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.
“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.
“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.