Art Talk with Architect Bing Thom
Although he neither directs, paints, nor performs, Bing Thom has influenced more musical performances, theater productions, and visual arts exhibit than perhaps can be tallied. Since founding Bing Thom Architects in 1982, the Vancouver-based architect has designed a slew of cultural projects around the world, creating exquisite spaces to showcase the artwork within. In Washington, DC, he is best known for his dramatic redesign of Arena Stage, which gave new life to the city’s famously concrete-heavy Southwest quadrant. Among his other cultural projects include the Yuxi Opera House in Yuxi, China, the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, and the Surrey City Centre Library in Surrey, British Columbia. After speaking with Thom last summer about his views on suburbia, we touched base again to discuss his work in the cultural sphere. Our conversation is below.
NEA: What do you remember as your earliest experience with the arts?
BING THOM: When I was seven or eight years old, my uncle took me to his office. I looked at these blue sheets with white lines on them, which were blueprints, and I just said, “Wow, that's what I want to spend my life doing!” And he said, “Well, then you want to be an architect.” And that was it. That was my first real experience of looking at these drawings, which I've now spent all my life doing.
Then I guess when I was ten years old, my mother started me playing a clarinet. I spent a large part of my youth in this concert band, traveled all over—went to Europe a couple of times. It was this love of music and architecture that has driven me.
NEA: Does your love of music come into play in your architectural work?
THOM: Oh yes, very much. It's been often said that architecture is frozen music; the idea of crescendos and diminuendos, pulsation of space, the rhythm as you move through [a building]. I don't design from the sense of photography; I design from the sense of movement as you pass through the buildings. Very often I sense that my buildings don't photograph very well because they're spatial in their expression. My spaces are always pulling you through to the next space rather than having you stationary in any one point.
NEA: You've designed a number of museums, libraries, theaters, and performing arts centers. What’s the attraction for you of designing culture, so to speak?
THOM: It’s giving people pleasure in their lives. I live very close to the beach in Vancouver, and I go swimming in the morning. Just yesterday at 7:30, 8 in the morning, I'm walking down the street and this stranger comes up to me. [She said,] "I want you to know I'm from Washington, DC, and I think Arena Stage is just fabulous." I have no idea who she was, or how she knew who I was; I'm in Vancouver and she's in Washington. But that made my day. Those are the little moments that really make working in the arts so fulfilling, because you touch people. You've genuinely touched their heart, changed their life. That's all you can ask for. It's a great feeling to know you've made a difference in people's lives. That's what art is about.
NEA: How do you see the relationship between a beautiful piece of architecture and the work that is being performed or exhibited within it?
THOM: I don't think they're separable. In many ways, architecture is in service of the arts. So Arena, for example, is designed to allow [artistic director] Molly Smith to do her best work and inspire her. In the creation of the building, she inspired me, and now I'm inspiring her in her work—or any other director or producer coming into, let’s say, the Cradle [a performance space at Arena]. They look at the space and then their imagination runs. I remember when we finished Arena Stage, there was a group of theater people from the UK. They came in, they looked at the Cradle, and they said, “Wow, this has inspired us to write plays for this room!” That's a great feeling to have, to have somebody feel that you've inspired them to be more creative.
NEA: I read an article about Arena Stage where you were quoted as saying that one of the most important aspects of designing a theater wasn’t the way it looked, but the way it sounds. Can you elaborate on that, and perhaps on some of the other unique considerations that come into account when designing cultural spaces?
THOM: For example, the Fichandler Stage [at Arena] is in the round and the actors always have to be moving and turning and working with each other. There was a situation [prior to the renovation] when some people could not hear when the performer was turning in a certain direction, or facing certain directions. We had to design the acoustics so that they bounced the sound back so that people could hear.
But I think sound is not always just audio; it's also visual. We do concert halls sometimes, and when they say the sound is warm, it's not just the audio sound itself being warm and enveloping, but the room feels enveloping. There’s this concert hall we did in Vancouver, called the Chan Centre. Many people come out at intermission and say to me, “I feel like I'm inside the musical instrument.” And that's exactly what we were trying to do with the design, to inspire this feeling that you're inside the instrument. I think in a theatrical setting like Arena, you want the space to envelop them. You want the audience to envelop each other, together with the performer, and the performer to feel that they’re inside with the audience.
