The Zen Master

Vancouver’s Bing Thom takes his place among the world’s A-list architects

Rendering courtesy of Bing Thom Architects
Career capstone The $355-million Xiqu Centre will stand as the gateway to Hong Kong’s West Kowloon cultural district.
Rendering courtesy of Bing Thom Architects
Rendering courtesy of Bing Thom Architects Career capstone The $355-million Xiqu Centre will stand as the gateway to Hong Kong’s West Kowloon cultural district.

Bing Thom wears a discreet Order of Canada lapel pin. Otherwise, like so many architects, he is dressed entirely in black: black T-shirt, black trousers, black jacket, black shoes. But instead of looking severe or forbidding, he comes across as avuncular. A small man in his early seventies with a shock of white hair, he resembles a wise and benevolent Zen master (think Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid). He is presenting a project to neighbourhood groups and local residents in Washington, DC, where about thirty people are gathered in a meeting room at the Capitol Skyline Hotel. They all know who Bing Thom is, because while based in Vancouver he is a minor celebrity here, thanks to his involvement with Arena Stage, a local theatrical institution he recently enlarged to great acclaim. “It took an outsider, a Canadian architect, to break with the usual habits of large civic architecture in the nation’s capital,” wrote the architecture critic of the Washington Post, who described the striking timber and glass building as “both structurally and symbolically brilliant.”

Arena Stage is in what Washingtonians call Southwest, the location of Thom’s current project. Although only a short walk from the United States Capitol, the area is in a part of the city few tourists ever see. A focus of urban renewal that started in the ’50s, it was essentially bulldozed and replanned as a collection of super-blocks, following the idealistic but misguided urban design formulas of that era. The result is a mixture of brutalist federal office buildings, apartment blocks, public housing projects, parking lots, and plenty of desolate space. “A five-minute walk can seem awfully long if there’s nothing there,” Thom tells his listeners. He reminds them that he first came to Southwest in 1964, as an architecture student on a scholarship tour (full disclosure: I have known him for almost fifty years; we met on that tour). He recalls being appalled by the devastating effects of urban renewal and thinking to himself, “There must be a better way to build cities.”

After describing the general context of Southwest, Thom asks attendees to gather around a small architectural model he uses to explain his concept. This is an unusual project. His clients are Mera and Donald Rubell, wealthy art collectors based in Miami. They have decided to build a gallery in Washington to house part of their notable collection of contemporary art, but being business minded (they own the Capitol Skyline, where we are gathered, down the street from the proposed gallery) they have partnered with an urban housing developer to include some 500 apartment units in the project. The large site is unusual, too, as it surrounds the old abandoned Randall Junior High School, which despite its shuttered condition is a cherished local landmark.

Thom explains that the original portion of the school, a listed colonial revival structure of the early 1900s, will be restored and will contain part of the art gallery as well as a restaurant and a cooking school. Behind the historical structure will be a courtyard surrounded by new mid-rise apartments, with large openings both at ground level and above. “We’ve tried to free up the space so the building can breathe,” he says. “It’s very open, to allow the public to come through and wander in the courtyard.”

Returning to his slide presentation, he takes the audience through the building plans, floor by floor. His style is conversational, simple and unaffected, free of the usual jargon that afflicts a number of architects today. He doesn’t make a formal presentation so much as tell stories. “When I first met Mera Rubell, I told her I was interviewing her as much as she was interviewing me,” he says. “She was a little taken aback, and I explained that I didn’t want to spend my life with people I did not like.” He makes the point that good architecture results from active collaboration, and not just with clients. He once told an interviewer, “My client is more than the person who pays me. My client is society and the public.” He stresses the civic responsibility of the architect, and he wants to send a message to the Southwest community that making architecture, especially good architecture, is a long, arduous process requiring support from many sides: “We have to deliver this baby, and it will take a lot of effort.”

Thom has been coming to Washington regularly for the past thirteen years, and the city has become, if not exactly a second home, a familiar place. He is designing two other projects here: a branch library in Woodridge, in the northeast corner of the city, and a large, $625-million mixed-use development in Silver Spring, Maryland. He has been invited to join the mayor’s commission on the nearby Anacostia River waterfront, and he will also collaborate on an upcoming study with the city planning office. He likes this long-term involvement: “It is nice to know that you’re not just a hired gun.”

It’s time for questions from the audience. In Washington, neighbourhood issues such as traffic, zoning, and economic development are overseen by locally elected commissioners, who are also here today. Local demands can hold up projects and require concessions, so this meeting is important to the future of his project. Much of the discussion focuses on what is generally called gentrification, the tendency of new development to raise real estate values, which can be a mixed blessing for existing residents.

