Bing Thom (1940-2016)
An earlier blog entry of mine, “Genealogy of Influence,” promised a series of posts about the architects and theorists who influenced my architectural world view. This is the latest post in the series.
Canadian architect Bing Thom, CM, LLD (Hon.), AIBC, FRAIC, AIA passed away last Tuesday at the age of 75. Although his name may not be a familiar one to many here in Oregon, he enjoyed a growing global reputation not only as a talented architect but also as a dedicated city-builder. It isn’t hyperbole to say he was perhaps Canada’s preeminent architect at the time of his death, his impact upon the nation’s architectural heritage rivaling that of his former teacher and employer, Arthur Erickson.
Like Erickson, Bing fundamentally believed in the transformative power of great architecture to uplift not only the physical but also the economic and social conditions of a community. His belief in this power became the grounding philosophy of his career, resulting in memorable architecture that consistently tapped into something beyond aesthetics.
Perhaps even more significant than the individual buildings he designed was his shaping of opinions regarding urban design, particularly when it came to his home city of Vancouver, British Columbia. He never shied away from speaking his mind. He called things as he saw them, including sounding alarm bells early on regarding the city’s troubling shift toward being a playground for the wealthy, one lacking a broad and sustainable economic foundation.
It was his sage acumen and undeniable talent that attracted commissions from around the globe. His work spanned continents, and so would his firm (now with offices in Vancouver, Hong Kong, and Washington, DC). Notable projects worldwide include Vancouver’s Chan Centre for the Performing Arts, Guilford Aquatic Centre, and Surrey Centre in British Columbia; the Arena Stage in Washington; Tarrant County College in Fort Worth, TX; and the Xiqu Center in Hong Kong (now under construction).
Surrey City Centre Library (my photo; all other photos and renderings by Bing Thom Architects)
Xiqu Centre, Hong Kong
Arena Stage, Washington D.C.
Guilford Aquatic Centre, Surrey, B.C.
Canadian Canoe Museum, Peterborough, ON
Chan Centre for the Performing Arts, Vancouver, B.C.
The impact of his work has been undeniable. In recognition of his contributions to an appreciative nation, the Governor General of Canada, on behalf of her majesty Queen Elizabeth II, years ago bestowed the Order of Canada upon Bing. Bing also was the recipient of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada Gold Medal, the highest honor given to a Canadian architect.
On a personal note, I was terribly saddened when I learned of Bing’s passing. In my mind, he was still vital and evolving, still young and forceful. It never occurred to me he could possibly leave us so soon. It was my honor to work for Bing during the early years of Bing Thom Architects (BTA) back in the 1980s.(1) He was a true mentor and influence, helping set me on my way as an architect.
False Creek Yacht Club, Vancouver, BC
Northwest Territories Pavilion, Expo 86, Vancouver, BC
In retrospect, what I most admire about Bing was his belief in all possibilities when most others would opt to take the easy path toward facile solutions. As many others have already said since the news of his death broke, he was a true visionary. He was a big thinker of the highest order. I know he’s left an admirable legacy for his firm, one which his colleagues will sustain for many years to come.
I am grateful I had the relatively recent opportunity to chat and catch up with Bing during the joint AIA/Architectural Institute of British Columbia regional conference held in Vancouver in 2013. He was the same old Bing, always smiling, always a teacher, one whose words commanded everyone’s attention. He was obviously very comfortable in his own shoes then, a confident and sought-after elder statesman who trusted his imagination and a wealth of inspiration endowed by a lifetime of experiences.
Bing had a tremendous impact upon many, many people during his life. He will be missed dearly by all who count themselves among his extended family.
The following is Bing Thom Architect’s official news release acknowledging the passing of the firm’s founder and leader:
October 4, 2016
It is with deep sadness that we announce the death of our Founding Principal, Bing Thom. Bing suffered a brain aneurism while on a recent trip in Hong Kong and passed away in that city on the afternoon of October 4th. His wife, Bonnie Thom, who shared his life for over 50 years, was by his side.
Bing Thom was one of Canada’s most admired and accomplished architects, a dedicated and artful city-builder whose global reputation was closely tied to metro Vancouver, a region he cared for deeply and did much to protect and to improve. Bing’s commitment to using architecture to improve the urban environment was recognized by a range of honors including the Order of Canada, the Golden Jubilee Medal, honorary degrees from Simon Fraser University and the University of British Columbia, the Margolese Prize, an honorary professorship from Tongji University in Shanghai, and the RAIC Gold Medal, the highest honour given to a Canadian architect.
Born in Hong Kong and immigrating to Canada as a child, Bing received his Bachelor of Architecture degree from the University of British Columbia and his Master of Architecture degree from the University of California at Berkeley. A student of the 60’s, Bing helped pioneer one of the first academic programs in Ethnic Studies in North America during his time in Berkeley. His career began in the offices of Fumihiko Maki and Arthur Erickson before he started his own firm, Bing Thom Architects (BTA), in 1982.
His firm’s commissions cover the globe, from the Expo’ 92 Canada Pavilion in Seville, Spain, to Arena Stage Theater in Washington DC, Tarrant County College Trinity River East Campus in Fort Worth, Texas, to the current Xiqu Centre Opera House at the West Kowloon Cultural District in Hong Kong, the University of Chicago Center in Hong Kong, the Binhai Cultural District of Tianjin, the Shijiazhuang Performing Arts Center, and Shenyang Kerry Centre in central Shenyang.
BTA’s local portfolio of projects include the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts at the University of British Columbia, Central City Surrey, Sunset Community Centre, Surrey City Centre Library, the Guildford Aquatic Centre, and currently Simon Fraser University’s Sustainable Energy and Environmental Engineering Building and First Baptist Church Redevelopment.
Bing Thom was a mentor to so many architects young and old, sharing his values and passion for creating beautiful spaces and places that better communities. He was never afraid to speak his mind. He saw himself first as a public servant and held a fundamental belief in the transformative power of great architecture to uplift not only the physical, but also the economic and social conditions of a community.
He demanded the best from everyone and inspired each of us to achieve it. His positive impact will continue to be felt both in the communities in which our projects are built and in the profound influence he had on his many colleagues and so many others.
(1) I joined BTA in 1983, immediately following my graduation from the University of Oregon and just after the firm opened its doors the year before in the midst of a deep economic recession. I spent two enormously formative years there, assisting Bing on several notable projects including the Northwest Territories pavilion at Expo 86 and the Point Grey Road Condominiums, and culminating in my achieving professional licensure in 1985. I left that year to pursue a graduate degree at UCLA, ultimately returning to BTA in 1987 for a second satisfying stint during which I worked on the False Creek Yacht Club, among other projects. I left BTA in 1988 to relocate to Eugene, marry my wife Lynne, and embark on my career with Robertson/Sherwood/Architects.