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An observer with a feel for the perversities of life could argue that war has been very good to Raymond Moriyama, the Toronto-based architect who, after Frank Gehry and Arthur Erickson, is perhaps this country's most famous practitioner of "the mother of all the arts."

It was, after all, while he was interned as a Japanese-Canadian "enemy alien" in British Columbia's Slocan Valley during the Second World War that a 13-year-old Moriyama undertook what he likes to call "my first architectural job." This was a combination tree house/bathhouse that he built in secret in the woods, using scrap lumber from the sawmill where he was working for seven cents an hour.

The young Moriyama, along with his mother and two sisters, had been separated in 1942 from his father, a hardware-store owner, after the elder Moriyama protested the reprehensible imposition of the War Measures Act -- which resulted in the forced diaspora of about 22,000 Japanese-Canadians, many into detention centres in the interior of British Columbia, and the expropriation of their property by the Canadian government. For his outspokenness, Moriyama's father was sent to a camp in Southwestern Ontario.

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Initially, Moriyama saw his tree hut less as a place to commune with nature away from the gaze of the RCMP than as a respite from the abuse he was suffering from his fellow Japanese-Canadians. Sometime between his fourth and fifth birthday, he'd suffered severe burns to his torso after accidentally knocking a pot of hot stew from the family stove. When he was moved to the Slocan Valley, where bathing occurred in his camp's public baths, the boy's scarred body was exposed for all to see, prompting taunts of "ugly" and "diseased" from unfeeling fellow internees. Later, he'd tell his mother, "My own community was a bigger enemy than my own country."

All this returned to "haunt" Moriyama about 60 years later when he decided his firm, Moriyama & Teshima Architects, would enter the fray with 19 other companies in the international design competition for the new $110-million Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

After establishing a shortlist of five, all Canadians, the museum's board told Moriyama in October, 2001, that he had the prestigious commission -- with the proviso that he would produce three separate designs from which the final one would be chosen following consultations with war veterans, politicians, bureaucrats and the public. Once this design was determined, by what was anticipated to be late spring, 2002, excavation and construction could start in November, with a completion date of spring, 2005, to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the Allies' defeat of Nazi Germany.

Relative to the war museum, the tree house of Moriyama's youth was a model of simplicity -- an inexpensive, uncomplicated refuge from a seemingly uncaring world, with just one client to please: himself. With the museum, Moriyama and his associates started with 65 possible ideas for the site, on Le Breton Flats alongside the Ottawa River, then whittled those down to 24, then 12, then three.

Throughout this process, according to Joe Geurts, director of the war museum, there always was the expectation that just one design of the final three "would be the star" and sweep the rest from the field. "But architecture is like eating and shopping: We all have opinions on it," he said. Indeed, an on-line survey of 1,200 Canadians, published in May, found that an equal number of respondents (31 per cent each) liked either one of two Moriyama designs. Twenty-one per cent liked the third; 8 per cent disliked all of them; another 8 per cent said they were supportive of a new war museum, but undecided as to which design was best.

This fragmentation was reflected, in turn, by the museum's own 11-member board of governors. On May 27, the day it was expected to finally name the winning design, the board said it couldn't endorse any of Moriyama's models. Instead, it told the man whom Canadian Architect magazine once named as the creator of two of the most important buildings in Canada in the 20th century (the Metro Toronto Reference Library, and the Scarborough Civic Centre, a few miles to the east) to go back to the drawing board. And could he please have it done before the end of the summer to ensure that the original construction schedule could be adhered to?

If all or any of this perturbed Moriyama, he wasn't showing it last week as he sat in the conference room of his downtown Toronto office. It's in a former service station, built in the 1920s, that Moriyama converted to his purposes in the mid-sixties. The former grease pit is now a fish pond stocked with fat koi, some of which continue to lazily swim their lives away 30 years after being plucked from Grenadier Pond in Toronto's High Park.

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The building starts out on a single level, but levels and corridors have been added on to the back, and there's a large skylight in the north section. Classical music plays quietly, but the sound you hear most on the first floor and its immediate environs is that of water trickling from a ceramic fish's mouth into the pond with the koi. There aren't any doors. In the conference room, the ceiling is low and bisected by wooden beams; on the east wall, there's a Japanese tapestry depicting the meandering of a river.

