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The original Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre (1964) at 123 Wynford Dr. in Toronto, designed by Raymond Moriyama.Handout

In 1964, the young architect Raymond Moriyama completed Toronto’s Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre. It was a point of pride for a community who – less than 20 years before – had been rounded up, imprisoned and displaced. Mr. Moriyama would go on to be one of the country’s great architects.

And now the building could be largely torn down.

The site, located at 123 Wynford Dr. in the suburban Don Mills neighbourhood, is no longer a community building. It’s owned by developers who aim to build 1,128 condominium apartments. If their proposal goes ahead, Mr. Moriyama’s building would be mostly reduced to fragments.

This is an unacceptable outcome for an important work of architecture that holds great social significance. The proposal is an indictment of the city’s confused and confusing planning system. It must not be allowed to proceed.

The developers, Originate and Westdale, will present at a city consultation meeting Feb. 6.

The plan is for two towers of 48 and 54 storeys joined by an underground parking garage. The designers are Moriyama & Teshima Architects (MTA) – Mr. Moriyama’s old firm – Kirkor and ERA. One tower fills the site of the JCCC building; some concrete panels from its exterior would be kept in place, while others would be removed and reattached to the tower. The interior would be cut up into a parking garage, lobby, amenity space and bike parking.

The JCCC, which was listed on the city’s heritage registry in 2006, was Mr. Moriyama’s first major building. The commission for the seminal Ontario Science Centre, which is nearby, would come a year later. (The Science Centre itself faces an uncertain future.)

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Architect Raymond Moriyama points to the design model of the original Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre.Handout

Mr. Moriyama, born in B.C., suffered through the worst of the Japanese-Canadian experience. In 1942 the 12-year-old and his family, seen as enemy aliens, moved to an internment camp.

After the war, they moved to Ontario. Many others were effectively forced to leave B.C. In Toronto, 75 families mortgaged their houses to fund the JCCC’s construction. “The building was our dream,” Yuki Nakamura, a community leader, told journalist Deirdre Hanna in 2002. “We came east for education, because the future was so bleak, and we just wanted to get back to having a normal life. We wanted to have a place where we could invite people.”

That was a momentous task for Mr. Moriyama. He responded with a bold design that blends European modernism with Japanese traditional influences. On its front façade, textured concrete panels frame a central window, covered by a screen that evokes Japanese shoji. Two tall redwood boxes – interpretations of Japanese lanterns – send light into the night sky.

A walkway runs along three sides of the building, ferrying visitors under massive overhangs; four arms on each site reach out into the landscape, channeling rainwater onto chains and then to the ground.

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The northwest edge of the parking lot of the original JCCC, prior to the installation of the exterior sculpture.Handout

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An empty auditorium set up with chairs facing the grand piano on the stage.Handout

The JCCC moved to a different building nearby in the 1990s, where it is currently hosting a public exhibition, “A Place of Pride,” about the old site, which largely maintains Mr. Moriyama’s architecture. The Wynford building is “wonderful,” as the developer Mitchell Cohen of Westdale told me.

It is indeed. The original JCCC is one of the best buildings in Toronto, artful Modern architecture that captures the spirit of its time and its users.

So what happened to it? The building served the community as the JCCC until it was sold to the Lakhani family, Ismaili Canadian philanthropists who transformed it into Noor Cultural Centre. MTA designed that renovation.

Then COVID-19 struck, and the Noor Centre moved online. The Lakhanis sold the building in 2021 for $33-million. With the Eglinton Crosstown LRT coming nearby, local planning makes this area a likely zone for development.

Now, the developers say their architecture will respond to the original building. They cite the involvement of MTA. The landscape will be improved (by PLANT Architect) to reflect Mr. Moriyama’s designs.

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The JCCC, which was listed on the city’s heritage registry in 2006, was Mr. Moriyama’s first major building.Handout

The family’s feelings on this are unclear. This month, Mr. Moriyama did not respond to my emails. His son Jason has worked on the project at MTA but the firm said he is not available for comment. Jason’s brother, Ajon, declined comment.

In any case, the Moriyamas’ involvement may mean little. Architectural “value engineering” – cost-cutting – is a common step in the development process in Toronto. City planners will closely manage the design for the heritage components of the old JCCC. The remaining tower-and-three-quarters are a question mark. Today, the developers promise to use textured concrete and details that complement the 1960s building. But after they receive approval, they could change the plans in all manner of ways. For example, there’s nothing stopping them from changing the materials of the building or even firing the Moriyama firm.

Thus the heritage conservation strategy is all-important. And it is inadequate. It would keep the front facade partly intact, along with portions of two side facades. “Facade retention” is common in Toronto, but utterly inappropriate here. The JCCC is very much a four-sided object in the landscape. And inside, its central auditorium remains intact, capped by a cedar ceiling and surrounded by windows that link it with the ravine beyond. This space should be preserved, and it could easily be repurposed.

Will the city step in? It’s unclear. “Heritage Planning staff are not satisfied [with] the proposed development,” city spokesperson Mike Hajmasy said in an email. “The City’s Official Plan requires that the development retain the integrity of the heritage property.”

But who knows what they mean by that? In recent years, Toronto planners have added thousands of mostly mediocre buildings to the heritage register, provoking a backlash. They seem to believe that almost everything is heritage. But usually that just means you need to save the front of a building when you knock it down. This everything-and-nothing approach leaves everyone confused.

Indeed the Wynford developers told me that comments from the city have been unclear. “There’s no overall vision from the city,” Adam Sheffer of Originate said.

So here is a vision: Keep the old JCCC intact. Reduce the project from two towers to one. The city should approve that one quickly; it can be tall and bulky enough to generate decent returns for the developers. In turn, they should turn over Mr. Moriyama’s building to the city or a not-for-profit user. This fast-growing neighbourhood will appreciate a new community space.

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The grand rock sculpture called 'Tein-en' in front of the building.Handout

The developers told me, in some detail, that this is impossible. They cited problems with the arrangement of the underground parking garage. But they could simply build fewer units and a much smaller garage. And instead of spending millions on saving bits of the old building, leave it alone.

Speaking of money: Development land is priced in terms of how much you can build on it, and this came cheap. In Don Mills, a “buildable square foot” is now worth nearly $100. Based on their current plan, the developers paid $39 – a huge bargain. If they redesign the site with a single tower of 60 storeys and 500,000 square feet, the land cost works out to just $66. Westdale and Originate cannot credibly cry poor.

The bottom line is that they can do better. And they must. Toronto can’t afford to lose such a significant part of its history.

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