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Before his death at age 93, a Japanese-Canadian architect gave us masterpieces like the Ontario Science Centre. Preserving them is the least we can do to thank him

When Raymond Moriyama was 12, he built a treehouse and found his calling. Scavenging lumber and picking up branches in the Slocan Valley, he constructed a private refuge that “became a place of revelation,” he wrote later, connecting him with the “immaculate balance” of nature.

But it was also a hideaway from security patrols in the camp where young Ray was interned. For years, the federal government confined Mr. Moriyama’s family along with 22,000 Japanese-Canadians, exiling them from their homes on the B.C. coast to old mining towns. This experience taught the future architect that buildings and places were inevitably political. “In my sanctuary,” he wrote later about the treehouse, “I developed a new understanding of myself, of nature, of Canada and the fragility of democracy.”

Mr. Moriyama would go on to a 50-year career in his chosen field; he was one of the leading figures in a generation of architects whose work reshaped Canada’s built landscape and especially its public buildings, aiming to construct a unified and inclusive society. Mr. Moriyama died Sept. 1 at the age of 93. While his place in history is secure, the larger project of a social-democratic, pluralistic architecture is in serious danger.

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Mr. Moriyama sits for a portrait at his architectural firm in 2010.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Raymond Moriyama was born in Vancouver on Oct. 11, 1929. As a young child he enjoyed riding the Interurban streetcar and watching the city go by, “a kingdom of patterns and surprises,” as he later wrote. After the trauma of internment, in which he, his mother and two sisters were separated from his father, the family left British Columbia and settled in Hamilton. Raymond went on to attend architecture school at the University of Toronto and McGill.

His family history, and the experience of internment, stayed with him. “You can’t understand Ray’s work without understanding his origin story,” says Bruce Kuwabara of KPMB Architects, a friend and one of Canada’s leading architects. “It stayed with him. He was trying to lift the consciousness of people about a broad set of issues, and architecture just happened to be his medium.”

Mr. Moriyama began his practice in 1958 with a set of ideals common among young architects: a commitment to public buildings and to exploring formal and technical innovation. His work was always shaped by specific narratives and concepts, elaborated with great care.

In 1961, Mr. Moriyama demonstrates his model for the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre at 123 Wynford Dr. in Don Mills. The JCCC sold the building in 2001. JCCC collection, Originate Developments

Within six years, his office had designed two buildings of national importance – both of which are, today, threatened. First, in 1963, came the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre in the Toronto suburb of Don Mills. Inspired by contemporary Japanese architects, it fused the concrete modernism of Le Corbusier with the delicate joinery of Shinto temples. This structure held great symbolic importance to a community that still felt besieged.

“The JCCC changed the whole conversation for people like me,” says Mr. Kuwabara, who grew up working-class in Hamilton. “It said that you could be Japanese-Canadian and be visible, and have a meaningful impact on society.”

Then in 1964 the young architect got a call from a senior Ontario civil servant. Would he like to discuss a new museum project? This was what became the Ontario Science Centre, a new model of hands-on exhibition spaces.

For this Mr. Moriyama designed an amazing sequence of spaces: an entry hall lined with concrete, marked by the grain of the wood that formed it; a bridge that led you out into the canopy of a Carolinian forest; and then a long descent down the slope of the Don Valley, sliding through grand display halls and into an exhibition building full of signs and wonders.

Mr. Moriyama’s design for the Ontario Science Centre had three interconnected structures sloping downward on the Don River Valley, with plenty of room inside for exhibits and events. The centre bills itself as one of the world's first interactive science museums. Courtesy of Moriyama Teshima Architects

Mr. Moriyama’s world and his practice expanded. He and his wife, Sachi (who survives him), had five children; two sons, Jason and Ajon, would follow their father into architecture.

Mr. Moriyama ran an office unusual for its diversity. In a profession rife with sexism and racism – Canadian architecture even now is overwhelmingly white and heavily male – this place was different. In 1970 the firm became Moriyama Teshima Architects when Ted Teshima, a fellow Japanese-Canadian who was Mr. Moriyama’s most trusted colleague, took on a new role as partner.

