A Fine Balance: The Art and Science of Architecture

Features

The architect must be a jack of many trades — yet perhaps master of none. Knowledge of engineering, materials science, economics, history, philosophy, the environment and human behaviour are but a few of the skills required. Too much imagination and buildings are impractical, too little vision and they are static and dull. Meet a trio of internationally acclaimed practitioners of this demanding profession who are at ease with all its complex elements.

Raymond Moriyama

Born: Vancouver, 1929

Resides: Toronto

Awards include:
Honorary Fellow, American Institute of Architects (2000)
Maclean’s magazine Honour Roll for Achieving Excellence (1999)
Royal Architectural Institute of Canada Gold Medal (1997)
Ontario Association of Architects Award of Excellence (1995)
Japan Architects Top Honour Award (1992)
Governor General’s Award for Architecture (1991)
Order of Canada (1985)

Works include:
Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto
Saudi Arabian National Museum, Riyadh
Canadian Embassy, Tokyo
Ontario Science Centre, Toronto
Science North, Sudbury, Ont.
Toronto Reference Library

Raymond Moriyama, MArch’57, DSc’93, can be a difficult fellow to figure out.

 

Science North in Sudbury, Ont. (Photo: Science North)

 

Celebrated for his subtle and graceful designs, Moriyama himself is a big fan of Frank Gehry’s splashy, provocative approach to architecture, even planning vacations with his wife around visits to Gehry’s works. He admires Canadians’ levelheaded and open-minded attitude towards life, but is scornful of his countrymen’s lack of ambition. “Canadians are far too willing to accept mediocrity,” he once complained to the Toronto Star. Although he’s a fiercely proud Canadian, Moriyama has bitter memories of the way he and his family were treated by the government during World War II.

There is no ambiguity about Moriyama’s achievements, however. He is one of this country’s most accomplished architects, the winner of dozens of awards and the mastermind behind such renowned buildings as the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, Science North in Sudbury, the Saudi Arabian National Museum in Riyadh and the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo.

 

Bank of Montreal Learning Institute in Toronto Bank of Montreal.

The seeds for Moriyama’s architectural career were planted following a terrible accident he suffered as a four-year-old. One day he was playing with model airplanes inside his home. His balsa wood glider landed near the kitchen stove, and in reaching for it, Moriyama tipped over a pot of boiling hot stew. His back was badly burned and he was bedridden for several months. Moriyama’s father rigged his son’s bed on an incline, so that Raymond could watch life unfold outside their front window during his recovery.

The youngster became engrossed by a construction project across the street. “Once in a while, this dashing figure would visit the site, smoking a pipe and carrying a bundle of drawings under his arm,” Moriyama recalls. “Whenever he dropped by, there was excitement and everyone would stop to gather around and look at his drawings. I was quite impressed. I found out he was an architect. It seemed like a pretty good job.”

A few years later, another devastating episode in his life would further influence Moriyama’s architectural aspirations. Canada and Japan were at war and Moriyama’s family and friends were stunned to discover which side their country suspected they were on. “I knew young (Japanese Canadian) men who tried to join the army and were turned away, to their disbelief. We were called enemy aliens. We were told we could be shot if we were caught outside after dark.”

Moriyama’s father, a soft-spoken teacher, was vocal in his criticism of the way Japanese Canadians were being treated. Fearful that some might act as saboteurs, the federal government invoked the War Measures Act. “One day, they came for my father and carted him away,” Moriyama recalls. “There never was any sabotage,” he adds, the disdain clear in his tone.

His father was incarcerated in an Ontario POW camp, while Raymond’s pregnant mother and her three children were shipped to an internment camp in the B.C. interior. Once there, Moriyama discovered his own community could also be cruel. Whenever he used the public bath, he would be teased about his burn-scarred back. The 12-year-old decided he would bathe alone in a nearby river and built a lookout in a tall tree.

“If nobody was around, I would jump in the river for a quick wash,” remembers Moriyama. He spent much of his time playing in the wooded area next to the river, developing a sharp sense for nature’s rhythms that would serve him well in the years to come. Today, Moriyama is feted for his ability to seamlessly link his works to their natural environments.

 

Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto.

“He is a gracious and gentle man,” says architecture professor Derek Drummond, BArch’62, “which is rather unusual for an architect of his stature. With that kind of career, there tends to be a huge ego involved. His buildings reflect his personality,” adds Drummond. “They are at peace with their surroundings. They tend to be very carefully considered and beautifully detailed. They aren’t outlandish statements, by any means.”

