• News
  • Concert Halls 1: Pacific Opus

Concert Halls 1: Pacific Opus

The Canadian Architect

by Bruce Haden

While under construction, the opaque concrete drum of Bing Thom Architects’ Chan Centre for the Performing Arts threatened a mute and overbearing presence on the north end of the UBC campus. In its completed form, however, like the nearby Museum of Anthropology by Arthur Erickson (Bing Thom’s mentor), the primary experience of the Chan Centre is a carefully crafted descent into a landscape that is simultaneously natural and manipulated. The sunken forecourt has the sense of a privileged territory, in part because the campus is invisible from this area. In addition, the scale of the building is mediated by the lower appendages of lobby and entry, creating an approximate balance between the mass of the building and the wooded area to the north. The architects have achieved a quality-shared by the best Vancouver buildings-of a precise architecture engaged with the landscape.

The exterior court is a prelude to the careful attention given to the essentials of concert-going, the entry and intermission ritual and the acoustic and architectural intimacy of the hall itself. The main door is the first of a hierarchy of perforations in the concrete volumes that join to form the complex. The curvilinear concrete shells dominate the spatial qualities of the major rooms, with special-purpose locations such as the box office and the bar nested into these larger forms. Moving beyond the entry foyer, the lobby opens up to the left. The material opposition of the cast-in-place concrete shell and the sloped glass wall provides material interest and tension to the curved space. The butt-jointed, mullionless glazing allows the room boundary to extend beyond the building skin and to be defined by the trees beyond. At night, the forest is illuminated, further enhancing the sense of unity between the cultural and natural landscape.

Acoustic considerations largely dictated the volume and shape of the hall itself. However, through subtle handling of form, a spare material palette of primarily concrete and maple, and careful attention to lighting, the architects have found a balance between the serene and the sensual.


A dominant feature is the array of concrete “sentinel” columns that support the balconies. These also act as restraints for tension cables that support the enclosed catwalk above, although the structural reading of this is difficult, in part because the cables at the stage end appear to support the suspended acoustic canopy. The latter can move up and down as needed to tune the hall for different performances. Its complex mix of frame, reflective plane and multiple lights contrasts the relative restraint of the rest of the hall.

The intimate scale and rich sound quality of the concert hall have elevated the Chan Centre to the forefront of North American concert venues less than a year after its opening. The building also incorporates a flexible studio theatre with a series of moveable three-level steel seating towers. This flexibility allows multiple staging configurations, from proscenium to theatre-in-the-round. The mute black walls and dark steel towers create a spatial ambiguity and mystery that stand in sharp contrast to the luminous volumetric clarity of the concert hall.

Finally, the Thom attention to detail and ritual includes the creation of what must be the best public washroom for women in the city. Architecturally trained artisans Boelling Smith collaborated in creating the focus of this round room, a spectacular circular glass and steel multiple basin unit. Apparently, female concertgoers are constantly sneaking their male partners in for a look, a covert ceremony to accompany the formally sanctioned ones of concert-going. Given the attention that the architects have paid to the experiential range of the performing arts audience, it is unsurprising that the Chan Centre has quickly become an essential part of the cultural landscape of the University and the city.

Sun Mar 1, 1998