The Bing Picture

Bing Thom died of a brain aneurysm on Tuesday, October 4. Here is our June 2008 profile of one of Vancouver's most celebrated architects.

October 4, 2016

By Michael Harris

If the architect Bing Thom wants you to see Vancouver, he’ll take you away from it. At the helm of his custom-built, 35-foot sailboat, Sonja’s Spirit, he maintains a disarming, quiet posture. He squints out genial smiles and pats you on the back on his way to untangle the jib, or leans back on a stanchion, leaving just two fingers on the hand-crafted tiller. That’s how finely tuned this boat is.

If it were a car, it would be a Ferrari. (His actual car, an old Audi, once prompted a friend to ask whether clients were insulted when they rode in it. Thom replied, “No. I’m not interested in that kind of client.”) His ease at the helm—literally and careerwise—he attributes to a daily regimen of transcendental meditation, which he’s maintained for decades, having picked it up around the same time as the Beatles. He’ll meditate for up to seven hours on a plane and never feel jet-lagged; he’ll meditate on train rides, or on the toilet.

He’s a calm skipper on dry land, too. In his Burrard Street offices, where he oversees the work of 50 people (who, collectively, come from 20 countries and speak 18 languages), the massive projects don’t agitate him (a firm the size of his would normally work simultaneously on a dozen, but he takes on only half that number); neither do the accolades. Thom received an honorary PhD from UBC last month, which fits well with his 1995 Order of Canada. This month, he and two other architects (Arthur Erickson and James Cheng) will represent Vancouver at London’s Festival of Architecture, the largest such event in the world. A corner of Canada House, in Trafalgar Square, will be wrapped by Thom in a kind of cedar nest, bringing Vancouverism to the world stage—his own Olympic prelude.

All of that high-profile work seems very far away out here on the water. Yet distance, through meditation and boating, may be the source of his greatest architectural gifts. His best work springs from an ability to be both removed and present, to step back from a problem and view its entirety.

To see things in a different way, Thom regularly takes visiting mayors (from China, from Texas, wherever) out on the water. When, in 2001, the mayor of Washington, D.C., Anthony Williams, asked Thom to redesign the Anacostia waterfront, they went for a summer evening boat ride under the Lions Gate Bridge and around Stanley Park. The clouds parted, allowing a sunset to gild the city. Former Vancouver mayor Mike Harcourt was along for the ride that evening: “Someone once said we’re the most beautiful setting in the world—in search of a city. But I think the city is emerging.” When Thom’s at the helm, you do sense that, over his shoulder, the cityscape is thrumming with possible futures. But only because you’ve stepped back from the maddening rush of it all and can finally see the big picture.

On today’s sail, as we drift in lagging wind past the peak of Stanley Park, his attention is caught by something far off in the blue. He cries out, “I wish I were a seagull!”

 

Thom lives with his wife, Bonnie, in a Kitsilano condo he designed himself; but he was delivered into a family only partway Canadian. His father, Wesley Cunningham Thom, having received an education in pharmacy at the University of Southern California, returned to his birthplace of New Westminster, B.C., to discover he was barred from practising his profession. While his degree was recognized, his nationality was not—Chinese residents were not given Canadian citizenship until after 1947 (and only Canadian citizens could practise pharmacy in Canada). Wesley, bitter and uninterested in waiting, immigrated to Hong Kong. China was enmeshed in a protracted war with Japan, and was only too happy to make use of freshly educated pharmacists. Thom was born during the conflict, and the Japanese invaded Hong Kong on his first birthday.

The war may have ended in 1945, but Wesley refused to return to the country that had denied him. A lingering love was there, though: he took his son, every Sunday, to Hong Kong’s Canadian Cafe for hamburgers. And whenever the Canadian Pacific steamships arrived down at the docks, the young Bing was brought to the wharf and watched his father taste Vancouver water. “It was more sweet, more clear.”

