of the world. Authenticity and local culture are terms that pad many a designer’s mission statement and client presentation. They are concepts that are much more complicated to implement in a globalized market where the client and his backers might care not a whit about the local patina.

So far, the firm’s projects do not offer a homogenized “look,” but the pressure to do so will likely mount. With Arena Stage, his most important project to date, Thom has walked the talk. By all accounts, the Washington, DC-based theatre complex responds to both its immediate physical environment and the local history, with the “baby” theatre for new drama cradled within a larger complex containing the historic theatre. It’s quite probable their next high-profile foreign client will ask the firm to make a brand-new Arena Stage lookalike building for, say, an entirely different kind of city on a riverless plain. 

With the Washington project attracting the firm’s most trenchant international acclaim, Bing Thom Architects is on the cusp of joining that vaunted club of architects who have become brand names–and brands imply consistency.

The next few years will put Bing Thom’s famously lofty rhetoric to the test. Architects struggle to portray themselves a
s master builders in a world that tends to regard iconic buildings as market baubles. Thom himself has cautioned against starchitect obsession and has called for a more nuanced and engaged local architecture, but his stance has sometimes seemed overly idealistic or self-serving. Now, flush with a burst of international attention, he has a watershed opportunity to play a more influential role in the larger scope of urbanism, both through talk and architectural output. Can he truly implement “deep values” into what will likely be a string of new high-budget cultural commissions in different cities over the next few years? Only if he can maintain that skill–exhibited most resonantly 25 years ago at Expo–of creating architectural meaning from just a few dollars and a fierce imperative to understand a faraway place. CA

Adele Weder is an architectural curator and critic based in British Columbia. She is the recipient of the 2011 RAIC President’s Award for Architectural Journalism for her article entitled “Call of the Wild” which appeared in the July 2010 issue of Canadian Architect.