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Profile of Vancouver architect Bing Thom

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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.

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