Throughout his career in architecture, Bing Thom was adept at transcending cultural boundaries, taking great care to experience and understand every locale in which he designed.
“I have always been searching, both subliminally and consciously, to fuse the values of East and West,” the Hong Kong-born Canadian architect said in a 2008 interview. Earlier this week, Mr. Thom was travelling from his home base in Vancouver to Hong Kong to check on his firm’s new opera house, which is under construction. The $350-million Xiqu Centre is his latest international landmark, and Mr. Thom took special pride that it is being built in Hong Kong, the city of his birth. When he died there unexpectedly of a brain aneurysm on Oct. 4, it marked the geographic full circle of a remarkable life and career. He was 75.
Bing Wing Thom was born on Dec. 8, 1940, to the offspring of the first wave of Chinese immigrants to Canada’s West Coast. Mr. Thom’s father had returned to Hong Kong, embittered at the racist policies of the day that prevented him from practising his profession. He stayed there for many years, even after his wife decided to resettle in Vancouver to raise Bing and his two brothers.
“[Mr. Thom] told me that he got in a lot of fights back then,” says Vancouver architect James Cheng, a long-time friend. “He couldn’t speak English very well and kids would pick on him. That formed part of his character as a fighter: He’s always had a tremendous amount of tenacity and conviction.”
While in high school, Mr. Thom decided he wanted to be an architect, and began cold-calling a number of firms, seeking any kind of part-time job. In a 2008 interview with this reporter, Mr. Thom recalled walking into the downtown office of C.B.K. Van Norman, at the time one of Vancouver’s most prominent architects. “When I told him I wanted to work for an architect, he said: ‘Look at this office, young man. I used to have the biggest office in Vancouver. Now I am bankrupt and don’t have anybody working here, just me.’”
Mr. Van Norman then issued a stern proviso: “If you want to be an architect, you have to be determined, very smart and work very hard.” He gave Mr. Thom a stack of architectural drawings and technical reports and told him: “Just read it and figure it out.” Poring over the drawings and specifications, he found his calling. “This was a fantastic epiphany for me,” Mr. Thom recalled, “the moment when I learned how architects build buildings.”
At the University of British Columbia, Mr. Thom began his prearchitectural studies in the arts and science faculty. Around this time, he met his future wife, Bonnie Koo. Mr. Thom’s famously charismatic smile, along with her father’s strong endorsement, made a strong impression on her. She would be his stalwart collaborator for the rest of his life.
“He needed free design help,” Ms. Thom recounted in an e-mail interview from Hong Kong this week. He would exhort her, for instance, to design a glass screen with the image of a goddess from Dunhuang Cave for the New World Saigon Hotel’s Dynasty restaurant, and make other out-of-the-blue requests.
“And I would say: ‘Why do you always give me instructions at bedtime?’”
Mr. Thom considered Bonnie to be both his toughest critic and most invaluable supporter, and he relished her brutally honest feedback.
At UBC’s school of architecture, one of his teachers was Arthur Erickson, who became a crucial mentor as well as his employer. During the summers, Mr. Thom divided his time between working for Erickson/Massey Architects as an errand-runner and working in landscaping and construction. These jobs enabled him to see the profession from two different perspectives.
After receiving a bachelor of architecture from UBC, he enrolled in the master’s program at the University of California at Berkeley. At that time, Berkeley was an epicentre of student radicalism, an environment that Mr. Thom would later credit with inspiring him to think in an interdisciplinary way, always challenging the status quo.
Upon graduating, Mr. Thom travelled to Tokyo to work briefly at the office of Fumihiko Maki. He returned to Vancouver and in 1972 rejoined Erickson/Massey just as the firm was reaching its zenith. He oversaw the creation of Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall, though he later expressed disappointment that he had been largely powerless to integrate the project with the surrounding sites.
Mr. Thom also worked as the project manager for the firm’s ambitious transformation of a three-block section of downtown into the new Vancouver Art Gallery, Provincial Law Courts and Robson Square public plaza. Many decades later, his experience and knowledge of the site would compel him to challenge the prevailing notions of the site’s limitations and possibilities.
Mr. Erickson profoundly influenced Mr. Thom’s philosophy of architecture and of life, as he often told friends. “He took Arthur’s credo: Never accept anything as a given; always start from scratch; look beyond the project itself at what you can do,” Mr. Cheng says.