Thom’s Uncle Clung had graduated from McGill in engineering but, like Wesley, could not practise in Canada. One day Thom—then eight years old—was brought to that uncle’s Hong Kong office, where he became enamoured of the blueprints that sprawled over desks. Clung looked down at him and said, simply, “You like those? Well, then you want to be an architect.”

Meanwhile, more pressing matters were at hand. The Communist takeover of mainland China in 1949 left Thom’s mother, Millie, sure that Hong Kong would be next. She pleaded repeatedly with Thom’s father, who refused to leave his adopted home. “I’m needed here now more than ever,” he told her. So Millie packed her bag, and the bags of her children, and left for Canada without him. Chinese Canadians had been recognized as citizens for only two years.

The ship arrived in San Francisco, and Millie loaded Thom and his two older brothers, Wayne and Gene, onto a train headed north. She had never been to North America before. On the final day of their journey north, Thom fell asleep to the rocking of the train car; when he awoke, they were passing over the Pattullo Bridge. Thom looked through the window and saw yellow fog lights glowing in a line. He had never seen yellow lights before. Someone else spotted them and called out: “We’re coming into Vancouver.”

There was a hopping Chinatown in 1953, but after a first night at the Georgia Hotel, Millie informed her children—who essentially spoke no English—that they would not be moving there. “The best way for you to learn is for us to go somewhere there are absolutely no Chinese.” They found a place in Kerrisdale, a typical, modest house at 53rd and Cypress that still stands.

Thom was at sea in his new surroundings, yellow lights or no. At Maple Grove Elementary School he was years ahead of his classmates in math (they made him the class treasurer each year) but far behind in English. The other children had never seen a Chinese person before and daily sang “Ching Chong Chinaman” songs at the new kid. Thom fought back. Physically. Every day. “I think fighting is what gave me the spirit I have now, the spirit that makes me want to break down barriers.” But, gradually, he says, “I assimilated.” Today, he calls himself a banana: “Yellow on the outside, white on the inside.”

Looking back, Thom says, “I can see that it was the start of the global age. People found they could make their life anywhere. But as I get older, I see that everyone still wants to know where their home is. Everyone wants a sense of where they belong. You want to know where you will make your contribution.”

 

High school was easier; as Thom grew up, so did the city’s attitude toward immigrants. Peter Belanger was one of Thom’s best friends at Magee Secondary and remembers him as unassuming but empathetic, “an all-around guy” who looked “very dashing” in a Triumph TR3 and was good at tennis and poker. Thom made his cash working after school at the Ding-Ho drive-in restaurant in Kerrisdale.

At the University of British Columbia, Thom followed his uncle’s long-ago advice and entered the school of architecture. The ’60s had just dawned and Arthur Erickson—his own architectural star very much ascendant—was still teaching part-time. Some classes were on Saturdays (Erickson was a busy man), and on Friday night Thom and his peers would stay up until the early hours to prepare. “It was a defining time, being in Erickson’s class,” Thom recalls. “I learned how far I could push myself.”

By all accounts Erickson was a fine, if unorthodox, teacher. (His goal was to have students “unlearn.”) But, as ever, Thom was a lateral thinker who believed in gathering external input. In preparation for his thesis, he spent six months wandering the aisles of the Main Library on campus, starting at 8:30 every morning. If he liked the colour of a binding or a word in the title, the book went into his buggy. He read randomly, promiscuously.

When it came time to write, at last, he delivered a paper on the nature of assessing dilemmas; he called it “In Search of a Problem.” “Ninety percent of the time,” he says, “you think you know what the rules are, but you don’t. Mostly, people don’t know where they’re coming from and don’t know where they’re going.” The young Thom concluded by asserting that architecture could not be taught in schools. As though in agreement, Erickson quit his teaching post at the end of the year.

After stints working in Singapore and Tokyo, Thom joined his teacher again; in 1972 he became the project manager for Erickson’s firm, where he oversaw the development of Robson Square (1973-79) and Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto (1977). Sufficiently steeped in the glory of West Coast design, he founded his own firm, Bing Thom Architects, in 1980.