It's a building that's at once Japanese and Canadian, like Moriyama himself.

His full head of hair precisely groomed, a dark, cropped kimono-style kosode or haori jacket draped over a loose-fitting shirt and patterned tie, Moriyama said he, in fact, encouraged and welcomed all the discussion about his war museum designs that happened earlier this year. But almost from the get-go, he anticipated there would be a logjam of opinion that would eventually force his firm "to start again from scratch to create a kind of hybrid." Which indeed it did, unveiling a new and final design on Aug. 7, less than 10 weeks after the museum board nixed the three models.

Of course, creating a successful hybrid isn't just a matter of taking element A from option 1 and welding it to element D from option 3. "It doesn't work that simply. You have to go back to the basics to make it function as a whole," Moriyama observed. "Not surprisingly, our staff lost a whole summer on this, working seven days a week, late nights and early mornings."

The proof of these labours will be seen in the building that goes up on the banks of the Ottawa River just west of the Peace Tower. In the meantime, there are the drawings on paper, and three-dimensional models to mull over, and they show an acutely and astutely detailed project that is at once impressive and unheroic, sensitively balancing man-made forms with the natural.

Impressive because the museum will cover 45,000-plus square metres, with its halls and display spaces dispersed beneath a massive, grass-covered bunker that gently rises, west to east, toward Parliament Hill. Unheroic because it relies on a complex interweaving of horizontal planes, rather than obtrusive, sky-reaching vertical volumes.

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For Moriyama, "the soul and heart of the whole project is related to the word 'regeneration,' " with its connotations of disaster, survival, rebirth, hybridization, nature-as-salve. (Moriyama is fond of quoting Carl Sandburg's lines "I am the grass/I cover all/Let me work.") In fact, the architect plans to spell out the word -- it's the same in English and French -- in Morse code on the eastern end of the building, and calls one of its major spaces Regeneration Hall.

As a young boy, during the months he spent at home recovering from his burns, Moriyama found himself staring at a construction site across the street. As the carpenters and bricklayers went about their work, he wondered, "Who tells them what to do?" Every once in a while a guy smoking a pipe with a big roll of drawings under his arm would come to the site. The workers would gather around him and nod at the things he'd say. Moriyama decided he'd like to be that guy.

Now 72, Moriyama has done hundreds of projects all over the world, including zoos, gardens, stores, cottages and churches. Among the most famous are the National Museum of Saudi Arabia -- which he proudly states was brought in $4-million (U.S.) under budget in 1999; the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo; the Ontario Science Centre in the suburban Don Mills area of Toronto; the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto; and the Calgary Civic Centre. But he acknowledges winning the Canada War Museum commission is "really important" to him, for a whole lot of reasons.

Interestingly, in this era of the superstar architect, he doesn't feel compelled to have the new museum stand as some grandiose personal statement or late-period meisterwerk. A cunning self-effacement, coupled with versatility and adaptability, has been something of a Moriyama hallmark throughout his 40-plus-year career. Beyond a fondness for dramatic atria and concrete, it's hard to pinpoint a Moriyama signature analogous to Gehry's computer-generated warps and woofs, or Mies van der Rohe's glass curtain walls.

He says that his father, with whom the family was reunited in Hamilton before the end of the war, once told him that "the immaculate architect will take on the personality of the nation in which he is doing his work." And so it is with the Canadian War Museum.

"The interest for me here was beyond architecture. Architecture is just the means to get people to go there," he said. "It's not architectural gymnastics that's required. It's about telling a story about us as Canadians; it's about remembrance, preservation, education. I think virtually every Canadian is affected by war -- some relative or some close friend has experienced it -- and it should have more meaning in our culture."

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Canadians, he chuckled, like to "accuse Americans of not knowing much about foreign affairs. But Canadians are pretty ignorant about their own history. When I was speaking [at a press conference for the war museum]about the internment of Japanese-Canadians -- something that should never have happened -- some young reporters came up to me afterwards and asked, 'Is that true?'

"I found that incredible. I told them, 'I don't want to talk about it unless you do some research.' You can't move into the future frontwards, as it were, not knowing your past."

