A few steps east of Yonge Street, the Toronto Reference Library serves as the city’s public living room. Its red-carpeted lobby unfurls into a grand atrium, where students, parents and seniors of all backgrounds and ethnicities might mix with multimillionaires and the unhoused. Above, the tranquil upper floors look onto a cosmopolitan interior architecture inspired by the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and out to the verdant valley landscapes immortalized by the Group of Seven: This is downtown’s beating heart. More than any other, this space makes the vaunted mythology of our nation’s biggest metropolis — of tolerance and inclusion in the world’s most multicultural, diverse city — actually ring true. And more than any other Canadian architect, its designer brought that reality to life. Raymond Moriyama died on September 1 at the age of 93.
Born to a Japanese Canadian family in Vancouver in 1929, Moriyama lived through almost a century of Canadian history. At the age of four, a severe burn left him bedridden for eight months. During the long recovery, he observed the construction site across the street. “Once in a while, this good-looking young guy would come along with a blueprint under his arm and a pipe in his mouth,” Moriyama recounted in Maclean’s. It was his first brush with the architectural profession — and he was hooked.
Yet, the young Raymond Moriyama also lived through one of the country’s ugliest chapters. “We were immediately cast as enemy aliens,” he said, recalling the aftermath of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor during the Second World War. Moriyama’s father, an outspoken pacifist, was imprisoned, and the family spent much of the war at a series of Japanese internment camps, suffering virulent racism and inhumane living conditions. His mother experienced a miscarriage, and Moriyama grieved the loss of an unborn younger brother. As an adolescent, he was also teased for his burn scars; at a camp near the Slocane River, he devised a way to bathe in private, constructing a riverside treehouse from which he could keep watch over the surroundings and ensure he was alone before he leapt into the icy river. “That’s when I started to see how beautiful nature was,” he told Azure in 2013. “That fort became my university, my place of solace.”
The experience stayed with him. “While I was living in the internment camp, my thoughts were on fighting for equality, inclusion and democracy,” he said. “At university, I started thinking about how architecture can change the way people think and how they are educated.” After studying architecture at the University of Toronto and McGill, Moriyama began his career under the tutelage of noted Toronto modernist Eric Arthur. But when he decided to start his own practice a few years later in 1958, Arthur warned him that the deck was stacked. He was young, he had no money, the economy was bad, and he’d be seen as a “goddamn Jap.” Moriyama was undeterred. “I believe Canadians are better than what you say,” he responded.
As an emerging practitioner, Moriyama gradually became known for designing cottages and gatehouses, as well as bathrooms and outbuildings for parks and golf courses. In 1964, at the age of 33, he received a phone call from the Ontario Minister of Public Works, Ray Connell, and assumed he was being commissioned to design yet another outhouse. When he understood the scope of the project – the Centennial Ontario Science and Technology Museum – he surmised that Connell had confused his fledgling practice with the more established firm of Morani and Morris. He hung up. “I just went back to work, and 20 minutes later they called again,” he said. “My wife was always telling me I should have better manners on the phone, and so I agreed to meet them.” The commission would change his life.
The brief was astonishingly open and simple. “There were no requirements for the project,” Moriyama explained, “only that they needed ‘an institution of international significance and world-class.’” From architectural form — and the museum program itself — to the washroom counts and coat-check numbers, the shape of the institution was left to the designer. Even the name was open to interpretation, and Moriyama successfully lobbied to change the institution’s proposed name to what is now known as the Ontario Science Centre.
Seizing the opportunity, Moriyama devised a new, interactive institutional paradigm. In lieu of a static museum dominated by reading and passive observation, the Ontario Science Centre was conceived as an immersive tactile experience, inviting visitors to touch and feel the displays. “That was the beginning of thinking about the building as more than a place to keep artifacts,” said Moriyama. “I could see it would be a place where hands-on experience would be fundamental to how people learn.”
From live demonstrations of metalworking to a wildly popular tic-tac-toe game that demonstrated the potential of early computing technology, the Ontario Science Centre — which opened in 1969 — was instantly popular. By 1974, it was hosting a quarter million students on field trips every year. It also deftly recalibrated the power relations of the museum experience, shifting agency away from curators alone by inviting visitors to shape their own learning journey. “When you hear, you forget; when you see, you remember some; but when you touch and do, it becomes part of you,” said Moriyama, explaining that the participatory design concept drew on tenets of Confucian thought.
The complex transformed a fledgling Toronto architect into an international star. Moriyama’s Science Centre model proved hugely influential, and was adopted by well over 100 institutions around the world throughout the late 20th century. The museum’s inclusive, democratic spirit would also prove to be a defining element of Moriyama’s design philosophy. In 1970, he partnered with Ted Teshima to establish the firm of Moriyama Teshima Architects, which remains a leading presence in civic design. Over the next three decades, the practice took on a wealth of public commissions across Canada and around the world.
