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Profile of Vancouver architect Bing Thom

"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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