There’s this wonderful poem that [Arena Stage founder] Zelda Fichandler introduced me to that says eagles fly in the sky, hundreds of feet up in the air, and fish swim in the ocean, tens of fathoms under the surface. To reach an eagle, you use an arrow and to reach a fish you use a hook. The human heart is only 12 inches away, but it's the hardest to reach. But that's what art is about. Art instantaneously hits you in the stomach. You hear this piece of music or you hear this line of lyric, or with architecture, you walk in, and it just strikes you. You can't rationalize it. It's just got to grasp you instantaneously. You can't express that in words.
NEA: It sounds like you're a very big arts patron.
THOM: I think most architects are. Architecture cannot be separated from any of the other arts. Walking through a space, you're dealing with sound, you're dealing with texture, you're dealing with color, you're dealing with light. It's everything; architecture encompasses all the fields.
NEA: Many of the cultural projects you’ve worked on have been described as “community anchors.” What do you think it can do for a community to have a theater or museum at its heart?
THOM: I feel that architecture really has the potential to transform communities in the sense that it makes people realize that they're bigger than they are, that they're able to do more than they do. In that way, it's very inspirational. Like the poem says, it's touching their heart rather than their head. On the other hand, if it's done badly, it purely becomes monumental. I think sometimes monumental architecture is just coming down on their head like a hammer. [Good architecture] is more like a glove that shakes hands with people and lifts them up. It's empowering, not awe-inspiring, but empowering in a very gentle way.
NEA: Can you elaborate on that?
THOM: We finished a project outside of Vancouver in a very deprived community; low-income, high dropout rate, unemployment, high car theft. We put this university on top of a dying shopping center and it's totally reinvigorated this area. I was at a dinner in this project that we had just finished and the valedictorian was speaking. She said, “I understand Mr. Thom, the [university’s] architect is in the audience. I just wanted to say something very personal: I'm an immigrant to Canada. I was in Canada only nine months before I graduated from high school. I didn't know what to do with my life. I came into this building, took one look at it, and I said, ‘I want to go to university.’ So now I'm graduating, and I just want to say that he changed my life.”
NEA: You mentioned a couple of examples of how your buildings have inspired people. What buildings have inspired you in your own practice?
THOM: There are so many. I remember going to the Alhambra in Spain; the Moorish architects were so good at treatment of light. In Spain, you have very bright sky and the sun is very strong. So the light is brought in in very thin slivers or through tiny holes. So when the light comes in, it's actually painting the room. As the sun moves, this beam of sunlight goes around the room and paints the room as it goes around. It allows you to see things that you don't see normally when everything is so in your face.
And then of course this wonderful Swiss architect [Peter] Zumthor who built this thermal bath [Therme Vals] in Switzerland. It was finished 17 years ago with these huge blocks of stone. You walk in there and you say, “Wow, this building will be here a thousand years.” So in this age of throwaway architecture and consumerism, there is still room to have architecture that tells people that it's more than just today and yesterday and tomorrow. [Architecture] is really a testament of what you are in your society, and what your society can say to future generations. That's what architecture is about. It's an enduring art, much longer-term than other art forms. And it's very public; you can't get away from architecture. It's in your face, everywhere. So if you make a mistake, everybody sees it. You can't put it in a closet, you can't put it in a drawer and say I just wont play this music. It's played everywhere, all the time. So in that way, architects have much larger responsibility to society.
NEA: Can you elaborate on the architect's responsibility to society?
THOM: It's probably the most public of all the art forms because it reaches more people instantaneously and will be there much longer. You can't get away from your past mistakes in architecture; they live with you forever and live with other people forever. You can't make a joke out of it. It's a very serious endeavor. But then on the other hand, you can't take it too seriously because if you do, you won't be able to function. You won't be able to be relaxed. You have to have a relaxed mind to be able to do good architecture. If you're too tight and too tense, then it doesn't come. It has to come spontaneously from the heart. The creative move has to come from the heart.
NEA: Can you walk me through your creative process?
THOM: It's tortuous. My wife says that unless I'm really cranky, the creative moments aren't coming. If I'm happy everyday, then she says nothing's cooking. So when I complain and when I'm kind of grouchy, she says okay, something's coming. So you have to have a very tolerant partner. I think that's often misunderstood, how important the partner is in the creative process, your own personal partner. They nurture you in the time when you're really suffering.