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The house that Thom built

The Vancouver Courier
by Jennifer Van Evra

There is something mysterious in the trees by the side of the road overlooking Howe Sound and Marine Drive, at the entrance to UBC. Some say it looks like a nuclear reactor; others say it resembles a silo that houses secret military missiles. The less imaginative say it looks like an enormous can or a grain elevator. It’s made of 6,500 cubic metres of concrete, and houses 200 miles of cable and 100,000 feet of concrete. Although the university is not shifting into the realms of nuclear experimentation, amidst all of the whisperings and misgivings, it is ready to unveil the new Chan Centre for the Performing Arts, “affectionately known to some as “Chan-obyl.”

The centre is principally a teaching space for the School of Music and for the film and theatre departments, but it will also be available to community and visiting arts groups for rent or co-production.

For award-winning architect Bing Thom, the major obstacle was ensuring the Chan looked impressive but not flashy. “It had to be a dignified and appropriate space for ceremonial occasions, and yet it could never appear to be sumptuous or wasteful of money. Everything had to have a reason. So that forced me to work a lot harder.”



His team comprised 200 designers and 500 workers from the acoustic and communication design company Artec Consultants of New York, and the British performance space designers Theatre Projects Consultants. Plans of external, internal, and invisible spaces were bounced between the three of them, and each one based designs on the work of the other two.

“It was unlike other architectural commissions where the architects have a lot to say,” says Thom. He was thrilled to be asked to design the Chan, because, in addition to being an architect, he loves music and has played the clarinet for years. “In this case, it’s like playing jazz. There were two other musicians who were playing on their own, and then I had to kind of catch up after they started. Once I got going, they supported me. But at the beginning phases, I was supporting them. So it was a trio, really, and we were all improvising, and we were all interacting with each other. It was wonderfully creative.”

Many on campus, however, particularly those whose view of Howe Sound is obscured by the Chan, aren’t thrilled about the look of the new addition. Consequently, this $25 million performance centre has received as much attention for its controversial exterior as for the acoustic and visual wizardry inside.


THE CHAN CENTRE came about because of the philanthropic tradition of Chan Shun and his family, including his sons Tom and Caleb. As devout Seventh Day Adventists, they believe strongly in giving to their community. When the Chans moved here in the late ’80s, they fell in love with Canada. To show their appreciation, they decided to give Vancouver a much-needed performance venue. The Chan Centre for them is an ideal endeavour: it combines their support of education, the arts and their community.

The Chan family’s foundation, which earmarks money for educational and projects such as the new centre, donated a record-breaking $10 million toward the $25 million building. The government matched the donation, and BC Tel and the Royal Bank handed over the remaining $5 million, in exchange for a theatre and cinema bearing their names. Thus the Chan centre boasts three pans: the 200-seat BC Tel Theatre, 150-seat Royal Bank cinema and the 1,400-seat eponymous Chan Shun concert hall.

The elliptical hall is “ears down” the central attraction. Its interior is shaped like the inside of a cello, where the audience sits in what is essentially the reverberation chamber. Sound is scattered rather than focused at the centre, as it would be if you were sitting in say, a banjo.

The walls have been bush-hammered to create dents in the wall that scatter the sound back to the room in little pieces. Motorized velour banners drop from the ceiling to mask the walls, depending on the type of performance and the number of audience members soaking up the sound. A 50,000-pound acoustic canopy that looks like a spaceship ready to beam the musicians up hangs from the ceiling, and can be raised or lowered for fine tuning. (Music students who are a little nervous about performing under a 25-ton chandelier, can take heart knowing it is counterweighted by an equal amount of concrete.)

Thom says his experience with visual boredom during musical performances inspired him to make the gold and silver-leafed canopy, and the cables that suspend it, interesting to look at.

“I have always felt in these concert halls that there is nothing to look at except the ceiling. You are hearing the music, and watching the back of the conductor, so I have always wanted to have something up in the ceiling for people to look at. So the cables were inspired by the strings of a musical instrument, and we designed the canopy as a chandelier,” says Thom, explaining that the more than 400 light bulbs in the canopy are both decorative and functional. We designed it as a light fixture, and that hasn’t been done before.”

The drama theatre is equally revolutionary. It’s the second in North America in which all the seating rowers are movable, so they can be configured around a thrust stage, proscenium, or theatre-in-the-round. Even though each tower weighs 12,000 pounds, they can be reorganized with only a handful of people because of the air castor technology developed by a division of Boeing Aerospace. The devices force compressed air under the tower, and lift each one an inch off the floor. “I am sure the theatre department will invent new configurations that we haven’t even thought of,” says Thom. “It goes as far as the imagination will take it.”


WHEN THE UNIVERSITY told him they planned to build the Chan Centre at the main entrance to the university, Thom knew that it would loom large over the campus landscape. He tried to convince the university to move it closer to the music building and the students, but the campus planners’ minds were made up. Thom struggled to make the centre appear as small and unassuming as he could, even though the building’s designs were necessarily dictated from the inside out. “As an appropriate site for an important building like this, it’s probably correct, but this is a very lumpy and big complex. I don’t think anybody envisaged how big and lumpy it would be except the architect, but I knew from the beginning.”

Thom put all his architectural savvy to work to make the building look smaller – no easy task considering every dollar from the relatively low budget for the extremely high-tech hall went to functional rather than aesthetic ends. Initially, the university wanted to cut down century-old trees surrounding the building to open up the view of Howe Sound and showcase their newest pride and joy, but Thom convinced them not only to retain the existing trees but to plant more. (Not one tree was cut down to build the centre.)

“So many architects just concentrate on the buildings, but I concentrate on the landscape,” he says. “I think if you do well on the landscape, the buildings will take care of themselves.”