Moriyama thinks it's "both ironic and appropriate that the selection committee picked me to design this war museum. I don't know if they were conscious of what they were doing, hiring a Canadian who'd been unjustly interned as part of the country's war effort. I know I put it together."

If the building committee and the board of governors were conscious of any of the implications of giving Moriyama the nod, it may have been with respect to the response of some Second World War veterans. As Moriyama observes, "There are still some veterans who look at Japanese-Canadians as Japanese, as the enemy. But in doing so, they forget, for instance, that the fall of Hong Kong [on Dec. 25, 1941, which resulted in the death or imprisonment of hundreds of Canadian soldiers at the hands of the Japanese Imperial Army]made victims of both the people there and [Japanese-Canadians]here."

According to Geurts, the pseudo-issue of hiring Moriyama as a way to placate Canadian "war guilt" after the fact or, conversely, not hiring him because of an anticipated backlash from veterans didn't arise in the war museum's deliberations. "It was strictly on the basis of architect versus architect," he said. "That stuff never came up in any of the discussions I was party to, and I was party to all of them."

While Moriyama and his Ottawa partners, Griffiths Rankin Cook, have no direct say in the content and installation of the war museum -- this will largely be the function of Ottawa's Origin Studios and England's Haley Sharpe Associates -- Moriyama hopes it "won't be an artifact-driven institution," glorifying technology, weaponry and blood sacrifice. "I hope it will have a relationship to humanity."

He hopes, too, that it will pay some attention to the "lots of disasters that are part of our history." Like the Dieppe raid of 1942. The annihilation of the Newfoundland Regiment at Beaumont Hamel in 1916. The inadequacies of the Ross rifle during the First World War. The conscription plebiscite of 1942. And the internment of Japanese-Canadians.

"We're quite clear in our minds: All those stories have to be dealt with," Geurts says. "There may be people who expect" it to be overwhelmingly a celebration of heroism and tactical brilliance, "but it's not that kind of museum."

When a person is on the verge of turning 73 (which will happen to Moriyama in October), there's the assumption that he or she has retired from the occupational hurly-burly and is content to look back more at what life has brought, and less at what the remaining years might wreak. Not Moriyama. "Architecture in many ways is an old man's game," he said with a smile, citing Frank Lloyd Wright's 1936 design of Fallingwater, done when the architect was 69, and Gehry's Guggenheim Bilbao, which opened when its creator was 68.

For all of Moriyama's achievements, there is, except for a Japanese monograph published more than a decade ago, no comprehensive catalogue raisonné of his work. In part, this is intentional. "A lot of books on architecture or about architects are tedious, boring, egocentric, and I don't want to contribute another piece of garbage." Still, he's started to think about assembling one, primarily to sate the interest of some of his 10 grandchildren. "The oldest one, in particular, wants to know more. She wants me to write what she calls a 'scrappybook.' "

Given this modesty, it's perhaps not surprising that Moriyama uses the word "trivial" to describe all the current huffing and puffing about "starchitects" such as Rem Koolhaas, Daniel Libeskind, de Meuron & Herzog, John Pawson and, yes, Gehry (with whom one of Moriyama's sons, Jason, also an architect, apprenticed; another architect son, Ajon, apprenticed with Japanese superstar Arata Isozaki). "It's so passing. I guess I don't find that all that important. I guess it may be the kind of thing that insecure people need."

Certainly, Moriyama doesn't seem insecure. Serene, yes, persistent and tough, too, albeit in a diplomatic, discreet way. Much of this can be attributed, of course, to having a highly successful career, but perhaps an even greater part comes from the satisfactions of his home life. Earlier this year, he took Sachi, his wife of almost 49 years and the mother of their five children, out for "a quiet evening to celebrate 70 years of knowing each other." Amazingly, Moriyama had his first glimpse of his wife-to-be when she was three months old. "We lived on the same street in Vancouver."

Sixty years after he built his secret tree house deep in the forest of the Slocan River Valley, notions of "respite" and "refuge" continue to inform Moriyama's sensibility. He and Sachi have lived in the same house in Toronto's posh Rosedale district for 32 years, but only a handful of friends and business associates have crossed its threshold more than a couple of times.

"I'm really a slob, y'know," he chuckled. "When I go home, home is a sanctuary. Fame, what other people are doing -- I don't think about those things. I really don't."

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