“There was the quiet assertiveness of making sure that he created an environment that was inclusive,” says Carol Phillips, a present-day partner at MTA. “The office in the 1960s, racially and in terms of the presence of women, would be a model for diversity and inclusion right now.”

And though there was rarely an explicit political agenda in the work, MTA remained focused on public buildings. It designed the Scarborough Civic Centre for that Toronto suburb in 1973, creating a grand atrium that welcomed the public with colourful public art and curves that evoked Finnish modernism. It also put councillors’ offices on the bottom floor. “The mayor’s window is low enough you can throw a brick right through it,” Mr. Moriyama said later, puckishly.

A few years later the firm completed the Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library (now Toronto Reference Library), another masterpiece of 1970s “Late Modernism.”

While home to more than a million volumes, it also makes room for another atrium – an agora for Toronto – that welcomes anyone to hang out and equally serves as a venue for formal talks and conversations. It was an early model of the public library as a welcoming and sociable place.

The Moriyama-designed Toronto Reference Library at Yonge and Bloor streets embodies the Late Modernist sensibilities of 1970s architecture. Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail
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Mr. Moriyama and son Ajon sit at the library in 2006, when the younger Moriyama led a renovation of the space.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Moriyama’s office branched out in disciplinary and geographic terms. In 1978 it completed a plan for the Meewasin River Valley which continues to shape Saskatoon’s relationship to the river. And the last two decades of Mr. Moriyama’s career included some excellent public buildings, including Science North (1984), Canada’s embassy in Tokyo (1991) and the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa (2005), a symbolically charged and spatially rich capstone to his career.

But these are outliers in a broader pattern: From the 1980s onward, architecture has been disrespected and public goods devalued.

Mr. Moriyama’s heyday in the 1960s and 1970s was a time of grand public projects and an era when architects were figures of respect and deference.

Public places mattered. When prime minister John Diefenbaker announced the Centennial Building program, he asked architects for “something to touch the hearts of Canadians.”

For the science museum, the architect was instructed to “design an institution of international significance,” and the budget made room for huge, poetically formed rooms lined with brass doors and hand-polished concrete.

What happened to that ambition and pride?

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European spa company Therme has proposed a revamp of the Ontario Place waterpark, and Premier Doug Ford wants it to be the new home of the Ontario Science Centre.Therme/The Canadian Press

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Visitors in 1977 try out the Japanese temple bell at Ontario Place, whose housing was designed by Mr. Moriyama.Tibor Kolley/The Globe and Mail

Not only do today’s governments refuse to create new masterpieces, but they threaten to destroy midcentury ones. As to the Ontario Science Centre: Premier Doug Ford has announced the province’s intention to abandon the building, and move the institution wholesale to the city’s waterfront park Ontario Place.

The latter – itself a magnificent work of architecture and landscape by Mr. Moriyama’s contemporaries, Eb Zeidler and Michael Hough – is being disfigured by a giant private waterpark. The Goh Ohn Bell, which commemorates the Japanese-Canadian community and is housed in a structure by Mr. Moriyama, will be displaced.

If the current plans proceed, the new Science Centre building will be an appendage to a massive underground parking garage. It will be designed no doubt by corporate architects willing to do whatever for a fee. There’s no shortage of such people today.

As for the JCCC building, it has been sold into private hands, and its developer owners want to reduce it to some fragments stuck to a new condo tower. While the city government is pushing back, its future remains unclear. Moriyama Teshima is working on the condo proposal, for reasons they declined to discuss. However, “the building really needs a public body to step forward and find a use for it,” Ms. Phillips said.

Saving both of those structures would be an apt memorial to Mr. Moriyama. The threat to them both represents “a brutal moment in a wonderful career,” as Mr. Kuwabara puts it. But to save both would require one provincial government and one city government to display a boldness of vision and a willingness to invest in our collective future.

Raymond Moriyama gave us that vision and that commitment; we have an obligation to pay it back.

Gallery: The places Raymond Moriyama built

  • The Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.Tom Arban/Moriyama Teshima Architects

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