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cityscape

Placemaking: Scarborough Civic Centre

How a bunch of trees led to the "Municipal mecca" that nearly wasn't.

Placemaking tells the stories behind the buildings that define the GTA, beyond the downtown core.

Scarborough Civic Centre photo by {a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/charlito/287259223/"} suewah1970 {/a} from the {a href="http://www.flickr.com/groups/torontoist/"}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

“A space station, a castle, a ship…make any fanciful comparison you will, but the Scarborough Civic Centre is open for business and pleasure.”

Such was the grand description applied to architect Raymond Moriyama’s geometric design in a 1973 tourism brochure, shortly after the Scarborough Civic Centre’s official opening on June 29 of that year. It was a building that would, at least for a time, be dubbed the jewel of Ontario.

But it was a project the architect had initially been hesitant to get behind.

Moriyama, a prolific modern designer responsible for a number of recognizable GTA structures erected before and after his triangle-flanked Scarberian creation (among them, the Ontario Science Centre, Toronto Reference Library), was unsure if building a brand-new centre for Scarborough’s municipal offices would be prudent.

As he would write in his report on the design and construction of the SCC: “On visiting the existing buildings and observing the overcrowding and the ‘hodgepodge’ layout at both the Board and Borough buildings I was convinced that they needed either to build or to expand their present facilities.”

Moriyama changed his mind when he saw the proposed development site. What has now become Scarborough Town Centre—home to its own mall, RT station, and bus terminal in addition to the Civic Centre complex—was, in the late 1960s, almost entirely farmland, with “prominent strands of mature hardwood still intact.” The idea of preserving this streak of nature within an expanding urban context tickled the designer. His imagination was fired particularly by the presence of a single, old oak tree.

Photo by {a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/scorchez/2268323450/"}Scorchez{/a}, from the {a href="http://www.flickr.com/groups/torontoist/"}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

“Then, the lone oak tree!” he wrote. “There it stood, serenely. For some reason it must have been cared for and preserved by the farmer. What made him do that? Was it sacred to him? These questions still intrigue me. The obvious thought then occurred to me: we can design the whole civic centre building complex without destroying one tree. I etched the potential location in my mind.”

The initial concept for the design would come to Moriyama later, on a flight from Stockholm to Helsinki in late April, 1969. He would later recall “a literal click in my conciousness” that took place as the landscape through his window turned from land to water. Hastily, in an orange felt pen, he scribbled a series of sketches on the backs of a couple of envelopes from a Stockholm hotel. Five years later, those early plans would come to fruition.

“This is phase one of the Municipal mecca,” the 1973 tourism guide to the centre reads. “The Centre is designed to welcome people; to enable the public to see government in action and to participate in democracy.” Queen Elizabeth II would be present at its opening ceremony to press the button commencing the flow of its waterfall fountain.

Now, of course, Scarborough is part of Toronto, with a status somewhere between “borough” and “‘burb.” The function of its civic centre has shifted. But the building remains a nucleus of urban identity—triangles, fountain, and trees.

Comments

  • Cleanhead

    Is the oak tree still there?

    • lady beta

      yeah, Kelli you can’t leave us hanging! that’s a pretty important detail, no?

      • Canadianskeezix

        Hello, Torontoist? Is the tree still there?

        • Kelli Korducki

          Hello! I’ve been in touch with both the Scarborough Civic Centre and the City of Toronto Urban Forestry Services in search of the tree. Because the tree’s precise location was never stated in the architect’s notes, no one can tell me for certain if the tree is still there. One can only hope!

          • Canadianskeezix

            Thanks, Kelli. Although that news is disappointing in one respect, in another sense it makes for a good story. The oak tree that we all hope survives.

            This was a good piece.

  • junctionist

    Scarborough Civic Centre and Albert Campbell Square represent a good exercise in placemaking with great architecture and a pleasant public space. Both look great to this day, now surrounded by the SRT, office towers, and condo towers. One day, this could be a very walkable urban neighbourhood. I, too, wonder if that tree is still there, and if the mini-forest nearby is natural or man-made.

    • Sherman

      The tree is gone but the woodlot is indeed natural.

  • Janyte Alvestad-Bullock

    I lived right near that farm in the 1960′s and early 70′s. I remember the apple trees in particular, and feeding them to the horses that lived at Brimley and Ellesmere. At the grand opening, the Scarborough Saturday Morning Band (that’s what I recall us being called….) played for Queen Elizabeth.

    Was back in Scarborough in June, and went to the mall – it’s very run down from when I used to go there all the time in the 70′s and 80′s! Off course no Eaton’s and Simpson’s to anchor it. It just seemed so dirty! Hard to believe I’m old enough to have seen so many changes at one intersection!