Hong Kong in Vancouver – Part III: Bing Thom and James Cheng, City-Builders

Last year, an engineering marvel took place in Tsim Sha Tsui, but hardly anyone noticed. As traffic streamed past on Canton Road, the main theatre hall of the Xiqu Centre, Hong Kong’s new Chinese opera house, was hoisted three floors up – a giant steel-framed structure that slid up as effortlessly as a passenger lift.

The opera centre was a kind of homecoming for its designer, Bing Thom, who was born in Hong Kong and raised in Vancouver. Over a career that spanned several decades, Thom became one of Canada’s most acclaimed architects, revered for ethereal, civic-minded structures that played with form and light. He designed libraries and community centres, theatres and shopping malls, but it wasn’t until his firm won the competition to design the Xiqu Centre that he began to work in the city he had left when he was 10 years old.

And it was here that Thom unexpectedly died of a brain aneurysm last October. “We were shocked – he was at the height of his career,” says James Cheng, another renowned Vancouver architect originally from Hong Kong. Though Cheng and Thom were colleagues when they worked for Arthur Erickson, the paterfamilias of Vancouver architects, their careers took markedly different paths. Thom focused on civic projects, while Cheng worked closely with developers to shape the very fabric of Vancouver’s built environment. In both cases, these two Hongkongers left an indelible imprint on their adopted home.

Xiqu Centre, due to open in 2018. Courtesy Bing Thom Architects

Both architects found themselves in Vancouver almost by accident. Thom moved there with his family in 1950, and Cheng moved there in 1973, after studying in Seattle and working in San Francisco. “When I was growing up, Hong Kong was a fabulous place,” recalls Cheng. He lived in Happy Valley and was fascinated by the shantytowns that were spreading across the city’s hillsides. “We had one behind our building so we would go explore,” he says.

What strikes him most, when he thinks back to those days in the 1950s, was how much the streets functioned as a social space. It was paradise for a curious child: there were street performers with pet monkeys, and you could even rent comic books from streetside booths. “You would rent one and sit on little stools to read it,” says Cheng.

His first exposure to architecture came when a friend of his father’s designed a custom shelf for his family’s apartment. Cheng was captivated as the architect sat in their living room, drawing out a plan. He soon developed drawing skills of his own, keeping a visual journal in a sketchbook, and creating comic books with his friends. Eventually, Cheng decided that architecture would be a good outlet for his passion, so he attended the University of Washington’s architecture school in Seattle, where he won plaudits for an apartment complex he designed as an intern for a local architecture firm.

After university, Cheng moved to San Francisco, where he became involved in a campaign to demolish the waterfront Embarcadero Freeway. “San Francisco taught me to think in a civic way,” he says. “I learned what makes a good city.” The freeway was eventually destroyed by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, and its replacement, a tree-lined boulevard, has been credited with revitalising San Francisco’s waterfront.

Cheng left the United States when his postgraduate work visa was up; the Vietnam War was raging and he had no interest in becoming a US citizen. He spent the next three years working in Vancouver with Erickson, arguably Canada’s most famous architect at the time. Known for designs that infused béton brut with natural elements, Erickson shaped 1970s Vancouver with buildings such as Robson Square, a terraced civic complex covered in lush gardens. In 1976, Cheng moved to Boston to do a master’s degree in architecture at Harvard University, studying under luminaries such as Richard Meier, whose love for uncluttered surfaces and glass left a deep imprint on him. In 1977, Vancouver beckoned once again: Cheng won a competition to design the Vancouver Chinese Cultural Centre. He moved back to the city and started his own practice.

But this first project turned out to be an outlier. Cheng’s true mark was left in his collaboration with property developers, especially those from Hong Kong. In 1984, the Sino-British Joint Declaration announced Britain’s intention to return Hong Kong to China, which unsettled many of the people who had moved to Hong Kong specifically to get away from the mainland. At the same time, Vancouver was preparing to host Expo 1986, putting it on the world map, and Canada introduced new immigration policies that made it easier than ever for well-to-do people to move to the country. Tens of thousands of people migrated from Hong Kong to Vancouver every year, including many of the city’s tycoons – Li Ka-shing and his family among them.

Li’s son, Richard, hired Cheng to design the family’s first project in Canada: Cambridge Gardens, a pair of apartment towers across the street from Vancouver’s City Hall. Cheng remembered a maxim he had learned while working for Erickson: “Architecture is about more than just the building.” Cambridge Gardens was surrounded by historic single-family houses and low-rise apartment buildings, and Cheng worried that it would be out of scale with the neighbourhood. So he turned to two of his previous home cities for inspiration.

“The Back Bay area of Boston has these very elegant three-storey row houses that line the street and it makes a beautiful fabric,” he says. “And of course being from Hong Kong, I was very familiar with tall buildings.” Cheng’s design called for two slim towers surrounded by townhouses with lush gardens and doors that opened directly onto the street. The result turned out to be so popular, the podium-tower format was enshrined into Vancouver’s urban planning code and replicated throughout the city. Few architects can claim to have changed the face of a city, but Cheng is one of them.