A local community organizer observes, “Every time low-income tenants see a dump truck going down the street, they feel that much closer to being pushed out of their homes.” A black woman expresses concern about the fate of those who live in public housing. How will the proposed project help them? A retired architect sums up the general mood of the meeting: “You’re going to be the 500-pound gorilla in this neighbourhood. We’d like you to be a friendly gorilla.” Everybody laughs; the mood is upbeat. People have been won over by Thom’s low-key approach. They like that the boarded-up school, which has stood empty for the past five years, will be renovated and put to use. They also like the openness of his design and the mixture of uses. “This will be a twenty-four-hour place,” one resident says approvingly.

“Ilike buildings that create crossovers that normally wouldn’t happen, combining an art gallery with a cooking school and housing,” Thom observes after the meeting. This attitude to design is probably influenced by his early experience with Arthur Erickson, for whom he worked in the ’60s and ’70s. At the time, Erickson, who died in 2009, was Canada’s premier architect, the first to garner international recognition. Thom oversaw the early stages of two of Erickson’s highest-profile urban projects: Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto and Robson Square in Vancouver. The best Erickson buildings have a timeless quality. “Arthur always said he was not interested in what changes, but in what doesn’t change,” Thom recalls.

After leaving Erickson in 1981, Thom opened his own office. He did his early work in Vancouver, but the Canada Pavilion, a striking box clad entirely in zinc at Seville’s Expo ’92, brought him international recognition. After that, he began designing the Chan Centre, a performing arts complex at the University of British Columbia that opened in 1997. The 1,200-seat concert hall, housed in an ivy-covered concrete drum, received rave reviews. The Globe and Mail called it “one of the most architecturally innovative and musically rewarding performance spaces in Canada.”

The Chan Centre led directly to Arena Stage—and Washington. He took on other projects as well, including Tarrant County College, a downtown campus in Fort Worth, Texas; a town centre for Surrey, BC, with a university campus improbably located atop an existing shopping mall; and a striking public library, also in Surrey. The architecture of these projects defies easy categorization. Erickson was largely impervious to architectural fashions and did not have a signature style, and Thom has followed his lead. Sometimes his buildings incorporate high-tech details that recall Renzo Piano, but warm and woodsy rather than cool and machine-like. The Surrey town centre and Arena Stage are all swooping curves and glass walls supported by timber masts. The Surrey library goes even further, and its plastic forms remind me of the German expressionist Erich Mendelsohn. The Randall Junior High project, on the other hand, will be a disciplined composition of rectangular volumes, piled up on one another like children’s building blocks.

Thom learned another lesson while working for Erickson: what happens when an architect takes on too much and spreads himself too thinly. By 1980, Erickson’s best work was behind him. “Some firms grow very large and end up chasing clients—and chasing fame,” says Thom. “When I started my office, I was determined not to be that kind of architect.” Bing Thom Architects, managed by Thom and his long-time partner, Michael Heeney, has a staff of forty, unusually small at a time when star architects regularly employ 100 or more. “The size of my practice is limited, since I can only keep four or five projects in my head at a time,” says Thom. “But we are a top-heavy firm. Almost a third of the staff are senior, experienced people who have been with me a long time. That makes a big difference.”

Following the Washington meeting, he leaves for Hong Kong, where he is starting a major new project. The Xiqu Centre is a performing arts complex dedicated to the revitalization of xiqu, the traditional Chinese theatre that is a stylized combination of singing, acting, music, dance, and martial arts. The $355-million building, one of the largest civic facilities ever undertaken by his firm, may well stand as the capstone of Thom’s career. It has already resoundingly cemented his standing as an A-list architect, since the competition attracted some of the best architects in the world: the international powerhouse Norman Foster; Moshe Safdie, who had just completed an acclaimed performing arts centre in Kansas City, Missouri; Jack Diamond, who had opera houses in Toronto and St. Petersburg under his belt; and the Dutch firm Mecanoo, which has designed award-winning cultural buildings all over Europe.

Thom dislikes entering competitions, because he believes they are too impersonal and make it impossible to work directly with the client. “In my whole career of thirty years, I haven’t done more than ten competitions,” he says. But this time, he made an exception. The subject of xiqu interested him (his wife is a dancer), and the chance to build an important cultural landmark in the city of his birth—he immigrated to Vancouver with his parents at age nine—was too good to pass up.

The Xiqu Centre will serve as the gateway to the West Kowloon cultural district, an ambitious effort to position Hong Kong as an Asian cultural hub. Thom and his collaborator, local architect Ronald Lu, raised the main auditorium up in the air to create a large, sheltered public space at ground level that is open to the street through the four corners of the curvaceous building, whose form is said to be inspired by the glow of a traditional Chinese lantern. The jury, which voted unanimously for Thom and Lu’s entry, said it was won over by how their modern design embodied the essence of Chinese opera, through its openness to street life, its sense of a gateway, and its evocation of a traditional courtyard. Jurors also singled out its curvilinear form as an imaginative expression of the ancient Chinese concept of qi, or life force. Score one for the Zen master.

This appeared in the June 2013 issue.

Witold Rybczynski
Witold Rybczynski is professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania. He will publish his eighteenth book, How Architecture Works: A Humanist’s Toolkit, in October.