Profile of Vancouver architect Bing Thom

Arena Stage architect Bing Thom has flashed his style often in Canada with several impressive structures that helped him win the Arena Stage job in D.C.
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 26, 2010

VANCOUVER -- Giant tankers anchored in Vancouver's English Bay loom over Bing Thom's wooden sailboat like floating islands. Some, filled with containers from China, ride low in the water. Others, waiting to take on coal and potash for the return trip East, ride high, towering over the 35-foot sloop.

"It costs $10,000 a day when they wait," Thom says. The Canadian architect is fascinated by the mechanics of things like trade, which often veil a complex puzzle of interlocking problems. He is a renowned designer, but he is also acutely aware of the financial, environmental and social costs of making buildings. His reputation is based, in part, on his sensitivity to the client's bottom line. But he isn't obsessed with money, or fame or fortune. His office staff says the pristine Mini Cooper he's driving is the first new car they can remember him owning.

Thom, whose design for Arena Stage's new theater will make him as famous in the United States as he is in Canada, is determined to steer a path independent of the crass salesmanship, egoism and narcissistic display that defines some of the more glamour-hungry architects of the past decade. As he opens one of his most ambitious buildings yet, a $135 million glass-fronted pavilion that encloses two historic theaters and adds an innovative third, he is also working on a civic library in an unprepossessing edge-city near Vancouver. He is redesigning the center of Fort Worth, and recently finished a parking structure in Calgary. His legacy around this stunningly verdant Pacific Rim city is an eclectic mix: a blue-chip concert hall for the biggest university in town, and a small community center in a sometimes troubled urban neighborhood.

"Maybe there are doors I haven't walked through," he says, contemplating his career. Thom, 69, whose practice has grown to include a staff of 35, is a complicated idealist. He wants clients open to discovery, change and experimentation. He believes that every building should justify its existence, that developers should understand their work is a privilege, not a right. He refuses to take on projects in which he can't be personally engaged. He stresses the importance of the architect as a "master builder," involved not just with designs and ideas, but with seeing the project through to its last degree of finish. He is intensely interested in sustainability without using the cliched language of green architecture, worried about materialism and consumerism, yet compulsively focused on the polish, refinement and materials of his buildings.

He has also carved out a reputation as a fearless critic of architecture and urbanism.

"People are quite amazed that someone of his stature is willing to be as frank as he has been," says Trevor Boddy, an independent architecture critic and urbanist who has observed Thom in Vancouver since the late 1970s. That outspokenness -- in favor of a more egalitarian, open, humane landscape -- hasn't always been to Thom's short-term gain.

Now he brings his intellectual force to Washington, where other Canadian architects -- Arthur Erickson, Douglas Cardinal -- have failed to extend their influence. With the opening of Arena Stage, a high-profile project with a gala chaired by the president and first lady of the United States, Thom steps into the Washington spotlight with the ideal personality to succeed: gregarious but unassuming, and resolutely focused on problems others don't always see. Arena's opening will present him with more opportunities, more temptations to expand from a large, busy boutique firm to a huge, bustling, corporate one. But it's not clear he wants to change how he has always done business.

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Thom was born in Hong Kong in 1940, into a family of Chinese descent with complicated roots in Canada. His grandfather had emigrated to Canada and Anglicized his name at a time when Chinese immigrants were barely welcome. But Thom's father, trained as a pharmacist, was so infuriated when authorities refused to grant him a license to practice that he relocated the family back to China. Then the communists came to power and Thom's mother took her three boys back to Canada. Thom grew up in a largely white neighborhood and had to relearn Chinese later in life.

He considered himself a radical in school. He studied architecture at the University of British Columbia as an undergraduate and earned a master's in architecture from the University of California at Berkeley -- where he was given a teaching job in ethnic studies after students, angry about Vietnam, protested for a less Eurocentric curriculum. He worked for a while for the great Japanese architect and urbanist Fumihiko Maki. But it was in the office of Erickson, the Vancouver architect who designed the much maligned Canadian Embassy on Pennsylvania Avenue, that Thom took on his first big projects, and gained the skills that would make him a profound influence on the Vancouver landscape.

It wasn't, however, an easy fit.

"Arthur was a great architect, but he didn't give a damn about money," says Thom. Some of Erickson's buildings have the grim, stolid blankness of brutalism, but others, especially the well-sited ones that have gathered a cloak of greenery, feel primitive in a good way, magical emanations from the earth. Thom's architecture, fluid and gentle, is more detailed, warmer, made of trees, not rocks.

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