Architecture professor Radoslav Zuk, BArch’56, admires Moriyama’s ability to make each of his projects distinctive. “Very often with prominent architects, you see the same sort of work, over and over again, no matter what country they’re building in, no matter what type of community they’re working in. For the library system in Toronto, Moriyama designed several outstanding buildings. Each has a distinct character. They are all very intimate, very attractive to look at. But they were all built to fit into their particular environments.” Moriyama did his undergraduate degree in architecture at the University of Toronto, earning a scholarship to pursue a master’s. He chose McGill. “McGill gave me the opportunity to develop my own thoughts about how I was going to approach architecture,” he says.

And while he was doing this thinking, Moriyama spent many hours attending classes that, at first glance, seemed to have little to do with his chosen profession. “Some of my most valuable time at McGill wasn’t spent in the School of Architecture at all. I used to take all sorts of non-prescribed courses — sociology, psychology, anthropology — and I learned a lot. In fact, the only exam I ever failed at McGill was in architecture!”

 

Saudi Arabian National Museum in Riyadh Moriyama & Teshima Architects.

Moriyama took the extra courses because he believed it essential that architects understand what makes people tick. After all, it would be people who would be living and working in the buildings he would one day create.

“Architecture in those days seemed quite divorced from the human experience,” explains Moriyama. “There are certainly technical skills that one must master — the building has to stand up once you’re done, after all. But that’s not the reason for the building’s existence. The building exists for people.”

After graduating, Moriyama decided to create his own business instead of joining an established firm. “I wanted to go and make my own mistakes. I didn’t want to perpetuate the mistakes of others. I was very pompous at the time,” he laughs.

He quickly made a name for himself, most notably for his work on Toronto’s Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre. His early successes led to an assignment from the Ontario government in 1964 that caught even the cocky young architect by surprise. Moriyama was asked to design the Ontario Science Centre and was handed the biggest commission ever given to an architect under the age of 40 in the province. Moriyama opted for an unconventional approach. Influenced by Confucian principles — that one learns better by doing than by simply watching — Moriyama and his collaborators developed a hands-on museum that would feature plenty of interactive elements.

The strategy was not universally hailed. In his acceptance speech for the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada’s Gold Medal in 1997, Moriyama recalled the reaction. “At every museum conference and seminar, we were attacked viciously by traditionalists, museologists and especially curators,” Moriyama said. “Now [our approach] is the norm.”

One of his latest projects drew its share of barbs as well. In a rather odd quirk of fate, perhaps, Moriyama was invited to prepare three separate plans for the Canadian War Museum. The building, to be located on a meadow between the Ottawa River and the western bluffs of Parliament Hill, is to be constructed by 2005. The project had been mired in controversy for two decades before Moriyama and his firm became involved, as various constituencies wrestled for control over the museum’s design.

That Moriyama was unable to satisfy everyone with his initial proposals was not a surprise. That his follow-up ideas won over the museum’s board of directors, the Royal Canadian Legion, the National Capital Commission and architecture buffs across the country was. Moriyama says he was guided by the notion of “regeneration” in his final designs for the museum. He was struck by images of scarred battlefields in Europe, slowly being healed by nature. The museum’s roof will feature a similar sort of bruised landscape — the structure will exist beneath a park.

“There is an ambiguity about where the building begins and where its surroundings end,” relates Moriyama. “The natural world has a wonderful ability to survive disaster. That is always a source of hope.”

While he is earning plaudits now, Moriyama’s first plans for the museum attracted very public fire from a number of critics. He says such reactions rarely disturb him. “People will have praise. People will have criticisms. If you’re afraid of what people are going to say about you in this business, you should stick to designing warehouses.”

Arthur Erickson

Born: Vancouver, 1924

Resides: Vancouver

Awards include:
British Columbia Lieutenant Governor’s Medal for Architecture (2001)
Gold Medal from the American Institute of Architects (1986)
Royal Architectural Institute of Canada Gold Medal (1984)
Grande Médaille d’Or from l’Académie d’Architecture de France (1984)
Order of Canada (1981)
The International Union of Architects’ Auguste Perret Prize (1975)

Works include:
Museum of Glass, Tacoma, Wash.
Robson Square, Vancouver
Canadian Chancery in Washington, D.C.
Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto
Museum of Anthropology, University of British Columbia, Vancouver
Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, B.C.

Thumbing through a magazine changed Arthur Erickson’s life.

 

Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington Anne Gingras.

