Toronto Reference Library at 40: Raymond Moriyama and the Original Architecture

November 2, 2017 | Bill V.

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The Toronto Reference Library is celebrating 40 years of public service November 2nd.   

1977 fish eye photo of the original interior of the Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library

"Metro Library is my perfection" Raymond Moriyama, original architect. 


"Wow this is a hommage to groovy 70s orange & brown curvilinear goodness" recent user. 

Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library interior 1977 photo

1977 photograph second floor stairs - Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library


The original Central Library for Toronto was the 1909 Carnegie funded Beaux Arts building on St George and College, now the University of Toronto Bookstore and Koffler Center (the ceiling has now been restored to its original colours).

Toronto Public Library, Central Library  College St.  n.w. corner St. George circa 1918

1918 photo Toronto Public Library, Central Library College St.  n.w. corner St. George

Frankly, it's a substantial and beautiful building, impressive in its own way. And it also had a beautiful, open, naturally light filled high ceiling central reading room.

1920 interior photo reading room Central Library

1920 interior photo of Great Hall reading room Central Library

While a elegant building, after 60 years needs had changed and space was limited so in 1971 the Metropolitan Toronto Library Board commissioned Raymond Moriyama to do a site study proposal for a new building. Moriyama was a well known Toronto based architect, having designed two other local high profile civic buildings - the Scarborough  Civic Centre (which uses a very similar design vocabulary as our ultimate Library) and also the Ontario Science Centre. Many different locations were examined before eventually settling on Yonge at Asquith to be within easy distance of both subway lines (the first of many improvements to accessibility).  1972 saw the approval by the Library Board of the site and a $7 million budget to acquire it and a further $23 million for the building.

The original architectural plan that Moriyama unveiled in November 1973 met with stiff opposition from some residents and some members of both Metro and Toronto City Councils.  Concerns centered on the $30 million price tag, the design of the new building and the need for a new building versus renovating and expanding the original older Carnegie building or finding a cheaper location (re-purpose Old City Hall or even a North York location).  It became a bit of a political football.

Rendering of original proposal by Raymond Moriyama Architects  1973.

Rendering of original proposal by Raymond Moriyama Architects, 1973. 

The design and size of the proposed building raised some ire - while listed as five storeys high, each storey was double height and the building rose 100 feet in a steep vertical climb. While similar to the current building (large open atrium with collections and services surrounding) the original design was clad in reflective glass (it would be transparent at night and show interior activities) and a solid squarish shape (glass box?). Reflective glass was proposed on the south and west sides (concrete on the north and east) and in the context of the energy crisis of the 1970s so much glass was questionable.  As well, the University of Toronto had just overspent on the new Robarts Library, and had limited money for staffing and materials - so costs and cost overruns were also issues.  Overall this plan was rejected as too dominant for the neighborhood.

1973 Toronto Star photo: a model of the proposed new $30 million Central library with Raymond Moriyama  architect and Alderman William Archer

Toronto Star Archives photo 1973: Model of the proposed $30 million Central Library with Raymond Moriyama, architect & Alderman William Archer, library board member.


Concept rendering of original proposal by Raymond Moriyama Architects  1973.

Rendering of original proposal by Raymond Moriyama Architects, 1973.


In December of 1973 the original plans were rejected and in April 1974 revised plans were proposed by Moriyama and accepted by both levels of municipal government and the Library Board.  The revised plan would see the exterior completely modified - instead of glass there was now large expanses of warm reddish orange brick. Instead of a solid square shape there would be recessed step backs. Mayor David Crombie and City Council had just recently passed Toronto's 45 foot bylaw restriction on new development downtown - which also proved problematic - although the Library would ultimately be exempted. To keep costs down the size was reduced from about 400,000 sq feet to 347,000 sq feet and some features eliminated. As part of the compromise in the final building you can see there is a first level that is about 45 feet high - basically three storeys - and that it relates in height to the neighboring buildings on Yonge Street. Higher levels are further stepped back from the street, to decrease the mass. 

exterior photo of Toronto Reference Library showing stepped back architecture, north side, photo by Irene Gotz

2017 photo by Irene Gotz, looking south east from north of the Library on Yonge, showing the step back and alignment of first level with top of local older buildings.

The approved revised plans had glass sheered off sections facing Yonge Street and Rosedale - breaking up the brick and also the square volume. The new pyramid shape also provided ample natural light in the interior and both urban and Rosedale views from the windows.  In the central open atrium, large ceiling skylights, water features, plants and stepped back floors remained intact with the new design (although an escalator, auditorium and restaurant were lost).  Construction began at the end of 1974 and the new Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library was officially opened on November 2, 1977.

