When Raymond Moriyama got the call from Ray Connell, Ontario’s minister of public works, in 1964, he initially assumed the province wanted him to build an outhouse. At the time, the Vancouver-born, Toronto-based architect was known for creating “comfort stations,” park facilities where people could freshen up.
But the directive he received during a meeting with then-premier John P. Robarts was of a very different nature: “Design an institution of international significance.”
A few hours later, he was in charge of building the Centennial Ontario Science and Technology Museum — a name he lobbied to have changed to the Ontario Science Centre.
His approach to exhibit design — which encouraged interaction between visitors and displays and was influenced by a Confucianist principle that holds that people learn better by doing than by watching — would revolutionize museum design but also draw the ire of more traditional curators around the world.
The co-founder of Moriyama & Teshima Architects, he went on to create such buildings as the Toronto Reference Library, Ottawa City Hall, and the Canadian embassy in Tokyo. As the Ontario Science Centre prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary, TVO.org speaks with Moriyama, 89, about why so much architecture is so bad — and how his design changed the way we interact with museums.
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In our pre-interview conversations, you said that what happened with you and the Ontario Science Centre could never happen again. What did you mean by that?
It’ll never happen, because we live in another age. We’re now conservative, and, on top of that, we’re extremely cynical. Everything has to be open and transparent while things are not transparent. They no longer do things the way it happened. It was unusual.
It was a period of enthusiasm with the Expo coming, and it was after the war. There was a sense that we have some possibility as a nation. There was a kind of almost innocent enthusiasm about the possibilities of Ontario. It was two years to the Expo opening, and when the decision was made [to build a science and technology museum], they had no vision.
At the time, I was so busy trying to do a job stripping paint off large construction equipment and at the same time not ruin rubber gaskets and plastics. That’s when the minister phoned. I remember it was a dark day. I told Sachi [Moriyama’s wife] that I shouldn’t even go to the office because it was going to rain like hell. It was a forecast of what was going to happen.
Did you take that as a sign?
I always take that kind of thing as a good measure of what’s going to happen, because I tend to side on the side of nature.
Your experience with the science centre started on a dark and cloudy day — was the project a dark and difficult experience for you?
It wasn’t easy, but I guess being young and almost ignorant really helped.
Oh, yeah. You don’t know that you’re ignorant. You do your very best. If you go into the archives and look at the drawings, there’s blood all over the place because I was starting to bleed from top to bottom.
You’ll see stains of blood on the drawings. It was stress. It wasn’t easy, but I took it as a challenge. I used to meet with Taizo [Miyake, a Japanese-American exhibit designer] all the time, and their gang would come over to the office. By this time, the office was growing, too. We’d have sessions — sometimes all night — on how we’d do this and what it meant to be hands-on.
How did the hands-on approach come about?
The interesting thing about that is that it came by two people. We spent so much time thinking about what the hell we could do with this place. The premier’s request from the architect was incredibly naive and simple. He said he wanted an international institution of significance. What does that mean, you know? The representatives from the premier’s office said, “Ray, it’s up to you and the board to decide on the requirement.” I said, “You’re not giving me washroom counts and coat-checking room and all that.” “No, it’s up to you,” they said. That’s the only reason I accepted the job.
Is that kind of freedom to create liberating or intimidating?
Well, see, the person who makes the program controls the whole creative aspect. Nowadays, the physical requirements are so tedious. On the war museum in Ottawa, they gave us requirements. Architects don’t create anything. That’s why so many architectures are so bad, and, if they’re good, they’re nice, pretty, beautiful but have no social or psychological meaning and don’t contribute to the overall benefit of the city.
You’ve mentioned that many people around you at the time questioned how you got the commission. Why do you think that was?
At the beginning, most of them were congratulatory. The negative ones were the engineers. They asked, “What did you pay?” I was telling them I really got the job. Of course, they don’t believe it. I kept a list of engineers who phoned to bribe me. They would said, “We’re willing to pay.” I kept that list and made sure they could never get a job from our firm. It just rubbed me the wrong way.
What do you think the future holds for the Ontario Science Centre?
I’m really not worried about the building, I’m more worried about what they might do to the natural surroundings. That’s why I asked, why is that bump of a hill that’s dry there on our site? The rest of that valley is a valley with wetland and so on. That bump will stay there as long as people don’t butcher it up.
The nature of a building is that it changes over time …
In the case of the Ontario Science Centre, while I was designing it, I told the administration that my idea is that the whole building, ideally, should change every eight years. Maybe you can’t do it, but you could work out a cycle. I believe in changing. If it didn’t change, it would die.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.