I overlooked this building for a long time. It's easy to miss, tucked away in the lush environs of the University of BC campus. Having recently attended a few shows here reminded me what an exceptional building Bing Thom Architects created, and what a welcome addition it has been to both the campus and the city.
The most striking feature– aside from the main concert hall– is the glass wall that borders the main lobby. Approximately two storeys high, it faces a mature stand of cedars, firs and west coast shrubbery. This backdrop perfectly mirrors the large Gordon Smith canvas (with a curved frame to follow the arc of the wall) that greets attendees upon entering the building.
Remarkably, the location of the building on the site was determined by the existing stand of trees. The university had wanted to take advantage of the potential views that would open up by razing the forest, but Thom (advised by Cornelia Oberlander) was insistent that all trees should be retained. In Neill Archer Roan's Scale + Timbre: The Chan Centre For the Performing Arts, Thom says that "even if you take the trees down, the mountains are dark at night, when most people would experience the view. But if you light the trees, you will have a foreground that can become a stage set to the building".
He further notes that once "we finally agreed on the fate of the forest, we set about surveying every tree. In the end, we planted the building around each and every tree". Additionally, the 200 or so azaleas and rhododendrons were moved off site during construction and replanted afterwards.
You only have to experience the space once to see what a commendable decision this was. Thom preserved the forest and managed to situate what is a relatively tall building on the campus comfortably within the surrounding environs. It also sits at bottom of a slope, further reducing its vertical impact. Now a decade or so on, the Chan has settled into its site and Thom's desire that the forest relate directly to the building feels fully realized.
The greater mass of the Chan, determined largely by the cylinders of the entry and the central hall, further blends with the site through the use of materials like wood (interior), muted gray zinc panels (exterior) and concrete (both interior and exterior). The result is a building that exudes west coast character, the connection between landscape and building strengthening each in turn to create a cultural institution of the highest order.
And the sound and acoustics in the main hall? Much like the overall design of the Chan, it's sublime.