 1977 exterior photo construction of Toronto Reference Library


  1976 Toronto Star Archives photo Under construction at 789 Yonge St. the new Metro Central Library   Toronto Reference Library  construction aerial view
  Toronto Star Archive photo 1976                                  Exterior construction

   Toronto Reference Library Interior Construction view 1976

Toronto Reference Library Interior Construction view 1976


1977 photo exterior Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library

1977 photo exterior Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library

According to an article from American Libraries September 1977 quoting Moriyama "I was looking for a new balance in libraries of the traditional values versus freedom" ... the layout emphasizes maximum accessibility both horizontally and vertically, yet provides intimate personal spaces. To quote Moriyama again "The intent is to create a dignified and happy place for the mind, to encourage self-help, to allow people to explore and make their own connections."  There were originally plans to add a subway access point in the main lobby (this didn't happen). The main floor is 255 ft by 255 ft (including the original exterior 15 ft wide covered arcades - you can still see this feature on the Asquith side).    

1977 interior photo Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library downwards view

1977 Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library interior photo


Moriyama was always a bit ahead of his time and he was energy conscious in the design and HVAC systems (energy costs had spiked during the energy crisis of the early 1970s). The central atrium, topped by a skylight, allows for air to circulate freely. The building does not have conventional boiler or furnace. An internal heat source pump system recovers heat generated by the light, people and solar radiation through the windows and uses it to heat and cool the building. There is a back-up system should temperatures fall.  The lighting system also helps save energy.  The lighting was non traditional: instead of large amounts of lighting energy needed for high illumination there was a combination of "task lighting" at a lower table level (the old tables all had tall built in fluorescent lamps) and then other ambient lighting. The public work-area ambient lighting is interspersed with the 16 inch deep baffles suspended from the ceiling. To provide general illumination in the central atrium space there are several rows of large 1000 watt mercury vapor spot lights installed across the ceiling trusses, just below the skylights (in case you're wondering how do they change those lights - there' are internal walkway along the trusses).

1979 Toronto Star Archives photo interior of Metropolitan Reference Library

1979 Toronto Star Archives photo interior of Metropolitan Reference Library

According to an article in Canadian Architect January 1978 and the publication for the Official Opening of the Metropolitan Toronto Library (page 8 building stats) the building was designed for 1.2 million books, 119 feet in height, five double stories, and 95 feet to the main roof line. The gross square footage was 364,000 sq ft. The site cost $7 million and the building cost $23 million for a $30 million total.

It originally contained:

  • 176 reading tables
  • 45 index tables
  • 62 audio carrels
  • 74 microfilm carrels
  • seating for 1300
  • 28 miles/45 km of shelves (1/3rd of collection to be on open shelves)

The main building construction is steel reinforced concrete with red brick facade. The structural system is concrete with columns spaced at 30 feet intervals. Floors were polypropylene carpet glued to the floor, vertical balustrades and interior stairs (who can forget the carpeted balustrades!). Ceilings in the public areas comprise 16 inch fiberglass panels (baffles) of varying lengths with decorative cloth coverings; these act as sound barriers. These are suspended from a ceiling T-bar grid system.  The interior finishes were coordinated colour range throughout, with carpet tones of deep rust to golden orange, with red oak furniture and chocolate brown shelving and cabinets. 

  Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library original card catalogues, interior photo 1977
Card catalogues were a key feature in the original 1977 building (in a pre microfiche / pre online era). My colleague Alan Walker, who has done stalwart duty here since the opening has a special fondness for them. There are three other staff (Janet, Karen and Susan) who have also worked here since the opening.


Raymond Moriyama had a specific philosophical and practical approach to the architecture of the building. In his extensive notes on the architecture, to be found in this pdf of Official Opening of Metropolitan Toronto Library 1977, he laid out an elaborate framework for his work that still resonates 40 years later (his comments were 7 pages of text out of a 24 page document!) we see his thoughts on the building - and the ideas behind the architecture.