His early academic work stays with him, informing all his own projects with a rare consideration for issues external to the building itself. On Harwood Street, a glass apartment tower has been designed around a 120-foot tulip tree. In Richmond, his Aberdeen Mall has become a fulcrum of Asian culture in a city where malls are more often considered dead spaces. In Whistler, his Celebration Plaza (where medals are to be awarded during the Olympics) will be transformed after the Games into a public skating rink. In Fort Worth, Texas, a triad of ribbon-like bridges (inspired by wind and water) presents an elegant solution to the problem of a river-centric community. Then there’s Dalian New Town, in China, where Thom designed an entire city adjacent to Dalian proper, turning a worn seaport into a home for more than a million people—this largest of macro visions is scheduled for completion around 2025.

All of these projects, in their vastly different approaches, insist on one ethical imperative: we build for people; we build so that we may live better.  But what will living better actually look like? “The tragedy here,” says Thom, “is that people in Vancouver have not figured out where we’re going. We’re drifting toward becoming a resort town-one giant Whistler. Up to 30 percent of the people with homes in the downtown core don’t actually live here. And 30,000 young people in the downtown every day are foreign students. This is the global-city problem: foreigners and visitors outnumber residents; you become a stranger in your own home.”

Which is not to say that Thom disapproves of our mongrel nature. He just wants us to wake up and become a self-actualized mongrel. No more autopilot development, for one thing. “You can’t just sit back and say, ‘Whatever comes, comes.’ The smart guys, even in a free market, know where they’re going.” But when he asked Mayor Sam Sullivan where the city was headed with its development of the East Side, Sullivan said, “Well, Bing, we take care of safety issues. We take care of quality-of-life issues. So business will take care of itself.”

“I disagree,” Thom told the mayor.

Here’s a plan: Thom wants to see the flats between Strathcona and Mount Pleasant (which used to be a bog) crossed over with canals and turned into a space that fosters arts communities.  He sees the East Side as our cultural farm team, where the future soul of the city is forged. Push out the artists with homogenous condos and you’ve excised part of the city’s essence.

“We don’t have any handle on what’s happening. Right now, we’re just putting our fingers in the dam. We need more than a feel-good discussion. And, for the East Side, we’ve got five years to do it.”

If that sounds alarming, it shouldn’t. The director of SFU’s City Program (and a six-time city councillor), Gordon Price, argues that the future of the East Side’s harsher strips has already been decided—”It’s ‘sit back and watch’ at this point. The Downtown Eastside won’t be a single-use poverty reservation anymore.”

But Price has little time for the East Side anyway; that future is determined. Far more important, he argues, is the future of suburbs like Richmond and Surrey. In Richmond, 120,000 people (the population of downtown Vancouver when it’s built out) will be based around five Canada Line stations. “It’s staggering,” says Price. “And that’s the future. The future of this region is not being determined in Vancouver.”

There’s a certain quality of insanity, of course, in expecting a rapidly expanding population to live in traditional suburbs. “We’re in danger of locking ourselves into another generation of car-dependent design,” says Price, “at the worst point in human history to do that.”

The godfather of dense real estate, Bob Rennie (who often looks more like a city planner than a realtor), agrees: “Twenty-five years from now we’re probably not going to be able to drive cars. We need the next vision. And Bing is planting a seed.”

Take a picture out the window of a float plane if you’re ever flying into Vancouver. Only from such a vantage point is the extent of our sprawl apparent. See if you even recognize your city.

 

On September 8, 2006, Premier Gordon Campbell and a host of suited dignitaries assembled across the street from the new Surrey Central City SkyTrain station and peered up at a suspiciously metropolitan 1.7-million-square-foot structure. In Surrey.

“Everyone jokes that people in Surrey are too young, too poor, too dumb,” says Thom. What Surrey is, in fact, is the Lower Mainland’s future, and it’s too important to ignore. September 8 was the day a ragtag handful of mini communities became galvanized and centralized by Thom and his Central City project. “You give people hope through architecture,” Thom says. In March, Surrey’s mayor, Dianne Watts, announced that her City Hall will be moved to the Central City area. The seed has germinated.

