Bing Thom: Social Architect

Bing Thom is the subject of a new full-color book by Princeton Architectural Press. Prominently featured in the collection is his new Arena Stage, which has helped catalyze redevelopment in southwest Washington, D.C. (see earlier post). The book, however, also goes way beyond his recent critically-acclaimed D.C. work and explores his earlier large-scale cultural projects in his native Vancouver along with his serene residential projects. For anyone inspired by nature, Thom’s biophilic, environmentally-sustainable, and socially-conscious built sculptures are worth delving into.

Thom sees architecture as playing a critical role in society. He tells students in his introduction: “Architecture is more than art. We have a social responsibility as architects; we affect people’s lives; and we can change the nature of society, but only after digging deep and asking tough questions. With the majority of the world’s planet now living in cities, the possibility – and urgent need – have never been greater for the planet.” Furthermore, he wants to engage young design professionals in a dialogue through the book, showing photos and then including behind-the-scenes details on the projects.

Thom has been deeply influenced by his local place: Vancouver, a city he says that is at the “edge.” For Thom, Vancouver is primarily at the edge of Asia. As a result, Asian concepts of space in architecture, “where the negative is as important as the positive,” also drive his designs. He believes Asian concepts influence the “way we design our buildings, the whole idea is open plan, open flow. We don’t think of walls and structures, we think of circulation and rhythms. There is no concept of outside and inside, no separation between man and nature.” Vancouver also regularly tops livability rankings so great skill is required to create projects that can further contribute to that city’s already rich cultural and social fabric, while being accessible in the unique climate and environment.

In one example, Surrey Central City (see image at top and below), Thom focused on how to build a new city center in the midst of suburban sprawl, at the “suburban edge.” Surrey is a “young sprawling city of highways, parking lots, and shopping malls that is frequently the butt of jokes. It struggles with lower education and income levels that elsewhere in the region.” In an attempt to limit the ever-expanding sprawl, metro Vancouver developed a “livable region plan.” A key part of this plan was a set of new town centers that would take pressure off Vancouver’s central downtown, creating a new set of constellation hubs for the many spokes leading out from the city. Unfortunately, none of this really worked, writes Thom. “There was no ‘downtown Surrey.’ It was Nowhere, North America.”

Thom thought a large mixed-use development could help. In the “bleakest part of the city,” Whalley, his complex project includes a new campus for Simon Fraser University, offices for a major insurance company, and new real estate. One key ingredient in the project was a shopping mall, financed by the insurance company. Thom decided to create lots of shared spaces between the university and shopping mall. “By combining the energy of the shopping center and the university, we also saved both capital and operation costs.” To organize the building, Thom created new atria made up of wood-space frames constructed from peeler-cores (a plywood waste).

There’s also a new civic plaza, the first “truly urban, civic, and open space in Surrey.” It has become the entrance to the mall and university and a zone for commuters heading into the city via Skytrain. Thom adds that overall the project has been enormously popular: “The new generation of students, many working part-time, like being integrated into the community; it’s more like real life.” A library and city hall are being planned for next door, helping expand an area that has truly become “Downtown Surrey.”

In the end though, Thom believes each project is judged long after it’s completed. “Does the building have depth? Poetry? Does it capture spiritual values and satisfy more utilitarian needs? Can the building withstand the test of time? Have we made a difference? Did the building deserve to be built?” These are questions every designer should ask themselves when evaluating their own projects.

Check out the book and see a slideshow of recent projects.

Image credits: Surrey Central City (1) Azlidesign, (2) Nic Lehoux via The Washington Post, (3) Bydefy. Tumblr

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