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Bing Thom did not earn his place as an internationally renowned architect by thinking inside the box. For his latest vision, Mr. Thom is thinking under the box, or at least underground, pitching the idea of a grand performing arts complex underneath the current Vancouver Art Gallery site if the VAG moves to a new location.

Still in the very preliminary stages, the idea is being called "very intriguing" by the city's head of Cultural Services.

Mr. Thom, in conjunction with the Vancouver Concert Hall and Theatre Society, unveiled the proposal at a news conference on Friday. It would see a 1,950-seat concert hall built under the existing plaza fronting Georgia St., and a 450-seat multipurpose theatre under the Annex building facing Robson St., at a cost of $200-million to $220-million. Officials behind the plan said it could be built by 2017.

"I'd like to thank the people of Vancouver in advance for even considering what must seem at first an extravagant scheme, but in fact is something we desperately need," said Bramwell Tovey, music director with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.

Under the proposal, the 1931 courthouse repurposed for the art gallery by Arthur Erickson in 1983, would re-open the Georgia Street entrance and house restaurants, shops and cultural exhibition space. The performance-space lobbies would also be above ground and open to the public, with tickets taken as patrons descend into the concert hall via sky-lit escalators.

The concert hall would be built in the vineyard style, a sort of theatre-in-the-round employed by a number of new concert halls, most notably the acclaimed Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles.

Yasuhisa Toyota, who was chief acoustician for the Disney Hall, has been consulting with Mr. Thom about his proposal. After touring the site on Thursday, he said it would allow for a high enough ceiling, and is far enough away from the Skytrain that it could work acoustically.

The acoustics, said Mr. Tovey, should be the chief consideration. "We have no need to build a phallic symbol on the street. We need a great sound space."

Building underground would require an excavation of about 27 metres to 30 metres. That is doable, according to the VCHTS, which has contacted soil consultants.

The concept is not unprecedented; there are below-ground concert halls elsewhere, including in Melbourne and New York, where Carnegie Hall opened an underground space a few years ago.

The Vancouver proposal would also see the above-ground plaza refurbished. "Clean it up. It's a mess. It's an embarrassment," said Mr. Thom, who envisions large screens broadcasting performances from inside the concert hall. He also said it's key the space remain available for protests and other public gatherings.

Vancouver City Council recently voted to give the VAG two years to deliver a solid plan and rationale behind moving to 688 Cambie Street. But, the city will also consider the possibility of a concert hall sharing the space - two acres of a three-acre block.

"The reality of it is the gallery would like three acres," said Mr. Thom. "And to squeeze them down to two acres and then put another building on top of it and then the time frame and then who then drives the train? It gets so convoluted. And nobody will be happy in the end."

A few minutes after that late-night vote, Mr. Thom told VCHTS chair Ron Stern the subterranean idea he hadn't yet dared to voice. "His eyes lit up," says Thom, "and he said 'brilliant!'"

They were back at the city on Wednesday, explaining the proposal to key staff. "It was very intriguing and an out-of-the-box idea," said cultural services executive director Richard Newirth.

"It is no longer an issue of contesting over the Cambie Street location," said Mr. Newirth. "No longer is there this sort of dynamic of either/or. There's the possibility of both."