Because we live and practice in New York and travel extensively we consider ourselves highly cultured and knowledgeable. But actually we are quite parochial, a fact that sadly struck a chord when Bing Thom passed away. He would serve on our juries and our boards, revered and consulted for his opinion. However, despite the fact that his firm received the Canadian Architect Firm Award in 2010 and he won the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada Gold Medal in 2016, he was off our radar. Even when he was recently invited to compete for a design at Lincoln Center, he was very excited about the potential project and actually started looking for an office in New York. But he may have been too much of a “dark horse” and didn’t get the commission.
This is unfortunate. One need only look at the skyline of Vancouver to see solid evidence of his talent. From the moment he cut his teeth with Arthur Erickson on the Robson Square Courthouse Complex to his most recently completed Guilford Aquatic Center in Surrey, his sculpted roof forms shaped the city’s civic and cultural spaces. He was gifted at taking disparate functions and resonantly melding them in a way that was creative and technologically innovative without appearing so. Next door to the Aquatic Centre, for instance, is the Surrey City Centre Library, probably one of the earliest buildings programmed through social media primarily to speed up the normal process, so that the library would not lose its public funding.
Because we are a small profession, there are often clear lines of succession. Bing was no exception. Even though he was born in Hong Kong and fled to Canada as a child in 1949 when the Communists took over, once he landed in Vancouver and decided to become an architect, it didn’t take long for him to become noticed by Erickson, his professor at the University of British Columbia. He went on to receive his Masters of Architecture from Berkeley in 1969. Then he moved to Japan to work for Fumihiko Maki, returning to Toronto to join Erickson on Roy Thomson Hall. The studio he opened in 1982 was very much in the spirit of the work of his two mentors as Bing took on large public projects and became known for his approachable, open creative style.
His portfolio is extensive and global; it includes many theaters and The Chan Centre for the Performing Arts in Vancouver was one of his earliest. The concert hall is reputed to sound magnificent, owing to a large concrete acoustical canopy, making it tower over every other building on campus. He artfully camouflaged this by a stand of cedars. For Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage, the roof became his medium, defining and enveloping the two existing theaters and the experimental one he added. Currently under construction is the Xiqu Centre in Hong Kong, which will house the Chinese Opera.
A laundry list of his other major buildings would surely include the Canadian Pavilion for the 1992 Expo in Seville, Spain, which was entirely clad in zinc and featured a naturally cooled entertainment area. It would also include the master plan and subsequent commission for the Tarrant County College Downtown Campus in Fort Worth,Texas. And it would definitely feature the University of Chicago Campus in Hong Kong, slated to open next year.
I knew Bing very briefly and very recently. He came to New York and spoke at the Center for Architecture last spring. He was a lovely man in person, full of passion, thoughtfulness, intelligence, generosity of spirit, and a belief in the power of architecture to transform. I am grateful that we filmed the evening and very sorry that that will be all we have.