An Architectural Master

A new book focuses, perhaps too narrowly, on the work of one West Coast firm

Vancouver is a city where the surrounding landscape remains much more appealing than its built environment. Although the local mandarins boast at length about its urbanism and liveability, the area remains an architectural underperformer, packed with generic high-rises and spectacularly ugly monster houses. It is not for lack of precedent; this was the spawning ground of Ron Thom and Arthur Erickson. Nor is it a matter of design talent or money: both are plentiful on the West Coast. But over here, the real estate market’s invisible hand tends to smack down anything in its way, including architectural integrity and appreciation. Some of the city’s best designers, such as Patkau Architects, thrive by finding their client base elsewhere. A few others manage to speak to that almighty hand and punctuate the cityscape with buildings worth talking about.

Which brings us to Bing Thom Architects. The Vancouver-based firm has grown into one of the most important architectural firms in Canada, and one of a small number of Vancouver outlets that actively defies the banal developer-driven status quo. Starting with a series of smallish but culturally significant projects in the 1980s, BTA soon expanded into larger cultural buildings at home and abroad. Their Arena Stage Theater opened in Washington DC to robust critical acclaim last year, bringing them a critical mass of international renown as well. This year Bing Thom himself received the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada Gold Medal.

Much of their work, from early low-budget projects such as the Northwest Territories Pavilion for Expo ’86 to the more recent and ambitious city-changing projects such as Tarrant County College in Fort Worth, Texas, has been brilliant in concept and execution. Their cultural buildings—for example, the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts, Sunset Community Centre and Arena Stage—boast sinuous, curvilinear forms that defy the green-glassed rectilinear monotony of Vancouver while stopping short of pretentious grandiosity.

Bing Thom studied under Arthur Erickson at the University of British Columbia, and then worked with him for a stint. But while inheriting Erickson’s philosophical bent and appreciation of nature, Thom and his series of collaborators have clearly carved out their own niche in the architectural world. Still, both in their hometown and the rest of Canada, they remain low profile relative to their accomplishments.

Bing Thom Works seems to position itself as a kind of corrective to that lowish profile. The book launches with a text by the venerable Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki, with whom Thom apprenticed back in the 1960s, and proceeds to unfurl the story of BTA’s success, as the writers see it, through first-person texts and gorgeous photographs. The book comprises a series of mini-essays written in the voice of the two principals, Thom and Michael Heeney, in collaboration with writer Kerry McPhedran, followed by texts on seven of their key projects, and a concluding thumbnail list of projects and awards.

I had a privileged view of the firm’s operation and output a few years ago, when I did some internal writing on contract for the firm. It was an experience that reconfirmed both the value of architects to the community and the limitations of trying to communicate the essence of architecture to others. Part of the challenge is that architects have to speak to a multi-tiered audience of citizens, clients and peers. For the most part, each group has a strikingly different perspective, knowledge level, agenda and vocabulary. So how does one talk about architecture to such a disparate population? For the most part, one group at a time. Writing a book for all groups at once just might be an impossible feat.

Bing Thom Works seems to be aimed at a wider readership than most architecture books. The writing is clear, articulate and unpretentious. It avoids arcane theoretical discussion or technical details, which makes it more user-friendly for the uninitiated, but not so useful to architects or students, for whom many of its statements will be self-evident. (For instance, “houses are tools we can use to try things out without taking on the risk of a large scale installation, not to mention that they’re a great way to train staff as well.”)

But the wider public is not likely to seek out this book either, since it is about just one firm. True, the firm’s projects deal with civic issues we should all care about, like sustainability and beauty and economy and community. But it lacks a contextual and comparative discussion of who is doing what elsewhere. As a result, it reads a little too much like an extended pitch to a potential client, with section headings like “Compromise Is Not in Our Vocabulary—Balance Is” and “Making the most of every opportunity.” They sound like slogans on a company t-shirt.

“We don’t mean this book to be a monograph,” assert Thom and Heeney in the preface. They point out that it is “non-linear”—their most recent major project, Washington’s Arena Stage Theater, opens the book, and their mini-essay titles—“On Risk” and “Collisions” and “Jazz” and so forth—suggest conceptual rather than chronological themes. The content that follows, however, is not unlike many other architect-issued monographs of recent years: an extended tribute to the importance of passion, research, risk taking, strategic budgeting and sensitivity to site. But these are basic qualities of any good architectural firm, and when the discussion is limited to just one practice, it disingenuously suggests otherwise.

In public forums, Thom has often been fearless in speaking his mind. His was the strongest voice to question certain public initiatives, including the disgracefully dull American-designed Canada pavilion at the 2010 Olympics, and the movement to build a huge starchitect-designed art gallery in Vancouver. In Bing Thom Works, we do not hear much of Thom’s sharper voice or any focused criticism.

In the text segments, the graphic design is elegantly clean and spare, with the exception of a curious graphic tic. Every now and then, the type lightens up noticeably for a clause or two, just like this—as though the ink on the printing press was sporadically drying out, or the graphic designers were marking a hyperlink but forgot that this was not an e-book. It could be a distinctive way to highlight a clause, except that most of the lightened-type clauses just are not that deep (for example: “so we became our own client and built our office, tucked under Burrard Bridge”).