He says he wants audiences to feel that they’re part of the natural surroundings, even when inside. On the exterior, Thom opted for curved walls rather than a traditional box in order to throw off any sense of scale. The walls are coated with diamond-shaped zinc tiles to give the illusion of an inward curve to the cylindrical shape.

A professor in the Buchanan Building (the tower that overlooks the Chan), who refused to be named for fear of political reprisals, argues that although the interior of the facility is quite impressive, the exterior could use some work. “It looks like a silo or a rocket launching cylinder. Again, if you saw that structure on a gentle rise with sweeping grounds, it would really make a unique statement. Right away, you would think ‘I want to go into that building, that’s exciting.’ But where it is now, you think ‘sanitary facility.’ Does it have something to do with the steam plant?’ I just don’t think it works,” he says.

”UBC, like most universities in North America have basically organized their building layout by going out into the fields, driving a fork into the ground, and saying ‘this is where we’ll put it.’ It’s a little disappointing in this day and age. UBC is still following that basic procedure.”

The professor admits, though, that increasingly lush landscaping has improved the look of the building considerably.

Jesse Read, director of the School of Music, does not seem to share his colleague’s concern. He looks forward to bringing student productions to the Chan in the evenings and rehearsing during the days, and having the opportunity to expose the UBC symphony to the public in such an acoustically and visually rich space. “The idea that the university symphony orchestra can play here, do unusual repertoire sometimes, and play in such a beautiful space – that’s a big advantage. And we’ll be offering lots of free concerts. So even someone on a limited income can go to an evening concert for nothing, sit in this beautiful hall, listen to a good symphony orchestra play great music, look at these great smiling student faces and be really uplifted. I don’t think you can get that anywhere else.”

Read is afraid, however, that those benefits can also become problems. Because the Chan is intended to be home to students, but also a space for community groups to rent, as well as big-named musicians and speakers, he’s concerned the money-making potential of the commercial interests will outweigh students’ needs when booking decisions are made.

Already, one major factor has been overlooked: the music hall and theatre are unable to house full-sized opera, because neither room has an orchestra pit, even though opera is one of the School of Music’s largest programs. Although the old auditorium was inadequate in other ways, it was inexpensive to run, and the school had unlimited access to it. The auditorium was slated to be demolished the day the Chan opened, but now a movement to restore it has been launched to ensure a flexible space for academic interests.

“So all of this has kind of fallen domino-style away,” says Read, “and I believe that they have recognized that they can’t just tear the old auditorium down and leave us without space. With limited use of the Chan Centre, along with the outside demand there is going to be on it, we would be in very big trouble,” he says, adding that a balance of academic and community use is an excellent idea, as long as the dollar doesn’t tip the scales toward more reliable revenue-generating endeavours.


THE RESPONSIBILITY of maintaining this academic-community balance rests heavily on the shoulders of Michael Noon, director of the Chan and former director of the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts in Toronto. At first Noon was reluctant to make the cross-country move late in his career, bur he was intrigued by the new centre and by Vancouver after several preliminary visits. Since he arrived, he has been liaising with the film and theatre departments, the School of Music, community groups and campus planning, trying to meet everyone’s needs fairly. But that is nothing new, says Noon.

“Most universities in North America have a facility of this type, many even better equipped than this one, where it is used for the academic but it is also used as a revenue producer,” he says. “In fact, in smaller locations, the university theatre or concert hall is really the only game in town for the public to come to, so it’s not as if it’s an unusual thing to have happen.”

Noon is responsible for programming, and if the spring festival that runs from May 11 to 24 is any indicator, the venue will please many more than exclusively symphonic fans. Everything from classical guitarist Christopher Parkening to Spirit of the West, from the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra to a Timothy Findlay reading from Piano Man’s Daughter, are on the list for the first week alone. In scheduling the festival, Noon kept in mind that the audience would he a mix of students and civvies, and that Vancouver audiences tend to have a broad scope of musical tastes.

“It is very much designed as a hall for classical music, because there are choir stalls and so on, because the school of music is mostly classically oriented. But I don’t believe in focusing on one type of artistic endeavour, because people’s taste is changing constantly. The Cultch is a very good example, on a small scale. They go from Kokoro Dance to Vancouver new music to opera. That appeals to me, and as an audience member, too. It would be nice to know that what is on this week is something completely different to last week or the week before. That’s my current philosophy.”

So far, his philosophy seems to be working. Even before its official opening, several student and guest presentations (including a jazz performance by Clarke Terry, cancelled because he called in sick) have sold out. Once they got past the name-calling on the exterior, and got inside, people have been raving about the theatre’s interior, the acoustics, and even the hyper-industrial women’s washroom. Most importantly, it’s generating new interest in the campus and in artistic performance.

Writer/performer John MacLachlan Gray, whose stage version of the tree. the tower. the flood. (a musical originally aired on CBC), looks forward to working in the malleable BC Tel Theatre. “I am not blessed with a mind that works well with conventional staging,” says Gray. “I usually end up doing something that is unusual, and the theatre is built for that. It’s that interesting combination of mediaeval and contemporary that means that you can do interesting things.”

Gray hopes that the new centre will avoid internal wranglings that seem to be a part of university projects, and move on to become an exceptional local venue. “The question, too, is whether the university can overcome its internal politics to perform some external function. You know what they say about universities: the politics are furious because the stakes are so low,” he laughs, adding that he believes they are on the right track. “Every so often there are people who have an idea, and put their money to work in an interesting way as opposed to a stupid way. This seems to be what’s happening here. It’s going to be a good space to go to, and that’s rare.”

Sun Apr 13, 1997