If I was offered the chance to do one project, this would be it," architect and designer Bing Thom says of the project that has lured him back to the city of his birth.
His Vancouver-based Bing Thom Architects, in association with Hong Kong architects Ronald Lu & Partners, recently beat four other finalists in being chosen to design the HK$2.7 billion Xiqu Centre for opera, the first of 17 cultural venues to be built in the West Kowloon Cultural District. "It was a great moment and a true homecoming," he says.
"Chinese opera needs reinterpreting, needs to be elevated so it appeals to a new generation. To be part of this project, part of something rooted in Hong Kong tradition, is exciting … I feel very lucky."
The 72-year-old is softly spoken, but has plenty to say on a range of subjects, including corporate greed, the obstacles to sustainable development and his days as a touring musician.
In fact, Thom believes his background in music gave him a perspective that played a role in the winning design.
"Years ago I played the clarinet in a concert band touring Europe and America, and this stage experience has helped greatly when designing performing arts venues - it's something not many architects have. For an artist, the first five seconds on stage are vital - they are either inspired by the setting or they feel let down and so must work themselves back up, which can affect their performance. So, to have this perspective, a view from the stage, helped with the design process."
Having one foot in the East and the other in the West was another advantage. "I'm an outsider who understands the inside situation. I can argue, but I know not to insult. … If you look at Hong Kong's history over the past 200 years you see a city that has survived and prospered - but never compromised. We adapted. I can also adapt between the two cultures: am I Hong Kong Canadian or Chinese Canadian? Either way I must immerse myself in a place and carry that other attached identity so I can look at things in a fresh way."
The opera centre - a curvaceous, modern structure that will be a symbolic gateway for the district - presented many challenges for the architect. He had to balance tradition with technology while considering the historical, social and economic context. "These all help shape a building … we must let it grow from the inside out and from the outside in."
Making sense of a fading art with the aim of reviving it was also challenging. "We looked at the essence of Chinese opera: dance, singing, acting and acrobatics. We knew that some things would change but the question was what would not change? In traditional opera men enter stage right and women stage left, but in 50 or 100 years will this be the case? And there were the climatic considerations. Hong Kong can be humid but other times quite pleasant. There are times when the air conditioner is running like crazy and times when you heat a place like crazy - so could we design a building that could function in its natural state while we controlled the extreme states: the heat, the cold, a typhoon?"
Designing a building to reflect a city with a mixed identity was also difficult. "Hong Kong has a unique identity crisis. A former British colony now under China - it has a mother and father next door. But what is the cultural expression of this building? Chinese opera is authentically Hong Kong, but is considered a low form of art. How can we elevate it so it finds its place with other art forms?"
Thom's name may not ring bells with the average Hongkonger, but his portfolio speaks for itself. He doesn't, however, have a "favourite child". "The project I'm most proud is the one I'm working on at the time. It's like your children - you love them all equally but the next one is the best."
Some of his more inspired "offspring" include the Arena Stage Theatre expansion in Washington, with its sleek curves, the grandness of the Surrey City Centre Library in British Columbia, the acoustically perfect Chan Centre for Performing Arts in Vancouver and the zinc-clad Canada Pavilion at Expo 92 in Seville, Spain (of the 110 international pavilions erected, it was the only one kept as a legacy of the fair). And while each building is different, a common thread that runs through all is a commitment to using great architecture to improve the urban context and social condition, as well as an acute instinct to preserve.
Thom was born in Hong Kong in 1940 and moved to Canada with his family when he was nine. He studied architecture at the University of British Columbia and the University of California, Berkeley before moving to Tokyo in 1971 to work under Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki. A year later he returned to Canada to work for Arthur Erickson, the Vancouver-born modernist architect known for his innovative designs in concrete and glass that would influence Thom's work. In 1981, Thom set up his own firm.
Now he will return "home" every few weeks until his latest project is completed in 2016. "It's great to spend more time in Hong Kong - I have many fond memories of growing up here. Yesterday I went for a walk and spotted a temple grafted onto a huge rock in front of a tree," he says, hands tracing an arch above his head. "To me, that is Hong Kong. That is adaptability. That temple adapted."
But while waxing lyrical about the city's adaptability, he has a less palatable message for property developers and officials. "The city's had enough reclamation. You can have too much real estate. What's interesting is I've had my practice for 30 years employing on average 35 to 40 people. I have a condominium in Vancouver that I developed and this condo has made me more money than all my years of practice. One apartment? How can that be an honest day's work? Society must regenerate itself; it must not let real estate dominate because that's when you lose the incentive to work. And I see this happening now in China. I'm not against private ownership of property, but when it's taken to such an extent that it becomes carnivorous - when it eats up everything - that's when it's bad. That's why art is more important than ever. It is time for Hong Kong to reinvent itself."
Known as a fearless critic, even of his own industry, Thom has no time for young architects who preach the importance of sustainability but fail to embrace it in their daily lives. He also believes users of buildings need to be better educated about their role in sustaining them.
"The only energy crisis we have in this world is human. We're getting lazier and technology is feeding this. Unless people change their habits we will never solve the sustainability problem.
"I always consider three factors with my buildings: natural light, natural ventilation and natural materials. A building is just another layer of clothing - in hot weather it has to be able to adjust and the building must breathe, so there is a relationship and responsibility between people and the building."
Places & purpose: The work of Bing Thom
XIQU CENTRE, HONG KONG
In addition to 2,000 square metres of training and education facilities, there will be two auditoria of 1,100 and 400 seats (the latter to be developed in phase two) and a traditional tea house for performances with audiences of up to 280.
ABERDEEN CENTRE, CANADA
Located in Vancouver it features a luminous, colourful glass facade wrapped around a sinuous building that breaks all the conventions of shopping mall design. The building is owned by Hong Kong-born media entrepreneur Thomas Fung Wing-fat.
SHIJIAZHUANG GRAND THEATRE, CHINA
The 1,600-seat lyric theatre, 900-seat opera house and 500-seat concert hall are united by a shared grand central lobby. The venues form the "Three Mountains" that are embraced by sloping roof gardens and reflecting ponds.
CHAN CENTRE OF PERFORMING ARTS, CANADA
On the campus of the University of British Columbia, this state-of-the-art venue holds the 1,200-seat Chan Shun Concert Hall, the flexible-seating Telus Studio Theatre, the 160-seat Royal Bank Cinema, the Great Performers Lounge and a glass lobby.