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Remembering Bing Thom, a Humanist Architect

The architect’s sense of humanism invigorated his urban designs, from Vancouver to Hong Kong to Washington, D.C.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

Bing Thom, an architect who changed the fabric of Vancouver and whose sense of humanism invigorated the design profession, died on Tuesday at the age of 75. The Vancouver Sun reports that he suffered a sudden brain aneurysm.

His death came as a surprise to many. Thom was still at work, visiting Hong Kong to oversee ongoing projects there, when he passed. His vitality was evident in the way he made his work, even late in life. “Late in life” is not something that people would think to say about him.

Thom may be best known for his contributions to “Vancouverism,” an approach to urban planning embodied by the city. Central City in Surrey, a Vancouver suburb, is one of those achievements: a mixed-use anchor project by Bing Thom Architects marked by timber construction, so characteristic of British Columbia, plus a major civic plaza. Thom’s Surrey City Centre Library is another model accomplishment.

A protégé of Arthur Erickson who also worked with Fumihiko Maki, Thom engaged modernism with understated, elegant, and principled design work. Those influences were apparent in the sensitivity of his buildings to their environment and social context. Thom’s vision for cities, though, exceeded the scope of his design work.

When the architect designed a new home for Arena Stage, a theater in Washington, D.C.’s Southwest quadrant, he faced a number of sharp challenges. Faced with two pre-existing Brutal-ish theaters by Harry Weese, Thom embraced them, in a very literal sense—preserving both and enclosing them within a dramatic glass curtain wall under a sweeping roof.

Bing Thom’s Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

His attention to the neighborhood extended beyond Arena Stage, which opened in 2010. A couple of years later, Thom gave a public talk about Southwest D.C. at the Canadian Embassy (a structure designed by Erickson, his old tutor). Thom spoke about Southwest and its legacy of urban renewal, which is evident throughout the overlooked, underserved D.C. neighborhood. But he also spoke of its wealth, architecturally, and put out a convincing plan on how to restore it.

Thom met with me for a profile I wrote in 2012 for the Washington City Paper, and he walked me through some of the decisions, for better and for worse, that framed Southwest D.C.: super-block modernist residential buildings, enclosed courtyard parks, cul de sacs, an overall interrupted street grid. Thom, who at 71 suggested that we take bikeshare to tour the neighborhood (we did not), wanted to make the neighborhood’s grid more humane, starting with a new residential development and museum at the former Randall School building.

His ideas were revealing. On a simple map of the relatively small residential area in Southwest, he showed how stitching streets back together could make some of those super-blocks a little less forbidding. He highlighted long-forgotten landscape elements by Dan Kiley and Hideo Sazaki as features that could re-center neighborhoods around parks away from the ones hidden inside super-blocks. All of the pieces for restoring Southwest are already there. Short of burying I-395 (another of Thom’s proposals), they are all eminently doable.

None of this work was commissioned, as he explained to me at the time. “My client is more than the person who pays me,” Thom said. “My client is society and the public.”

While the Randall School development appears to be permanently stalled, Bing Thom Architects opened a new cultural project in Northeast D.C., the Woodridge Library. No one ever took Thom up on his plans to highlight landscape gardens by Kiley, pavilions by Weese and I.M. Pei, or a (provocative) proposal to finish Chloethiel Woodard Smith’s plans for a Ponte Vecchio–style Washington Channel Bridge.

Thom’s vision for Southwest D.C. is as much a part of his legacy as his multimillion-dollar projects in the heart of fast-growing Surrey in British Columbia. They are related, even. Southwest is a part of the District that is growing by leaps and bounds, much as Surrey was when Thom started working there. His humanist vision for the neighborhood could still be a guideline for restoring Southwest—without remaking it in his own image.

“I’m an edgy guy, in the sense that I don’t like to be in the middle of the action,” Thom told me in 2012. “I like to be on the edge and making my own conclusion.”

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps
    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab. More

    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab, where he writes about housing, art and design. Previously, he was a senior editor at Architect magazine.