Occasionally, these highlights can help signal the larger points lurking in the adjacent prose: “After talking to one of the steel fabricators … we were able to design the whole canopy so that there would be no waste.” Good architects can cleave costs from a project in unexpected ways, and that is part of what the clients and taxpayers are—or should be—paying for. Much of the public sees architects as fashion designers for buildings, draping and plastering them with pretty claddings and add-ons; many individuals are reluctant to hire architects on the flawed assumption that they cost more. But if architects do their job properly, they can save a client or even an entire community a lot of money. Because architecture acts as an indirect force over an indefinite period of time, it is hard to measure and articulate its value to potential clients and the wider public.

It is the design profession’s longstanding plea that beauty is the result of logical building as well as intrinsic to its value for end users. For a concert hall like the Chan Centre or a theatre like Arena Stage, that sensually curved glass facade is, among other things, a strategic business gesture: who would shell out 50 bucks a head to spend the evening in a windowless warehouse? Some of BTA’s larger initiatives are also arguments for architecture as a socioeconomic generator. The Vancouver suburb of Surrey, for instance, has been known as a bleak and sprawling Vancouver suburb with no downtown core. Bing Thom proposed and built a visually dramatic high-rise on a plinth of retail space, with a university built into it, and called it Surrey Central City. The project has created a sense of urban core and, in the process, helped revitalize a socially and economically arid swathe of town.

“There is an aura about architecture, reinforced by Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead (1943), that money and art are polar opposites,” note the writers in one chapter. “They are not.” No, they are not polar opposites, but their relationship is frequently dysfunctional. BTA has been smart enough to manage this relationship well, even if it meant walking away from some opportunities. I know of one project where the firm declined to pursue what it saw as a financially unsustainable civic project for a small British Columbia community. It could have just built the thing, taken the fees and left the community members to grapple with the project’s upkeep themselves, as some less scrupulous design firms have done. BTA does not do this, and that is part of what makes it a great firm.

I wish the book delved into these kinds of dilemmas and issues. It would have made for much more interesting reading. Or, if their goal is to stay positive and focus on the best of the built work, I wish they had talked more about some of their key collaborators, past and present. They do note in their acknowledgements that, unfortunately, there have been just too many of them in their 28-year history to list. But still, I could not help but think, while reading their self-congratulatory account of the coloured glass wall of their Aberdeen Centre project, how much more resonant it would be to tell the reader that a young designer named Stephanie Forsythe conceived its marvellous colours, and that she is now co-principal of a globally acclaimed firm called Molo Design. The Canadian architectural community is a web of interdependent talent, and we should be introducing and celebrating and mythologizing its players. That might sound a little Hollywood, but it is the way to engage the lay citizenry, not to mention other architects. People are more interested in architecture when they feel they are in on the conversation—that is, if they feel they know the motley cast of humans that have created it.

To be sure, it is a formidable task to try to explain the complex and widely misunderstood field of architecture to a distant readership. Early on the narrative voice in Bing Thom Works argues, correctly, that there is no way to experience architecture properly except by walking through it and using it. As the art critic Robert Hughes once noted, art books are to art what phone sex is to sex; with architecture, the analogical gap yawns even wider. The visual, tactile and spatial experience of architecture is missing, as is the practical evaluation: what it is actually like to live or work or be entertained within a particular structure.

The copious number of full-page photographs suggests that the authors are trying to narrow the gap, if not close it, by injecting an overwhelming amount of stunning images by Nic Lehoux. The eight featured projects are mostly Vancouver-area projects, including the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts, Surrey Central City, Aberdeen Centre and Sunset Community Centre, artfully splayed out in various poses and contexts. These photo essays are sublime, but I know—and I suspect many readers would as well—that Lehoux is someone who could make a 7-Eleven franchise look like a Governor General’s Award winner.

Given the generous space afforded to multiple pictures of the same project, I would also have liked to see the images of what they say inspired them, such as the plants of the adjacent nursery for the Sunset Community Centre, or Piet Mondrian’s “Broadway Boogie-Woogie” painting for Aberdeen Centre. I would also have liked to see pictures of what fascinates or horrifies them elsewhere in our cities. That is what buttresses the most engaging architecture books in history, from Le Corbusier’s 1923 manifesto, Towards an Architecture, to Rem Koolhaas’s 1995 book, SMLXL: pictures of those architects’ own work, interspliced with pictures of the larger design context in which they are working. These are books that challenged us to look more closely at our built environment—all of it, not just the miniscule portion that they themselves designed.

In their preface to Bing Thom Works, Thom and Heeney express high ambitions. “So why this book, now? We believe that we are in a period where many question the value of architecture,” they write. Yep, many do question it, as they always have. Limiting the conversation to their own undeniable prowess might preach to the converted, or reassure their next client. But I doubt it will prompt those questioning skeptics to reassess their own indifference.