Bing Thom & James Chen

A rendering for a new civic complex in Surrey, British Columbia. Courtesy Bing Thom Architects

Thom, meanwhile, was busy with his own work. In the early 1960s, he had studied architecture at the University of British Columbia, then at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1971, he spent a year working for renowned Modernist architect Fumihiko Maki in Tokyo. Thom returned to Vancouver and began doing administrative work for Erickson, which is where he crossed paths with Cheng. “At the time he was more of a manager,” recalls Cheng. But when Thom quit to start his own firm in 1981, “it was like he became a different person.”

Thom built his studio in an old wetsuit factory next to the Burrard Street Bridge. It’s still there, a serene complex hidden at the end of an asphalt lane, surrounded by high-rise apartment towers (some of them designed by Cheng). At first, Thom and his wife, Bonnie, lived in a trailer out front, and they took advantage of a city strike in 1982 to expand the space without permits. It was a sign of things to come: Thom had a knack for bending the rules and convincing the rule-makers to go along with it. “He questions how something should be, rather than just saying ‘Hire me to do your building,’” says Cheng. “He was very charismatic,” says Michael Heeney, who is one of Bing Thom Architects’ two principals, along with Venelin Kokalov. 

What motivated Thom was a desire to see each project as more than the sum of its parts. “We’re more city builders than architects,” says Heeney. Thom used the design for a new shopping mall in Richmond as an opportunity to create a pedestrian-friendly anchor for a bustling Chinese shopping district. In Surrey, a fast-growing suburb of Vancouver, Thom turned another mall into a civic square, with a new university campus, plaza and atrium. Nearby, he worked with a tight budget to create a new central library for Surrey, praised by critic Trevor Boddy for its “poetic and scientific sculpting of light.” Built for the 21st century, it is as much a gathering space as it is a repository of books.

Thom pulled a similar trick for the Xiqu Centre, beating out Sir Norman Foster, Moshe Safdie and other major international architects in the design competition. Whereas most of the entries put the main theatre on the ground floor, Thom’s firm raised it above ground, freeing up street-level space for public use. The building’s undulating façade is meant to evoke a theatre curtain parting to let passersby in.

When he visited Hong Kong in 2013, not long after winning the competition, Thom seemed excited about the possibilities of the design. “There is a tremendous amount of balkanisation in society,” he said. “The opportunity for accidental collisions of things is no longer allowed for. Architecture has a big role to play. These accidental meetings of sitting on a subway and talking to the person next to you unexpectedly and learning something, or coming to the Xiqu Centre which is a gateway to all of West Kowloon – by taking a shortcut through the building, you’ll find out there’s something going on upstairs, and since you’ve never been to Chinese opera you might go.”

Since winning the Xiqu Centre project, Thom’s firm has begun work on a new campus for the University of Chicago in Pok Fu Lam, located on an historic site that once housed the infamous White House, a political prison operated by the Royal Hong Kong Police’s Special Branch. Thom was also instrumental in paving the way for the conversion of Haw Par Mansion into a music academy. “He was so energetic about these projects – he loved it so much,” says Venelin Kokalov. “He felt at home in Hong Kong.”

Thom’s sudden death came at a time when his firm was busier than ever. In addition to the Hong Kong projects, the studio is now working on arts projects, theatres and a university in Canada, along with a luxury apartment tower in Vancouver for Westbank, a developer known for its adventurous taste in architecture. (It’s one of the few developer-led projects Thom’s firm has worked on.) Heeney says Thom’s legacy is in good hands. “We’ve all been together for a long time,” he says. “Architecture is not a one-man show,” adds Kokalov.

Cheng is busy too. The Vancouver skyline unfolds in front of his airy studio in Mount Pleasant, a glittering parade of glass towers backed by spectacular green mountains. “I think you can see most of our projects from here,” he says. He is also working on big projects, the latest of which is the master plan for 35-acre site around the Plaza of Nations, a former Expo pavilion that now serves as a casino, for the Li family’s Concord Pacific development company.

Redevelopment concept for the Plaza of Nations. Courtesy James Chen Architects

The most successful Hong Kong developers were those who invested their projects with a sense of civic mindedness, says Cheng. Others met with failure when they tried to impose a Hong Kong model of development on the city, like Lee Shau-kee’s International Village, a shopping mall topped with apartment towers that has struggled to attract tenants more than 20 years after its completion. “You can’t build an inward-looking mall in Vancouver and expect it to be successful,” says Cheng. “I met [Lee], he asked me what I think of his development, I said he shouldn’t build a mall, he should address the street, people don’t like to be inside – and his answer was, ‘Well, I have tons of shopping centres in Hong Kong and they’re all successful.’ But he doesn’t care. It’s peanuts to him.”

That kind of problem doesn’t happen as much anymore. Cheng says he is increasingly working with second-generation Hong Kong developers – kids who grew up in Vancouver, moved to Hong Kong to work on their family business, and have now returned to launch their own careers in a city they enjoy. “I find it really interesting – one city influences the other,” he says. “And it never ends. The fate of the two cities are intertwined.”

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