By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 26, 2010; E04
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.
"Bing has inherited Erickson's mantle," says Boddy, not just because he is the most prominent architect in Vancouver, but also because he is "the conscience of the city."
At 42, Thom left the Erickson office, discouraged by his mentor's complicated relation to fame and fortune. The older architect was chasing work around the world and overextending himself. Eventually he went broke. The unpleasant drama is still fresh in Thom's mind. It seems to influence how Thom conceives of risk -- it shouldn't all fall on the client's shoulders -- and his reluctance to expand beyond what can be managed by his team.
Thom's debut as a solo practitioner, however, didn't come at an auspicious moment.
"When I started my office, the interest rate was 18 percent," he says. Nobody was building anything. Thom found a dreary warehouse space tucked under one of Vancouver's bridges and offered to improve the space for free rent. In a forthcoming book on his work -- which reads like a spiritual primer for young architects -- Thom says he survived his early years by being both an architect and an entrepreneur.
"We would find a real estate opportunity, design the project, assemble a consortium of investors, build the project, and sell it," he writes. "This allowed us, a relatively young and modest-sized practice, to work on interesting projects with a fantastic client: ourselves."
There was also high-profile work for expositions, including a plywood pavilion for Expo '86 in Vancouver, built on a shoestring, and the Canadian national pavilion for Expo '92 in Seville. Later in the 1990s, he designed the Chan Center for the Performing Arts in Vancouver, the project that brought him to the attention of Molly Smith, artistic director of Arena.
The Chan fully embodies the spirit of Thom's work: Set into a hillside, near the water, the building hides its bulk by placing some elements underground and breaking up the spaces into a series of round or oval pavilions. Canted glass walls make the relatively modest lobby seem larger and connect it to a dense, forestlike setting. The acoustics, designed by the famously finicky Artec Consultants, are renowned.
But it's the rhododendrons and evergreen trees that most distinguish the project. The university thought they should be removed so visitors could see the ocean. Thom demurred, and went so far as to tag individual plants for replanting after the project was finished. The theater is now covered in vines, surrounded by old-growth trees and giant bushes. Architecturally, it has its eyes on the ground, centered and happy in its place, rather than straining toward the horizon.
The instinct to preserve also defines Thom's major project of the last decade, a town center in the suburban Vancouver city of Surrey, where he masterminded a plan to build a university atop a shopping mall, anchored by a new office building. The project revivified an unloved plot of sprawl, the kind of car-centered, nowhere space that blots the landscape all across North America. Thom's plan -- to keep a struggling mall and add "activating" uses -- seemed an oddball idea.
"Most developers, and architects, would have looked at that shopping mall and said, 'Let's get rid of it,' " says Andrew Petter, president of Simon Fraser University, which located one of its four campuses in Thom's Surrey Central City. "To see a university at the heart of that city was really exciting."
It wasn't really a city when Thom got involved, but now it is beginning to feel more urban. Thom has stayed involved and is building a library near the complex, and has persuaded the city to relocate its offices to the same area.
"The tenacity Bing has . . . ," says Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts, her voice trailing off in admiration. "He started working with us long before he had gray hair."
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There are elements in Surrey, and the Chan Center, that recur in Arena Stage. Large wooden columns define both Surrey and Arena, and the inclined glass wall that links the Chan to its forest glen is also repurposed in Thom's Washington design. The old Arena theaters have been retained, just like the inelegant shopping mall Thom saved, a gesture that places preservation above beauty. Unless, of course, the key to Thom's aesthetic is that he doesn't recognize a false dichotomy between preservation and beauty.
Thom says he remembers Washington, including Southwest, where his new building is opening, from when he visited decades ago as a student. The vast, barren landscape of L'Enfant Plaza was under construction, and Thom remembers seeing Southwest as an empty, plowed-under district, waiting for "urban renewal." He was horrified.
"If you scratch me deep enough, my other great love is philosophy," says Thom, whose thesis analyzed three questions: "What is a problem? When is a problem a problem? When is a problem solved?" L'Enfant Plaza is a classic example of architects and planners getting all three of Thom's thesis questions wrong.
Thom is considering opening an office in the District. He is already working with the developers and art collectors Don and Mera Rubell to integrate a hotel and art museum into a renovated District public school building a few blocks from Arena. He is curious about Tysons Corner's new masterplan. He knows the Southwest waterfront, building by building, and is convinced it could be as bustling as the Vancouver waterfront.
Thom has a habit of adopting places, like Surrey. He may be thinking about adopting Washington, a city stultified by decades of colorless, inoffensive architecture. He senses a deep, philosophical and cultural problem at the core of a city that has long been content just to build buildings and muddle through with little magic or fantasy. And he may already be working on solutions.