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Margolese Prize Winner Bing Thom on the Art of Placemaking

As date to nominate for $50,000 UBC prize approaches, a chat with last year's recipient.

By Adele Weder 2 Sep 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Adele Weder, a recipient of the RAIC/Architecture Canada President's Award for Architectural Journalism, writes on architecture and urban heritage for a number of books and journals. Her exhibition on midcentury west-coast architect Ron Thom is currently showing at Trent University's Alumni House Gallery. Follow her at @AdeleWeder To learn more about Tyee Presents, click here.

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Master architect and urban designer Bing Thom: Winner of last year's Margolese Nations Design for Living Prize. Is there someone you think should be nominated?

The $50,000 Margolese National Design for Living Prize is awarded annually by UBC's School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture to a Canadian who has made and continues to make outstanding contributions to the development or improvement of living environments for Canadians of all economic classes. Applications for this year's prize remain open until Oct. 1 and the criteria for who might make an excellent nominee are here.

Last year's recipient, Vancouver architect and urban designer Bing Thom, received the nod for his broad vision of place-making, as exemplified by the reshaping of Surrey City Centre from a generic swatch of streets to a dense matrix of stores, homes, office tower, public library, university and civic plaza. His other major works include the Chan Centre and Sunset Community Centre in Vancouver, the transformation of Washington, D.C.'s historic Arena Stage Theater complex, and Tarrant County College in Fort Worth, Texas -- all of which have redefined the neighbourhoods they are built in. Next up, among other projects, is the eye-popping $335-million Xiqu Centre opera house in Hong Kong, scheduled for completion in 2016. Bing Thom met with Tyee contributor Adele Weder recently to discuss the implications of the Margolese Prize. Here are edited and condensed excerpts from their conversation:

On how design can address the real needs for contemporary living:

"Many people feel there's something wrong with their lives. So you think consumerism is a way of making you happy, and you go shopping. It gives you some reward. It's like a drug, a sugar rush. And then you go back to drudgery again. People are looking for friends on social media, and they find that this electronic method gives them a faster way to do this -- but are these really friends? Can you have an authentic conversation on Twitter or on Facebook? It's all one-liners, two-liners. This comes down to the way we do architecture: we try to create space for actual social collisions. So we created Surrey City Centre, where we put a university on top of a shopping centre, to create all kinds of unexpected in-person meetings and events. That's how I try to address these kinds of issues with our work, though I'm not totally successful. I have to search out leaders who understand what it is that I'm about. We found that confluence with Diane Watts in Surrey, with Kate Grainger in Texas and with Anthony Williams, the mayor of Washington, D.C. They get it. But these confluences are far and few between. "

On why reliance on marketing departments and developer-schmoozing is the wrong way to go:

"My philosophy is that every day you have a thousand accidents. I deliberately don't have a marketing strategy. I live on opportunities, on human relations, so when I find somebody I'm interested in, I spend time with that person. It doesn't matter if they're rich or poor, a leader or not: spending time with those people enriches my life, and often it enriches my career. I make it a strong point of not being around people I don't like, even it's a developer --- and most of them I don't like, because we have nothing in common. It's not about money. It's about values. Everybody is subject to monetary pressure. It's just that at what point do you scream 'ouch'?"

On the role of the architect in city-building:

"Cities become what they are because of the people who are in the city and the values they have. If you are an architect and have a certain stature, you have a responsibility to be a kind of conscience of the city, to speak to the broader aspects. As an architect, you're conflicted between your public role and your need to not offend too many people, because you still need clients. So if you happen to be accepted as a global architect, then you can afford to take more chances in your own city. You have to find undiscovered gems, or take other people's throw-aways, and make them into something interesting. That's part of what creativity is about. The High Line [New York's linear park designed by Diller+ Scofidio, transformed by a decommissioned raised freight track] did that, and so it acted as a catalyst for urban regeneration. A good planning example is the Vancouver Public Library."

On how individual projects can contribute to city-building, even if they're aesthetically challenged:

"For the Vancouver Library, I was the chair of that project. When I said we should move it to this site, everybody thought I was nuts. They asked why we should move it to this godforsaken corner, and I said: because we have a responsibility to use this building to activate the area. He [architect Moshe Safdie] solved the great problem: there was a 12 or 18-foot difference in grade between Georgia Street and Robson Street. By allowing the ramp to connect the two grades when you walk through, you connect the upper level to the lower level. The front door is both on Georgia and on Robson. Now, I hated the look of the building that was presented to the competition jury, which I was on. The form [reminiscent of a Roman Colosseum] is god-awful -- really! But I supported it in the end because of the urban design: it integrated the retail into it and created an urban room -- a city room. On that level, it's a success. [Critics who hate it], they are only looking at the form; they're not looking at the urban design. The Library works well. People love it. There's no division between city and building; the city is in the building."

