Cultural Evolution

For the founder of the Noor Cultural Centre–the Islamic educational foundation that currently owns the award-winning 1963 Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre (JCCC), Raymond Moriyama’s first institutional project–making the unusual choice of retaining the original architect to restore his own building seems self-evident.

“Why wouldn’t I have hired Moriyama’s firm to renovate it?” Hassanali Lakhani asks rhetorically. “Certainly others would be cheaper, but this is a chance to have the artist repair his own work. It is like having the opportunity to commission Leonardo da Vinci to restore the Mona Lisa.”

Obvious though Lakhani’s sentiment seems, it is an enlightened rarity. Thanks to capricious shifts in taste and economic expediency, the bold Modern structures that typify the best of 1960s Canadian architecture have become vulnerable to desecration. The recent fate of key buildings too new to merit historic designation but no longer in fashion brings to mind Marcel Duchamp’s savagely cheeky Dada exhortation: “Use a Rembrandt for an ironing-board.”

Ironically, Lakhani’s comment recalls Douglas Cardinal’s lament that putting an addition on his 1968 St. Mary’s Church of the Immaculate Conception was like painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa. Strong parallels certainly exist between St. Mary’s–the early project in Red Deer, Alberta that established Cardinal’s signature curvilinear style–and the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre. Both are powerful and experimental site-sensitive structures that put their authors on the architectural map. When St. Mary’s announced plans to build a wing without consulting him, Cardinal applied for an interlocutory injunction based on architects’ moral right to protect the conceptual integrity of their work. When Cardinal’s application was dismissed in December 1995, the Archdiocese of Edmonton rushed to add the controversial parish hall and, in so doing, unquestionably compromised the purity of Cardinal’s church.

Although some of Canada’s most accomplished architects are worried that their projects are vulnerable to changing trends, there is encouraging evidence of late that the pendulum is swinging back.

Currently, Arthur Erickson is restoring one of his own early residential projects in Kelowna, British Columbia while an architect who recently purchased Erickson’s 1967 Catton House is undertaking a sensitive restoration of the West Vancouver residence. The real West Coast miracle, however, is the restoration of the Filberg House, a structure that Erickson designed in 1958 as a small-scale conference centre in Comox, British Columbia. The building never fulfilled its intended function and was altered beyond recognition by a subsequent owner who used it as a home.

“Unbeknownst to me,” says Erickson, “the next-door neighbour, who knew the building and its original owners well, bought the property when it came on the market and took it upon himself to restore it back to its original form–at his own cost.” That neighbour, Douglas Field, may have restored Filberg House as an act of love, but his work earned him an award from the Architectural Institute of British Columbia.

As recently as a year ago, future prospects for buildings by the generation of Canadian architects who came into prominence in the 1960s seemed dire. A visit to 123 Wynford Drive shortly after the JCCC had been vacated in May, 2001 would have pained any admirer of the building. The visible degree of decay made it obvious that maintenance had been put on hold when the owners decided to move. After two years on the market, with the only offers conditional on zoning amendments, the JCCC seemed destined to be knocked down.

The building is listed on the City of Toronto’s inventory of heritage properties. While this does not provide the protection of a by-law, it does allow municipal staff additional oversight in permit applications. This, coupled with the building’s portfolio of awards–when Moriyama & Teshima won their second Ontario Association of Architects Architectural Excellence 25-Year Award in 1995 it was for the JCCC (their first came in 1990 for the Edwards Garden Shelter of 1963)–may have made the site seem problematic to developers. It did, however, open the door for a group that values 123 Wynford precisely because of its symbolism, history and aesthetic qualities to purchase it.

Initially, when the JCCC board determined its membership had outgrown the original space, Moriyama & Teshima were hired to undertake an expansion. Ajon Moriyama, Raymond’s son and partner, produced a design that nearly doubled the structure’s original 18,000 square feet. However, JCCC president Marty Kobayashi says the $8.5 expansion budget seemed steep, so the board decided to see what alternative spaces were available.

The 114,000 square foot office/plant formerly occupied by legal and accounting publisher CCH Canadian at 6 Garamond Drive–a building literally within sight of 123 Wynford–offered irresistible value. “It was the mid-’90s,” says Kobayashi, “and you could get a lot of building for not a lot of money.”

Once the JCCC retained Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects to transform the plant through a series of inspired alterations, the move looked attractive. However, the decision to sell Moriyama’s award-winning structure–a building erected as a means of embracing the future by a group of people who had endured wartime incarceration in Canadian camps–caused considerable bitterness within the Japanese-Canadian community.

“There are moral issues,” Moriyama states grimly. “The Japanese-Canadian community literally mortgaged itself to build the centre.”

Bruce Kuwabara describes himself as torn. “I went to an annual general meeting where the move to 6 Garamond was discussed, and it was incredibly emotional,” he says. “A number of (second generation) Nisei stood up and said, ‘You don’t know what this building means to us.’,”

If the Noor Cultural Centre fulfills its vision, 123 Wynford will soon mean as much to Toronto’s Muslim community.

Lakhani spent five years searching the Greater Toronto Area for a suitable space to house a centre fostering education and understanding about Islam. “I had been to see 50 banal office spaces. A friend told me about this site which had been on the market for a very long time. He had been to a function there, and remembered it as an interesting building of about the right size and in an excellent location. My son Karim and I decided to drive by and have a look.”

