Architecture Canada in Metro Vancouver


Bing Thom presenting the design of the Arena Stage in Washington D.C. to attendees of the Second Annual Architecture Canada Awards dinner.

With the recent Second Annual Advocacy Awards of Excellence presented by the Metro Vancouver Chapter of the RAIC/Architecture Canada, keynote speaker Bing Thom presented his recently opened Arena Stage in Washington D.C.

Text and photograph by Sean Ruthen

There is a bit of a sea-change currently going on with the Royal Architecture Institute of Canada (RAIC), our nation’s venerable 103 year old voice for the profession. First off, there is the fact that it is currently rebranding itself as ‘Architecture Canada’, stating once and for all that as the architectural landscape, both professional and otherwise, has changed considerably since the RAIC’s founding in 1907, so must the RAIC itself, and what better place to begin than with its name. Secondly, and perhaps most significantly, is the fact that as it has continued to be the most important voice of architecture in our country for our country, there is currently the opportunity to speak up here in Metro Vancouver and to be a part of that national voice.

So it was with this in mind that the Metro Vancouver Chapter of RAIC/Architecture Canada hosted its second annual dinner on September 29th to present seven advocacy awards for outstanding promotion of architecture in our communities. Sponsored by Light Resource and held at the Italian Cultural Centre, those who attended were fortunate to be given a photo tour of the newly completed Arena Stage on the Potomac River in Washington D.C. by its architect – Bing Thom – and this year’s recipient of the 2010 RAIC/Architecture Canada Architectural Firm Award.

With a ‘plug’ by the evening’s sponsor Glenn Pace of Light Resource, the evening was introduced by host Wayne DeAngelis, the B.C. and Yukon representative to Architecture Canada. As he explained, the purpose of the evening was to recognize those individuals who have made significant contributions to the public awareness of architecture through their leadership and vision. This year’s award recipients were a mix of design professionals, curators, clients, and even a building, all sharing the common goal of advocating excellence in architecture. Trevor Boddy, curator of the ‘Vancouverism’ exhibition among other things, received the evening’s first award, as introduced by architects Veronica Gillies and Michael Heeney. Stephen Cox of Cause + Affect, host to Vancouver’s Pecha Kucha, won the award for ‘emerging practitioner’.

The next three awards were given to ‘community’ builders, and included the West Vancouver Museum, Gordon Price of the SFU City Program, and Michael Stevenson, former President of the Simon Fraser University. All were gracious in their recognition as advocates of excellence in architecture, as Mr. Stevenson called for the need of community builders to promote ‘great architecture through great architects’. Consequently, he was sitting with two of them at the night’s event – Bing Thom and Richard Henriquez, the architects of SFU Surrey and SFU Woodwards respectively. The final two awards were given to two Metro Vancouver volunteers of the Architecture Canada Chapter – Karen Smith and Karl Gustavson.

Following the awards and dinner, Mr. Thom was pleased to present his Arena Stage project which had recently opened in Washington D.C., a significant project in his office which had taken ten years to complete. Just to the south of the Mall on the Potomac River, this new three-theater complex is a formidable addition to the cultural buildings in the area, with the Smithsonian and Mall just a few blocks to the north. Like Douglas Cardinal with his Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian and the late Arthur Erickson’s Canadian Embassy, Mr. Thom is now an architectural ambassador in that nation’s capital, as his new theater complex will most certainly begin to turn heads there.

With two heritage theaters already on the site, his solution was to incorporate these two historic stages – one a stage-in-the-round – into his new design for the site, adding a third new stage in the process. Dubbed as three temples on a new Acropolis – or the ‘father’, ‘mother’, and ‘cradle’ – he chose to connect them all by covering them with a monumental wooden roof, pointing out that the building is now the largest wooden structure of its kind in Washington D.C. For the walls of the great gathering spaces – the lobbies – he used the same bowing glass curtain walls he employed at both the Chan Centre and Surrey Central City, but as he pointed out, at three times the scale.

As both of the existing theaters were bereft of a proscenium – all the sets would rise from the floor – Mr. Thom had to maintain this function as part of the heritage guidelines for the restoration of the new spaces. For the new theater, or the ‘cradle’, the architect found himself greatly influenced by the curious spaces created by spirals, its best iteration being Richard Serra’s current show at the Guggenheim gallery in Bilbao. Using wood panels instead of Corten steel, Mr. Thom replaces smooth panels in his spiral walls – three times the size (and effect) of Mr. Serra – with undulating ones in the theater’s interior, providing for the acoustics while creating a visual playfulness much like his short-lived wooden wall at Trafalgar Square from two years ago.

With this project spanning ten years, along with the fact that the clients would have visited his Chan Centre and Surrey Central City projects, there are many moments within the Arena Stage that are clearly dialogues between it and many of the ongoing projects that were realized here in the Lower Mainland during its design and construction, such as Aberdeen Centre, the Sunset Community Centre, as well as the aforementioned Surrey SFU campus. And while its program is similar to his Chan Centre, its size and program is of a much more grand and complex scale, more akin to a university campus or a shopping centre with a predominantly wood material palette.

It is a project that revels in its delight, with a long cantilevered roof overhang tapering to a point, itself an arrow pointing to the nearby Washington Monument. Along with the great expanses of glass, its wooden structure and visually provocative detailing animate the great lobby spaces – those inspired spaces of seeing and being seen – themselves great volumes beneath the curving roof. The latter is mirrored on the ground plane with a serpentine stream, curling around and poetically connecting all three theaters with water.

To finish his presentation, Mr. Thom spoke about the future of the profession, reflecting on what it means to be an architect right now, and emphasizing the need to cross-pollinate ideas in the profession, explore new mixed-uses for buildings both new and old, and most importantly, that the new emerging architects, as the real future of the profession, continue their ambitions to keep learning. Such vision will surely not go unnoticed by Architecture Canada, as evident by the seven visionaries recognized at the evening’s event.


By Sean Ruthen
Sean Ruthen is an architect working, living, and writing in Vancouver. He is currently editing ‘TownShift: Visions for Surrey’ to be released early next year.