He was already an accomplished painter — years earlier, he had become the youngest artist ever to win an honourable mention at a Vancouver Art Gallery exhibit and counted Group of Seven legend Lawren Harris among his admirers. Following a stint in the army during World War II, he returned home with thoughts of a career in diplomacy.

Then he saw the photos in Fortune magazine that would send him to McGill to study architecture. The photos were of Frank Lloyd Wright’s majestic desert home and workshop, Taliesin West. “If an architect could do that, I thought, then I’ll be an architect,” remembers Erickson, BArch’50, LLD’75.

At the time, he had only recently returned to Canada from a rather mysterious sojourn in India. At the start of the war, he had attracted the notice of British intelligence because of his familiarity with the Japanese language, which he studied as an undergraduate at the University of British Columbia. Erickson was seconded to the British Army and shipped off to Bombay where he and other Allied soldiers were sequestered with a group of Japanese men who were working with the British.

 

The Waterfall Building in Vancouver (Photo: Nick Milkovich Architects)“We lived in the same room, ate together, slept together. We were supposed to be picking up their language, only they were far more interested in learning English than we were in learning Japanese.” To this day, Erickson is uncertain about what their ultimate mission was supposed to be, though it did seem to entail going behind enemy lines. “We were under orders not to ask questions.” In any case, the order to infiltrate Japan never arrived. When time came for Erickson to return home, he missed his boat — he was too preoccupied studying an ancient temple.

He recalls his time at McGill fondly, and remembers the School of Architecture’s director John Bland “as a wonderful man, the picture of tolerance.” Though Erickson was a veteran and one of the school’s older students, he wasn’t above practical jokes. One target, a seemingly uptight British-born professor, confounded Erickson’s expectations when he chortled at finding his office buried under acres of toilet paper instead of screaming for the culprits’ heads.

Erickson went on to become a teacher himself at UBC after graduating from McGill, and it was there that he created his first major stir as an architect. A competition was held to design a new university — Simon Fraser — that would be situated on top of Burnaby Mountain. Together with architect Geoffrey Massey and supported by a team of his UBC students, Erickson entered the competition.

 

Napp Laboratories in Cambridge, England (Photo: Ricardo Castro)

“It might be the most challenging and taxing work I ever did,” Erickson says. “At one point, I gathered everyone together and said, ‘Do we want to win this or do we want to say what we really think about education?’ I felt very strongly that a university should be a meeting ground. Instead, universities in North America were always splitting the different disciplines into different buildings.”

Erickson’s vision for the new university rejected multi-storey buildings. Instead, he turned to the Acropolis in Athens and the hill towns of Italy for inspiration, structures that were very much in tune with their mountain habitats. And, not surprisingly, Erickson was careful to ensure that the university’s various departments would not be physically isolated from one another.

To control costs, Erickson made ample use of concrete. In the years to come, it would become his signature material and Erickson’s skilful manipulation of concrete to create textured and powerful forms would do much to give the underappreciated substance new appeal.

He won the commission and Simon Fraser became a smash hit. Said Simon Fraser’s first chancellor, Gordon Shrum, “If we had chosen anyone else’s design, people would never have come from all over the world to see the university.”

 

The University of Lethbridge in Alberta (Photo: University of Lethbridge)

Architecture professor Ricardo Castro is part of a team of scholars assembled by the Canadian Centre for Architecture to prepare a book about Erickson’s major works in concrete. Castro says there are few architects who rival Erickson when it comes to his mastery of architecture’s various elements. “He creates urban spaces that are wonderful meeting places.” He likens Erickson to a master cinematographer and says it’s no surprise that the architect’s works are frequently used for films.

“With the Canadian Chancery in Washington, for instance, it’s remarkable in how it relates to the other buildings in the capital. You get the most incredible glimpses of the city that surrounds it.”

Some question Erickson’s fondness for water in his designs. “There are all these basins and fountains and waterfalls in his work,” says Castro. “Why on earth would you do that in a city like Vancouver where it’s always drizzling? It’s because the lighting conditions in the city aren’t great that he uses water so often. One way to create more light is by using reflective surfaces. Water acts as a mirror.”

In a speech to McGill architecture students three years ago, Erickson painted a grim picture of the direction his profession seemed to be taking. “Design is seen as entertainment and entertainment is becoming the goal of too much of our design, our museums and shopping centres,” he declared. “The problem is that the delusion of entertainment lacks a purpose other than to enchant and is devoid of meaning. It may amuse us for a bit, but after the initial hit we are left with the dark feeling of desolation.”

Erickson stands by his words. “Architecture is too often viewed as packaging. Most of our cultural buildings today are built to be little more than wrapping paper. It’s a crass way to sell a product.”