The dynamic if derelict structure struck Lakhani as a particularly appropriate home for the Noor Cultural Centre, as Moriyama & Teshima have undertaken three major projects in Saudi Arabia since winning the international competition to design the Saudi Arabian National Museum in 1996–a structure that demonstrates a clear understanding of cultural issues informing Islamic architecture. Daniel Teramura, the partner in charge of the Noor Cultural Centre conversion, co-designed the Saudi museum with partners Ajon and Jason Moriyama.

The firm was also getting a lot of press around the October 2001 announcement of its appointment, with Griffiths Rankin Cook Architects of Ottawa, as architects for the high-profile Canadian War Museum. As Moriyama points out, there are strong parallels between the iconographic program of the JCCC and the War Museum in Ottawa: “The Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre is also about war.”

“One may expect an outcome of bitterness and disillusionment,” Moriyama wrote in his essay accompanying a 10-page spread on the just-completed JCCC published in the March 1964 edition of The Canadian Architect. “On the contrary, the end of internment and rigid control brought forth a new ideal: to become re-established in the mainstream of Canadian life, avoiding any cliquishness; to contribute positively to the cultural mosaic of Canada–a necessity to fulfil the responsibility of a regained freedom.”

In his Convocation Address delivered to the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada on receiving the RAIC Gold Medal in 1997, Moriyama drew a parallel between the now-famous treehouse he
built as a refuge at the internment camp where he spent his adolescence and the philosophical program informing the JCCC.

“The community was still shaky and insecure from its wartime experience; yet, with regained freedom, determined to make contributions to the Canadian cultural mosaic and mainstream society,” Moriyama recounted. “In the detailing and pattern of the glazing, especially viewed from the inside, I was quietly challenging the community: ‘Are we still prisoners, or do we see an opening to the future?’

“Architecturally we expressed pride in our ancestral and Canadian heritage with a sense of solidity and stability, creating a place comfortable for and open to all Canadians.”

It is precisely this symbolism and historical consciousness that appeals to the Noor Cultural Centre’s committee members. “Lack of knowledge causes problems when we live in a multicultural society,” observes Karim Lakhani.

“Here was a stunningly powerful building on a beautiful ravine lot, created with love and sacrifice by its original occupants for the purpose of laying the community’s roots in the country,” Hassanali Lakhani states. “The architecture embodies the fine hopes and aspirations of a people and tells a story of struggle culminating, by God’s will, in success. This building is instantly compelling. There is a spiritual quality. After 9/11 Muslims are in a very bad space in terms of public perception. The problems we are facing are political, as were those the Japanese Canadians were facing in World War II. This is the building that is going to show people what is true Islam.”

When it was built, the JCCC was intended to show the true stuff of the Japanese-Canadian people. Founding member Yuki Nakamura recalls participating in late-night discussions in the mid-’50s with a group of young Japanese-Canadian intellectuals–all of whom had been interred during WWII–that included her brother-in-law, Painters Eleven co-founder Kazuo Nakamura, as well as Raymond and Sachi Moriyama.

“The building was our dream,” she says bluntly. Nakamura served as the first president of the JCCC’s women’s auxiliary. Her husband and father-in-law were among the 75 original guarantors of the mortgage for the project’s construction. So was Raymond Moriyama.

“Most of us who moved to Ontario came because we were evacuated,” Nakamura explains of the project’s genesis. “We had lost our homes and all our sundry chattels under the Custodian of Enemy Alien Property Act. 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.”

Some subtle changes are being made to 123 Wynford in its conversion into the Noor Cultural Centre. It’s being brought up to current building codes, notably in terms of accessibility. The building’s security is also being upgraded, a necessary response to extensive vandalism that took place in the winter of 2001 following the World Trade Center attacks. A notice in the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre’s newsletter identified the building’s purchaser as an Islamic cultural group, and the current owners fear that the vandalism was motivated by racism.

Construction is set to start this fall. The renovation budget, $2.4 million, is considerably more than the $14 per square foot spent on its construction in 1963. The original JCCC project was so cash-strapped that many of the brilliant design elements–like the chains that carry water from the roof to the ground–were dictated by economic rather than aesthetic criteria.

The most significant changes are being made to the building’s lower level, where load-bearing walls are being replaced by structural columns and a custom movable glass partition allowing two rooms to be opened to one, as need dictates. The smaller, which faces east, is being designated as a Prayer Hall, while the adjacent space serves as a multi-purpose room. The original kitchen is being retained, while the former Judo Hall becomes a children’s room with connected change and nursing areas. Locker rooms abutting the washrooms are being dramatically refurbished for ritual ablutions. Additionally, a small apartment is being added, allowing staff to remain on site 24/7.

The full-length windows that line two walls of the main floor auditorium–all of which have been smashed by vandals–and all windows on the lower level will be protected by fixed wooden latticework screens, a device common in Islamic architecture.

One of the building’s most Japanese-looking features is a massive pair of lanterns flanking the barred window above the main entrance and rising above the roofline. Designed to greet visitors attending evening functions, and oriented with reference to the lunar path, metal inserts that shape the light they cast into Islamic forms transform them into appropriate signage for the Noor Cultural Centre.

“We would have left all the original walls intact, but Mr. Moriyama persuaded us that some minor structural alterations would make the space much more suitable for our needs,” notes Karim Lakhani. “We needed to make subtle changes to indicate the Islamic connection,” he sighs. “Anybody but Mr. Moriyama would have been tempted to throw on minarets or something. Obviously, he isn’t about to screw up his own building.”

Deirdre Hanna is a Toronto arts journalist.