In 1982, Bing Thom opened his own firm, renting an irregular parcel of land tucked under the south end of Vancouver’s Burrard Bridge and designing a small stone building to house his fledgling practice. A steep recession made the early years a struggle, but Expo 86 gave him the opportunity to raise his profile by designing pavilions for Hong Kong and the Northwest Territories. Mr. Thom would later boast how the sparkling ice-blue Northwest Territories pavilion – assembled on a shoestring construction budget using plywood, paint and crushed glass – drew some of the longest lines of all the Expo pavilions that year.
In 1989, he enlisted a co-principal, architect Michael Heeney, whose aptitude in business, logistics and project co-ordination strongly complemented Mr. Thom’s conceptual-design skills. The firm reached a new milestone with the 1997 completion of the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on the UBC campus. Although the university had directed him to cut down the trees on the site to afford an ocean view from the glass-walled lobby, Mr. Thom refused: He wanted the zinc-clad cylindrical building to be nestled in the trees, so that guests could step out from the lobby into an enchanting small forest during intermissions. Mr. Thom’s vision prevailed, and the Chan Centre became one of the most iconic and best-loved buildings in the city.
The first decade of the millennium brought the firm a number of landmark projects. Mr. Thom and his firm were credited with creating a vibrant downtown core in the sprawling Vancouver suburb of Surrey, by way of their 2004 mixed-used Surrey Central City project. His design entailed placing a satellite of Simon Fraser University atop a large shopping mall, bringing a new customer base to the mall, and potential new student recruits to the university. But it took an enormous amount of time and consensus-building among local and provincial politicians, developers and university officials. “He was incredibly astute politically, ” observes Mr. Heeney. “For the kind of architecture we do, you have to be.”
In the ensuing years, the firm won more acclaim in Surrey with its vessel-like City Centre Library and dramatically luminous Guildford Aquatic Centre.
Meanwhile, the firm’s high-profile successes convinced Molly Smith, artistic director of Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., to hire Mr. Thom for a major expansion of the original 1950 theatre building. Completed in 2010, the dramatic $100-million transformation made Mr. Thom famous in the United States, and brought vitality and commercial activity to the once-bleak neighbourhood around it. The following year, the firm completed its ambitious Tarrant County College project in Fort Worth, Tex., further building Mr. Thom’s reputation south of the border.
As Mr. Thom’s acclaim and project list grew, he expanded his team of diverse and exceptionally skilled designers. In the early 2000s, he recruited Venelin Kokalov, who would become the firm’s third principal, and gave him the opportunity to design the exuberant curves of Vancouver’s Sunset Community Centre, Surrey City Centre Library, Arena Stage’s Kogod Cradle theatre and the Xiqu Centre in Hong Kong. Mr. Thom has told members of his staff that he considered Mr. Kokalov his heir apparent as the firm’s master form maker.
Even as he joined the pantheon of top-tier Canadian architects, Mr. Thom retained his fighting spirit. He questioned the Vancouver Art Gallery’s decision to build a big standalone building at a new location; later, when the gallery’s move appeared inevitable, he proposed a six-level underground concert hall at the original site, in defiance of officials’ public statements that the site could not be expanded so ambitiously.
He also publicly argued against a 2011 proposal to build a casino in the city. “What’s happened is we’ve been going for the quick fix and the quick bucks,” he told The Globe and Mail in 2012. “That’s why I’m against a casino.” He warned against turning Vancouver into a standalone tourist attraction, global resort or retirement community, and looked instead for ways to enhance local neighbourhoods, foster employment and ensure that the city maintained its identity. As part of that credo, he created and sponsored a research arm within his firm, led by urban planner Andy Yan, to monitor urban demographics and issues, with the long-term goal of responding with new design solutions.
Mr. Thom was named to the Order of Canada in 1995. His firm received the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada’s Firm of the Year Award in 2010; the following year, Mr. Thom himself received the RAIC Gold Medal, Canada’s highest honour for an individual architect.
According to those in his inner circle, though, his primary motivation was never the pursuit of fame or fortune. Phyllis Lambert, founder of the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, remembers him as a “generous, warm, optimistic and encouraging friend,” with a fearless ambition to improve the societies he worked within. She points to the firm’s Surrey Central City as a strategically brilliant way to bring diverse forces together. “We have lost a highly creative thinker who saw architecture in its largest sense.”
Mr. Thom leaves Bonnie, his wife of more than 50 years, and his brothers, Wayne and Gene Thom.
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