Architect Bing Thom on recognizing the forces of nature and going with the flow.
Bing Thom is used to venturing into tricky waters – on and off land. Today we’re at Kitsilano Point picnicking on the Vancouver architect’s 35-foot yacht, where a torn sail is evidence of a failed attempt to smooth a crinkle at 22 knots.
“Just lazy,” he says with a sigh, explaining how he yanked a line without turning Sonja’s Spirit to reduce pressure on the sail. “The wind wanted it to go one way, and Bing the other, so the sail simply ripped. It’s a reminder that you can’t fight nature.”
On terra firma, the 70-year-old is equally cognizant of going with the flow, whether when voicing his myriad opinions, or when thinking about his mantra for sustainability (“natural material, natural ventilation and natural light”) in creating such buildings as UBC’s Chan Centre, the Arena Stage at the Mead Center in Washington, D.C., or Surrey Central Library.
“We rely on each other, so it’s really important for us all to engage in dialogue,” emphasizes Thom, who has practiced transcendental meditation twice daily since the ’60s. Which is why – even though friends warn him that he may be alienating himself from potential clients – he has rallied publicly against the now-defunct bid for a casino at B.C. Place and the “god-awful” Canada Pavilion built in the city during the Olympics.
“Actually, I’m a very optimistic person, so it’s not that I go out of my way to be controversial,” he says with a boyish laugh, throwing up his hands. “It’s just that we have to earn democracy every day, which means caring about your community. And if you care, it’s your duty to speak up.” (In fact, he implores more people in B.C. to do so: “Then I wouldn’t be so lonely,” he says, chuckling again.)
Currently irking him is the “issue” of Metro Vancouver: to his mind, Vancouver needs to accept that there are no more boundaries between it and the wider metropolitan area, and to be thinking and acting regionally – especially in terms of economic development – as well as globally. “This little paradise is only here because we simply exported all the dirty stuff to the developing world such as polluting heavy industries and unwanted toxic wastes,” says Thom.
The city needs a “strong vision,” he believes, to avoid becoming “a tourist resort and a place to park money.” For example, as an architect who builds “homes – not commodities to be traded or vertical gated communities,” he applauds social-housing policies that mix people of different incomes in the same building. “It’s a way of building a real community,” says Thom, who lives nearby in a condo – that he designed himself – with his wife Bonnie, whom he met at high school in Kerrisdale.
Thom immigrated to Vancouver from Hong Kong with his mother and two older brothers when he was nine. (Although born in Canada, his father chose to remain in Asia.) He studied at UBC and the University of California at Berkeley, and established his own practice in Vancouver in 1981. Thom explains that he commits to new proposals only if he can identify the “spark plug,” the person who will “fight for a building.” (He cites Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts as one example.)
“I also enjoy kinky people,” quips Thom. “Perhaps it’s part of my DNA because, as the only Chinese person at school, I was always a misfit.”
Long gone, in his opinion, are the days of the “starchitect” swinging in to save a city. “They no longer served the needs of society – they were too into themselves,” he opines, adding that his wife Bonnie – his “harshest critic” – always warned him that independence, which people give themselves, was better than fame, which others give. “I just wanted to do work that mattered,” he says simply.
Finishing a tuna sandwich from downtown’s Dirty Apron deli, Thom admits he usually “shuts down” invitations to business lunches: he needs time to decompress – either by swimming in the bay or heading to his boat. “It’s my little cocoon,” he says, “how I retreat from everything.”
Although, no doubt, preferably with a mended sail to take him even farther away.