On the problem of developer-driven restrictions...:

"Take Roy Thomson Hall [designed under Arthur Erickson and built in Toronto the mid-1980s] Roy Thomson was a real-estate play by a developer who actually owned the two-and-a-half blocks around it. Because of Toronto's zoning restrictions, all the buildings were mapped to have Roy Thomson as a jewel in the middle of a neighbourhood. It was something that said: 'Look at me, look how how great I am.' But it had nothing to do with city-building. It had nothing to do with the edges [of the site, where good design can interact with and animate the adjacent places]. We couldn't even talk about the edges, because the particular planner that was acting on behalf of the city had already negotiated all the placements of the building, all the ins and outs, what can bump out, what can bump in. All I had ability to try to design a garden around it. That's not city building. It was basically Roy Thomson hall and this garden, and that's it."

...and the problem with planning-code restrictions:

"I think that when people have fear, they invent rules. So the more fearful they are, the more rules they get. Most cities are driven by fear, so they create all kinds of bureaucracy. Hong Kong and Washington, D.C. are terrible that way. In the past, Vancouver had been very good in having this discretionary zoning system that allowed creativity to come forward. What happened is that the Vancouver system fell asleep. It's over 30 years old now; it has to be totally rewritten and rethought."

How transforming and expanding on the same site can be the best solution for a major cultural institution, even if it seems impossible:

"Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., was the polar opposite of Roy Thomson Hall. It was a blank slate, where the owner said: 'Maybe we should move to a new site; maybe we should buy land -- we don't know what to do.' So I could suggest anything I wanted. We had two buildings by Harry Weiss, the Fichandler Theater and Kreeger Theater. The existing building exteriors were not that interesting; they were like bunkers. But the building interiors, the way they were formulated, had historic meaning. These were city-listed heritage buildings. So I said: you can't walk away from your past; who are you going to give it to? Nobody can tear it down. So let's see if we can make something of it. They replied that three or four architects had already tried, and nobody could make anything out of it. And I said: we still have to try. So I took put the administration underground, which most people don't think of, but I build a lot of buildings underground now. We moved the front door to the back end of the building [and created an entirely new complex enclosing the original historic buildings.] The neighbours loved it."

582px version of Surrey City Library
Bing Thom Architects' Surrey City Centre Library under construction. Photo: Nic Lehoux courtesy of Bing Thom Architects.

On how architectural education needs an overhaul:

"I'm a very strong proponent of a general arts education for architects, before they start their professional training. The technical requirements of being a good architect are so stringent that if you start your training too early, you'll actually stunt your growth. So you have to get that broad-based education first -- philosophy, history, whatever you want -- so that your fundamental values are set, so that you're not driven off-course by the pressures of society and peer groups and whatever. I go out of my way not to have too many architectural friends, because I find the conversation can get boring. I'm interested in other people who are not architects, because then I'm learning."

How being a centre-of-the-action media star is overrated:

"Why did I choose this little out-of-the-way office tucked under the base of a bridge [as the firm's headquarters]? I wanted to be near downtown, but I wanted to hide. I want to be in the centre of the storm, but I don't want to be in the storm. A lot of that philosophy has to do with how, at a very young age, I married my wonderful wife Bonnie. When I was 18 and courting her, she knew I wanted to be an architect, and she asked me this question: What's more important: fame or independence? I replied: independence. She said: that's good, because fame, somebody gives it to you, but independence is something you give yourself. All the people who gather around you are people who want to kiss your ass; those aren't the people who are going to be around when you're in trouble."

How having been born in Hong Kong and moving to Canada as a child has shaped his perspective and world view:

"Growing up, I was always an outsider, and I'm still an outsider. That's part of my psyche. I take the role of an outsider as an asset, when I go to Hong Kong or Toronto or when I come back to Vancouver -- I always talk as an outsider. It's the way I like to be. It keeps me fresh. There is a global trend of migration which is not going to stop -- it's going to accelerate, especially in Canada. It's something you'll have to get used to and figure out, because anybody who comes from someplace else with different habits is going to shake you up. And maybe being shaken up is a good thing."  [Tyee]

This article is part of a Tyee Presents initiative. Tyee Presents is the special section within The Tyee where we highlight contests, events and other initiatives that are either put on by The Tyee or by our select partners. We choose our partners carefully and consciously, to fit with The Tyee’s reputation as B.C.’s Home for News, Culture and Solutions. Learn more about Tyee Presents here.

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