Its Scarborough Civic Centre would become another Toronto landmark. Opened in 1973, the facility served as the borough’s city hall. In trademark Moriyama fashion, the design elegantly subverts institutional norms. The circular layout places public space at the centre of the complex — a symbolic nod to the citizenry as the heart of democracy — while shifting offices to the building’s perimeter. Workspaces were also organized to give secretaries better views than their bosses had, slyly elevating clerical work over managerial authority. Crucially, the design also opened the door to protest and civil disobedience. As Moriyama put it, “the Mayor’s window is low enough you can throw a brick right through it.” (If only he’d designed Queen’s Park too).
The Toronto Reference Library opened four years later, in 1977. Nearly half a century on, it remains the city’s most inclusive and welcoming shared space, combining a space of quiet respite with a celebration of urban life. As Mayor Olivia Chow put it, “I spent countless hours at the reference library and always left with gratitude through the tranquility created by his design.” That same year, Moriyama unveiled the Goh Ohn Bell at Ontario Place, which celebrated a century of Japanese settlement in Canada. Seamlessly combining traditional Japanese joinery with contemporary materials, the design expresses Moriyama’s refined and contextually attuned aesthetic palette.
While Moriyama’s architecture had a particularly profound influence on the civic fabric of Toronto, his work helped shape cities across Canada — and the world. He designed Ottawa’s City Hall, transforming a vacant lot into an airy public forum that invites passersby to sit and linger — and participate in the political process. Retiring from daily practice in 2003, he completed the Canadian War Museum in the nation’s capital (as well as Toronto’s elegant and iconic Bata Shoe Museum) at the close of his career. Like the Ontario Science Centre decades before it, that project introduced a bold new paradigm that would influence cultural projects the world over. Inside, sloping floors and angular walls convey a feeling of confusion and instability, while leading visitors on an upwards journey towards reconciliation and regeneration. It is an unblinking testament to the horrors of war and a paean to the better angels of human nature.
In 1999, Moriyama unveiled the National Museum of Saudi Arabia in Riyadh — a landmark complex whose form takes poetic inspiration from the red dune landscape around it. His most remarkable international project, however, is the Embassy of Canada to Japan, which opened in 1991. In this Tokyo building, Moriyama built the second treehouse of his career: Its levels represent branches from a central trunk, evoking both the nostalgia — and maybe the pain — of a rustic Canadian childhood and the Japanese art of Ikebana flower arrangement.
Moriyama will be remembered as one of the defining architects in Canadian history. Coming of age in an era of greater public investment in design, Moriyama was a leading figure in a generation of architects that included luminaries such as Arthur Erickson, Ron Thom, Jack Diamond and Eberhard Zeidler, to name a few. To varying degrees, all benefited from Canada’s post-war cultural flourishing, epitomized by the Massey Commission, the Centennial Projects and the grandeur of Montreal’s Expo 67. In the 21st century, that era of civic ambition and architectural opportunity is farther and farther in the rearview mirror. If the story of a young, relatively unknown Moriyama receiving the commission to design the Ontario Science Centre was unlikely in 1963, it would be all but impossible in today’s risk-averse, cost-driven culture.
Moriyama’s life and work also stands apart from his contemporaries. While emerging from the same historical moment, he faced the added burden of racism and discrimination. In 2013, he recounted being perceived as “someone with a funny name and a funny colour,” even decades after suffering through internment.
As a practitioner, his built work is distinguished by its commitment to inclusion, democracy and social progress; it expresses Canada’s transformation from a white colonial nation into the multicultural and diverse country that we know now. Today, sites like the Ontario Science Centre and the Toronto Reference Library remain much-loved civic treasures. And in contrast to much of Canada’s post-war design, their appeal transcends architectural culture. Where seminal projects like Erickson’s Simon Fraser University and Thom’s Massey College are beloved by architects and design enthusiasts — sometimes to the confusion of the broader public — the beauty and power of Moriyama’s buildings is more legible and visceral. You don’t have to know anything about architecture to love the Reference Library or the Science Centre; you walk inside and feel it.
Yet, while the Reference Library is poised to remain a Toronto landmark for many decades to come, the same isn’t true for Moriyama’s other projects. In North York, Moriyama’s 1963 Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre faces a somewhat uneasy, yet still considerate, integration into a high-rise condominium complex. More disturbing, however, the Ontario Science Centre is subject to a thoughtless demolition by the provincial government, as part of an equally misguided plan to replace Zeidler’s Ontario Place with a private — though robustly publicly subsidized — waterpark. Already, the site is diminished by decades of public austerity and a severe lack of maintenance, with the Science Centre’s landmark pedestrian bridge closed last year.
Demolishing the Ontario Science Centre would constitute a tragic loss of our heritage. Although the complex is not centuries old, and its expressive brutalist design belongs to a school of architecture not yet widely embraced as historical by the public, its meaning resonates in a deeper place. The heritage value of Moriyama’s architecture isn’t the preservation of the past; it’s the invitation to imagine a better future. The power of the Ontario Science Centre is the agency it offers visitors to shape and re-shape the experience — and the culture — on their own terms. This is the kind of heritage that counts. Yet, it is a site and a message that risks being erased for cheap political gain. Raymond Moriyama, at least, believed that Canadians were better than that. There’s still time to prove him right.
The renowned Canadian practitioner passed away on September 1 at the age of 93.