 

Simon Fraser University in British Columbia (Photo: Simon Fraser University)

In Erickson’s view, it isn’t enough for a building to simply be pretty. It ought to challenge you in some way, make you see your surroundings in a new light. It ought to enhance the very act of living.

“Good architecture can help define a very distinct culture,” Erickson once told Report on Business magazine. “Just look at San Francisco or Rome — everybody that lives in those cities loves them — or look at Naples, where people sing on their balconies in the morning doing their laundry.”

Erickson’s ability to foster powerful connections between his works and their locations is legendary. It’s difficult to imagine Simon Fraser existing anywhere else but atop Burnaby Mountain, for instance. “Nobody does that with more acuity,” says Irena Murray, MArch’91, chief curator of McGill’s Canadian Architecture Collection.

Erickson’s most recent triumph is the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington, a building that Vancouver Sun architectural critic Trevor Boddy says “would be a career-capping achievement for any other architect.” A large tilting cone, dramatically rendered in glass, replicates the look of the huge sawdust burners that were once familiar sights in the American northwest. The museum offers a variety of gorgeous views of the nearby waterfront. A transparent workshop amphitheatre affords visitors an opportunity to watch artisans in action, creating new works amid the roar and heat of the furnaces.

When asked what advice he would give to budding architects, Erickson’s reply is startling. “Go into another profession. Architecture is full of heartbreak. Buildings don’t usually last all that long. Most of them come down. Houses are sold and changed by their new owners. When you really put your heart into something, it can be devastating when it all comes apart.”

He has taken very public exception to the addition of new housing units close to Simon Fraser and to renovations done to Roy Thomson Hall — changes that he believes compromise what he accomplished. Erickson is often regarded as a curmudgeon by city planners, real estate developers and competing architects, many of whom have felt the sting of his public putdowns. He describes most modern hospitals, for instance, as “ugly and damaging to the soul, designed like a garage for spare parts.”

His reputation as a troublemaker doesn’t alarm Erickson in the slightest. As he once told the Vancouver Sun, “There is a kind of power that comes with not needing to be liked.”

Moshe Safdie

Born: Haifa, Israel,1938

Resides: Boston

Awards include:
Jewish Cultural Achievement Award in the Visual Arts from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture (1997)
Fellow, American Institute of Architects (1996)
Royal Architectural Institute of Canada Gold Medal (1995)
Governor General’s Award for Architecture (1992)
Prix d’Excellence en Architecture from l’Ordre des Architectes du Québec (1988)
Order of Canada (1986)

Works include:
Salt Lake City Public Library
Skirball Cultural Center, Los Angeles
Musée de la Civilisation, Quebec City
Jean-Noël Desmarais Pavilion, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
Habitat’67, Montreal

Tremendous acclaim, if attained too early, can be a curse, as Moshe Safdie is well aware. Safdie, BArch’61, LLD’82, was only a few years removed from his undergraduate studies at McGill when he became an international celebrity. At the Montreal World’s Fair in 1967, he unveiled a stunning new apartment complex constructed from concrete modules — Habitat — that took the world of architecture by storm.

 

The Salt Lake Cit Public Library in Utah

“It was definitely a mixed blessing to have such enormous success with what was, really, my very first building,” says Safdie. “There was a fair amount of resentment that I had to cope with inside the profession. Architects spend decades trying to do something with that kind of impact and here I was, some young guy just out of school. It also creates such great expectations that anything you do after that will seem like a terrific disappointment to some people. It destroys you if it goes to your head,” says Safdie. “Thank God there was something about my upbringing that kept me sane.”

Habitat actually stemmed from a thesis design project Safdie completed at McGill as a student in 1961. His decision to study architecture hadn’t sparked much enthusiasm from his parents, who were hoping Safdie would go into the family’s textile business. But he persevered and was accepted at McGill.

“The School of Architecture was such an intimate place,” he remembers. “I think there were 16 students in my graduating class. That itself was an extraordinary quality. You learned as much from your classmates as you did from the faculty. And there were some wonderful teachers — Stewart Wilson, Peter Collins, Gordon Webber and, of course, John Bland, who set the tone for the whole place.”

Safdie says Habitat continues to be one of his career high points. But when asked about his most challenging work, he points to Israel. For about 30 years now, Safdie has been the driving force behind an ambitious plan to build a new commercial centre and a network of parks linking the Old City of Jerusalem with the New City. The project holds major symbolic implications for Safdie, who wants the finished project to be a public space that all Israelis will take pride in, regardless of their cultural and religious backgrounds.