Combining an office tower, a mall, and a branch of SFU, Central City is a masterpiece of mixed-use design. Its main galleria is toplit by a massive skylight that, buttressed by a network of timber beams, resembles the organic outline of Thom’s boat. Above it all, the 25-storey office tower bears a glass prow, poised as though it might thrust itself through the surrounding tracts of monotonous sprawl.

Price calls Surrey Central City Thom’s most important project. “They were carheads out there, and then Thom created a real urban environment.” If suburbs like Surrey must be “uninvented,” as Andrew C. Revkin argued in the New York Times in February, then Thom’s Surrey Central City is the heart of Vancouver’s share in the project. We see instinctually that such neo-suburban, community-focused centres are not only friendly to the planet but more in keeping with the social needs of humans.

There was a Surrey bus driver who liked to come by the Central City construction site and monitor its progress. Thom noticed him on his visits, standing by the fence and peering in as a new civic apex rose to dominate the landscape. On opening day, the bus driver was there again. Thom left the officials he was chatting up and walked over to the driver. “Hey,” he said, “there’s a good view from the top of the tower.” He showed the driver how to access the roof, and went on his way. From up there the bus driver saw his city suddenly from a distance and also as a whole. A few days later Thom got a call from the building management: some bus driver had been sending loads of passengers to the roof—could Thom please refrain from telling anyone else about it?

Utility is a defining characteristic of Thom’s practice—he seems, for a creative type, inordinately interested in actual use. Take the Chan Centre at UBC. “His design,” says Leila Getz, artistic director of the Vancouver Recital Society, “is not a monument to himself. He was extraordinarily sensitive to the demands of musicians.” The result, what Getz calls “the first superlative concert hall in Vancouver,” acoustically is comparable, she says, to Vienna’s hallowed Musik‑ verein or London’s Wigmore Hall.

David Harrington, leader of the Kronos Quartet, says the Chan Centre “is my favourite hall in the world.”

Thom’s work, for all its restrained and organic beauty, is not addressed to other architects; it is addressed to the citizens—musicians, students, mall kids—who move through his buildings. His work is addressed to people who are regularly divorced from the process of city-building yet make up the substance of city life.

 

A little radio, covered in sawdust, sits on a pile of wood at the Alder Bay Boat Company workshop, on Granville Island. David Bradford—the man who works on Thom’s boat—has that radio tuned to the CBC. Handel’s Water Music suite, performed at the Chan Centre, is being broadcast as Bradford packs his pipe with Captain Black tobacco.

“You know what pushes people to the sea?” he says. “So much of our world has come down to functionalism, and they need a place for romantic thoughts and imagination. That’s why Bing goes out there, I suppose.”

Bradford talks for a while about Thom’s boat. He approves heartily of its being wooden (teak and mahogany); of the fact that it’s cold-moulded, which lends strength and longevity; of the fact it’s not a motorboat. The way Bradford tells it, boating is an objective correlative for Thom’s spirit. “He’s not caught up in the nastiness of life. Perhaps he’s on a different plane, where he can oversee things. He sees the big picture.”

Thom himself will tell you that being out on the water is more than a sport; it’s a way of looking at the city, and city life.

“Sometimes, when I can’t sleep at night, I think of myself holding on to the rudder of my boat and sailing. I wait until I’m perfectly aligned in the water, perfectly aligned with those forces of nature. And then I can rest.” Bradford continues: “Architecture—well, I’m out of my realm here, but I think it’s supposed to go beyond a function, you know? I think it’s supposed to connect with us, somehow. Maybe balance us with nature.” He pours more coffee from his Thermos and listens to Water Music for a moment before going on. “We’re not just functional beings. We’ve got this whole range of feelings about the place we live. And if you get out there on the water you’re in another world but you can still look back and see the city you love.”

If you ever happen to sail beneath the Burrard Street Bridge, headed west, take a look to your right. Thom’s office is there. His is the building that crouches on a patch of grass beneath the massive structure of the bridge. It’s so much a part of the place that you have to be looking for it.

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