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Chan Centre: Illusion of Enchantment

Pacific Rim Magazine 
by Tia Abell

The Chan Centre for the Performing Arts fits snugly against the north-edge slope of the University of British Columbia, next to the rose gardens. Designed as a series of cylindrical shapes and curving in a sophisticated simplicity of detail, the Centre is sleek. Its soft grey tones are complemented by luminous panels of zinc attached diagonally across the outside curves of the concert hall.

Although it perches before the vast expanse of Howe Sound, framed by the rugged North Shore mountains, you can’t see the view for the trees. That is because the architect, Bing Thom, had it his way.


This architectural sensitivity to the site is an important part of Thom’s design philosophy.

“Some of the planners at the university said, ‘Well, the most important part of the site is the view. Chop down all of the trees,’” Thom recalled of the earliest stages of his work on the Centre. “I said, ‘No, no, no. The most important part of the site is the trees, because when you have a performance at night there are no views. Everything is dark, whereas if you light the forest, you will then appreciate the forest.’”

The trees won. From the Chan Centre’s two-storey glass lobby, the lighted woods give the illusion of enchantment. The glass has even been angled so the fairy-tale effect won’t be marred by in-house reflections. This architectural sensitivity to the site is an important part of Thom’s design philosophy, which he connects to his Chinese heritage. “I think most traditional architecture coming from Asia is much more site-oriented,” said Thom. “It’s probably the philosophy of the culture, where man is part of the environment rather than man trying to conquer the environment,” he added. “In the West Coast, with the spirit of pioneerism, you really had to conquer the land. But Asia did not have that kind of history, so the idea of blending with the land is much more important.”

This idea of blending with the land extends to being sensitive to the qualities of the light. And here on the “wet” coast, Thom designs his buildings with a subtle hand. “Here, everything is a little bit fuzzy, everything’s a little foggy, there’s always so much moisture in the air,” he said. “If you get it too complex, too detailed, then it just kind of falls away. You don’t see the building.”

Colour, too, is chosen with respect to light and landscape. “Here the colours are more subtle, because in the rain, when the surfaces are wet, the colours come through more,” Thom said. “We have a lot of natural greenery, so you always want to pick the colour of the building so the greenery reads with the building. So I always take stock of the vegetation first and then blend the building with the vegetation.”

Zinc Makes The Building Look Different

For the Chan Centre, Thom translated this design philosophy into the use of zinc, a material with a reflective, shimmering quality. The metal forms a patina that shifts with the light and evokes a sense of sea and sky, blending harmoniously with the surrounding trees. “If you go there on a sunny day, it’s different,” Thom pointed out. “On a rainy day it’s different. Very subtle, very soft.”

The use of zinc is a feature that is quickly becoming Thom’s signature. Its roots are at Expo ’92 in Seville. Because Canada is the world’s largest producer of the metal, Thom chose to wrap the ’92 Canada Pavilion in zinc. “So we invented a new material,” Thom said. “Zinc has been used as a roofing material, but it’s never been used as a wall material.”

The zinc connection with the Chan Centre is Gordon Price, project manager for the Canada Pavilion at Expo ’92. Thom’s zinc-covered building earned international admiration and initiated Price’s enthusiasm for the material. So later, when Price became president of Rheinzink Canada, Thom knew who to call. “When I did the Chan Centre,” Thom said, “I approached him and said, look, we’ve done it in Europe, let’s do one in Canada.” So Price donated all the zinc. Rheinzink Canada agreed to provide corporate sponsorship of more than $150,000.

The 24 tons of zinc that encircle the Chan Centre are environmentally friendly. “Zinc is probably the only metal that can be recycled nearly 100 per cent,” said Thom. “Eighty per cent of the world’s zinc is recycled. And zinc has no negative effect on the environment. Unlike copper, unlike lead or aluminum, there are no acid-rain run-off effects from zinc.”

The aesthetic qualities of the Chan Centre’s design embody another of Thom’s design philosophies-keeping it simple. “I always view that it’s important to keep things in a very pure way, not to get things too confusing,” said Thom. “So the beauty that comes through is very understated. I think life is complicated already without the architect making it more complicated.”

Wed Jan 1, 1997