 

 

Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles (Photo: Alex Vertikoff)

Those religious and cultural differences can be difficult to navigate, though. It’s been a sensitive and delicate process and there has been a great deal of bureaucratic red tape complicating the project’s progress, not surprising given the historic significance of where Safdie is working. “Jerusalem has a complexity of interest groups,” Safdie told the Jewish News.

The project is under construction and Safdie says he remains firmly committed. “I’ve learned a great deal about persistence. The project has faced endless opposition and all sorts of obstacles, but it’s something I really believe in.”

Safdie’s designs continue to make waves. The recent opening of his Salt Lake City Public Library inspired gushing praise from newspapers in the region. Touring the building was “an eye-popping, mind-blowing pleasure,” according to the Salt Lake Tribune.

Safdie says he deliberately created a structure that was a far cry from the libraries of yore. He wanted a building where sightlines wouldn’t be obstructed by mammoth bookshelves and where there would be plenty of spots for booklovers to chat without disturbing others. The library boasts reading nooks with stunning views, an airy plaza, and plenty of sunlight streaming through the building’s 176,000 square feet of glass.

 

Musée de la Civilisation in Quebec City (Photo: Pierre Soulard)

“The library should be a meeting place for the community of readers,” Safdie explains, “not a place that you get in and out of as fast as you can.”

University of Pennsylvania architecture professor Witold Rybczynski, BArch’66, MArch’72, DSc’02, says Safdie’s career can be split into two components. “Safdie was a theoretician during the first half of his career — the Habitat half.” Habitat, at the time, was a revolutionary approach to thinking about how to develop low-cost housing.

“In his current emergence as an architect of public buildings, theory plays little role,” continues Rybczynski. “There is usually a strong concept guiding his designs, but it is a concept that emerges from the site and the program, rather than from an applied theory. I think this appeals to clients. Unlike Richard Meier or Daniel Libeskind, who tend to design to a formula, Safdie produces buildings that appear to emerge from a client’s needs.”

Dan Monroe, executive director of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, would second that notion. He chose Safdie to oversee his institution’s $75-million expansion because he knew Safdie would be careful to design a building that would highlight the museum’s art holdings rather than upstage them. “We didn’t go after Frank Gehry — intentionally,” he told the National Post.

Irena Murray in front of Safdie’s Habitat (Photo: Claudio Calligaris)

“Some critics feel he caters too much to popular taste,” says Irena Murray. “He is often adored by the public, but the critical reception can be quite different.” Rybczynski chalks this up to how theory-driven academic architecture has become.

“He is an exceptional talent,” says Derek Drummond, one of Safdie’s former McGill classmates. While Safdie might get the cold shoulder from members of the architectural world’s cognoscenti, Drummond notes, “The public response to his buildings is absolutely remarkable.”

Safdie makes no apologies for his humanistic approach. “When I talk to architectural students, one of the things I tell them is thatwhen you draw up your designs, remember that an actual person will be living or working in that space one day. If you do that, chances are that something pretty human will come out of the process.”

Murray herself lives at Habitat. She appreciates Safdie’s attention to detail — the spectacular views of the Montreal cityscape, the inventive nooks and crannies that enable occupants to reside comfortably in spite of the small size of the apartments.

“The people living there live there with a passion. Rarely do you hear people talk with passion about where they live,” she says.

“I think one of the biggest challenges facing architecture right now is globalization,” offers Safdie. Architects today take on projects around the world. “Making buildings that belong to their cultural settings is not something to be taken for granted,” Safdie says. He abhors what he calls “the Disney approach, where you take the most fantastic icons from a culture and simply reproduce them.”

So what is it about architecture that has held his interest all these years?

“I’ve always been the sort of person who is fascinated by so many things,” Safdie relates. He has caught himself musing about what it would be like to be everything from a physician to a filmmaker. Architecture’s appeal is that it affords him the opportunity to take on a variety of roles.

 

The National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa (Photo: National Gallery of Canada)

“You draw on so many different sorts of things in this work — sociology, psychology, economics, political science. You have to be sensitive to building materials, to environments, to engineering questions. If you’re too much of a specialist in any one area, you’re probably not going to make it as an architect.”

There is another consideration.

“There is no greater satisfaction than in coming to a particular place and seeing your ideas for how it might be transformed become reality. That’s a real charge, a real high.”

RELATED READING: Newsbites Summer 2007 (Ericksson on your envelope Moriyame on your mail…)

 

Share this article:

Comments are closed.