Style & Design

Award-winning architect Raymond Moriyama draws on his Japan roots

by Takaki Tominaga

Kyodo

For Raymond Moriyama, an award-winning Canadian architect of Japanese descent, the lessons of culture and community he takes from his ancestry form the foundation of his aesthetics and architectural designs.

When he faces challenges with his projects in adulthood, he often seeks inspiration and solutions from childhood memories, including his days spent at an internment camp during World War II.

Moriyama, 90, is known for applying his humanistic vision to his numerous landmark projects, such as the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo, the Ontario Science Center, the Canadian War Museum and the National Museum of Saudi Arabia, to name a few.

He has received some of the highest professional honors in his field, such as the Confederation of Canada Medal, the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada’s Gold Medal, honorary degrees from Canadian universities and the Order of Canada, among other prizes.

“(My grandfather) taught me about aesthetics by using the moon. I think it was a wonderful thing about the moon and Japanese culture,” Moriyama said in a recent lecture at the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo, a building he designed three decades ago to represent the country’s vastness and diversity.

The extraordinary shape of the glassed-in roof of the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo was designed and constructed by Raymond Moriyama's team to meet sunshade regulations that mandate the building, among other requirements, does not cast a shadow on the Akasaka Imperial grounds across the street. | COURTESY OF THE CANADIAN EMBASSY / VIA KYODO
The extraordinary shape of the glassed-in roof of the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo was designed and constructed by Raymond Moriyama’s team to meet sunshade regulations that mandate the building, among other requirements, does not cast a shadow on the Akasaka Imperial grounds across the street. | COURTESY OF THE CANADIAN EMBASSY / VIA KYODO

Moriyama temporarily lived with his grandfather in Tokyo’s Yotsuya district to treat severe burns he suffered when he was 5 years old.

The experience had a significant impact on the future architect, as his grandfather, a mining executive who wrote haiku, attuned him to nature and the Japanese aesthetic of impermanence like the waxing and waning of the moon.

Born in Vancouver in 1929, Moriyama was interned with his mother and siblings in Slocan, British Columbia, after Canada declared war on Japan. His father was interned in Ontario.

About 22,000 people of Japanese descent were confined in Canadian internment camps during World War II.

An accident when Moriyama was a little boy left his back severely burned. The scars that remained affected him both physically and psychologically, as he was ridiculed by his peers in the internment camp.

He said he bathed in a river instead of the camp’s facilities to avoid his peers, and he built a treehouse where he could be alone and think. He called this his first architectural project.

Moriyama pursued his childhood dream and became an architect, establishing a firm in 1958. He was joined by Ted Teshima in 1970 and formed Moriyama & Teshima Architects, according to the firm.

Among his numerous projects, Moriyama recalls the Canadian Embassy redevelopment project as one of his “happiest and most challenging.”

He was appointed as the design architect for the project in which a single team provided design and construction services.

Moriyama highlighted some challenges with the project, such as the language barrier and different time zones, culture and climate, as well as earthquakes, but one of the most daunting tasks was making sure the surrounding environment would not be disturbed.

“We were told not to change the insect count in the park” next door to the embassy site, Moriyama said. “I assured the municipalities that … (I) don’t want the ecology in the park to change so that we don’t lose any birds and so on,” he said. “I built (a) box so it was understood that we had to build the embassy inside this box.”

His team came up with some 45 designs to work around the issues, but they realized they had to rethink the whole project because the design itself was not going to solve all their problems.

Moriyama drew on his memory of the treehouse he built when he was 13.

“That treehouse was a place of solitude, a place of thinking,” he said. “It was my university, and I thought maybe we could make that treehouse” again as the embassy.

All of the ideas he had learned from ikebana and other Japanese sensibilities involving people, heaven and Earth came to mind.

Moriyama’s concept of utilizing three main elements in the aesthetic of ikebana flower arrangement — ten (heaven), jin (people) and chi (earth) — would be represented in the building design. The chancery represents heaven, the fourth level, with meeting spaces, people, and the floors on the lower levels the Earth.

The eight-story building is horizontally split in half for symbolic and functional purposes, with a dual feature as a diplomatic mission and leasable office space in the lower levels.

The team also researched earthquakes and security, simulating the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and major earthquakes around the world, to make sure the design would be safe, Moriyama said.

The extraordinary shape of the roof was designed in response to Tokyo’s sunshade regulations that mandate the building avoid casting a shadow on the Imperial grounds across the street and Takahashi Memorial Park next door, beyond certain hour restrictions and only to a depth of several meters, according to the architectural firm’s website.

One of the signature traits of the project has been its use of the build-operate-transfer model, in which a company or consortium operates part of the building for a certain period to recoup investments, then transfers control to the Canadian government.

“The Canadians mandated in 1986 to create one of Canada’s best embassies at zero cost to Canadian taxpayers,” Moriyama said, adding that the method of recovering the building costs was a major concern.

Under the plan, Shimizu Corp. and now Mitsubishi UFJ Trust and Banking Corp. are subleasing part of the building, with the Canadian government planning to take possession of that portion in 2021.

The embassy building opened in 1991 and has received Shimizu Corp.’s presidential award, among other honors.

“The level of satisfaction by the clients, the social value of the building and its value as an architectural work drew high praise,” a Shimizu official said.

When Moriyama visited the embassy this fall to help commemorate the 90th anniversary of the opening of Canada-Japan relations, he said, “I hope it lasts forever,” adding that he is hopeful people in Japan will become more aware of the global situation, including what happened to Japanese Canadians during World War II.

“A country that really understands the world situation would understand all the disastrous sort of conditions the Japanese Canadians had,” Moriyama said, referring to their internment.

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