Raymond Moriyama architect's remarks empty cup quotation


Raymond Moriyama architect's remarks enhance the library's human purpose


Raymond Moriyama architect's remarks the role of staff



Raymond Moriyama architect's remarks how do we free people to explore for themselves


  Raymond Moriyama architect's remarks the magic happens at the core


1977 Toronto Star Archives photo Metropolitan Toronto Library Interior 

1977 Toronto Star Archives photo Metropolitan Toronto Library Interior


Raymond Moriyama architect's remarks the core and personal space within the library


Raymond Moriyama architect's remarks the library is a place for diverse and essentially human activities

  1977 interior photo Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library banners

1977 interior photo Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library 


You may remember the ten large banners that hung from the ceiling identifying the subject on each floor. The original design of the building had the banners visible in the round with both text and also visual symbols to the subjects on each floor. As a student who used the Reference Library in the 1980s I always felt they drew the eye upwards like dancing hot air balloons. Much thought, skill and effort went in the concept, design and intent of them. The large open space we now know was originally filled with these banners ... to quote from James Sutherland, who designed them, and wrote about them in Craftsman Magazine December 1977 :

  • "The banners were hung in the round so as ... to offer a kinetic and light-weight foil to the static and massive qualities of the atrium space.  Each banner hangs opposite the inquiry desk of the department it identifies ... They are colored in earths and blues on the second  floor through oranges and yellows on the fifth floor to reinforce a sense of weight decreasing with height. Towards a similar end they grow gradually shorter floor by floor, the second floor pieces being 36 feet while the fifth floor pieces are only 12 feet long.  

 1977 Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library interior photo showing banners

1977 Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library interior photo showing banners

  • "The need for clear sight-lines from anywhere in the atrium to the department titles is met by the 90 degree twist at the bottom of each banner. Each banner weights about 15 pounds and is supported by steel cable ... with a ring allowing circular rotation. The upper part of each banner is silk, acid dyed by Douglas Mantegna who also printed the graphics ...The graphics were designed and/or arranged by James Sutherland, with the help of John Fraser... Rick/Simon did the separations from duo-tone silkscreen printing at Coach House Press. The typography was worked on with Dreadnaught Press."  Craftsman Magazine December 1977


 1977 photo Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library first floor reading area, surrounded by wooden palisade

1977 photo Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library first floor reading area and wooden screen

You may also recall the long undulating wooden screen - at once a palisade, fence, barrier but also craft and art. It was designed by wood working artist and crafts person Stephen Hogbin from Owen Sound. The wooden screen was made of  350 boards of 2" x 6" x 7" red oak.  According to Craftsman Magazine December 1977 and quoting the creator Hogbin:

  • "Although the Extended Hours Screen is located inside the library it incorporates many qualities that suggest the outdoors. The screen leans rhythmically out from either side of it's axis as if into and away from the wind. The pattern of the pales develops in great waves culminating at the water's edge - the water in the interior pool of the library.... The screen is situated between the soil, suggested by the stones resting against it's base, and the sky suggested by the openness above it. It represents organic growth - radiating upwards and outwards the screen pervades like a living form. This concept of growth illustrated by the screen relates to the inner growth of people which I feel the new library was designed to nurture. The screen was made on a milling machine devised specifically for this project. To install the screen, the pales were temporarily wedged into position in the steel beams (channel) in the floor, then final adjustments were made to their angles. They were fixed permanently with a pouring of epoxy grout into the steel beams which were finished with cement and field stones."

1977 photo Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library wood extended hours screen   1977 photo Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library first floor reading area, wood extended hours screen and wood stanchions

And from an article Hogbin wrote for Fine Woodworking July August 1985:

  • "To allow light and air to pass through the otherwise solid wall and to impart a lively and evolving pattern, I placed the boards in a jig 50 at a time, edge up and face to face. Milling the edges, first on one side and then on the other by turning the boards over, produced a sequential texture with a semicircular effect."

It took 3.5 years to design, build and install. It delineated an "internal street" on the periphery of the building that led from the back entrance along Collier to the front entrance at Asquith and Yonge both separate (or separating) from the Library proper but still part of it. It was not a solid wood wall but rather had great movement and vivacity. Part of the original purpose of the screen/wall was to create a secure separate reading room area that would potentially be open 24 hours a day and available to the public even while the main library was closed.   

wooden pedestal stanchions hand crafted by artist Stephen Hogbin    wooden pedestal stanchions hand crafted by artist Stephen Hogbin

You may also notice in the photos of the reading room and the wall the wooden stanchions. These were also hand crafted by artist Stephen Hogbin. He described them as pedestals and rope barriers used to cordon off three areas on the first floor.  The pedestals are made from three logs of local Ontario red oak. They were mounted on a wood turning lathe and chisels removed unwanted areas of the logs. Once turned the log was cut with a chain saw into quarters then each quarter, forming one pedestal was planed, sanded, oiled and waxed by hand. 12 pedestals were ultimately created. The ropes connected the pedestals were made by Peggy Bridgland, an Ontario textile craftsperson, and made of tanned cowhide strips, individually dyed and braided.  

1977 original floor plan for first floor Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library

1977 original floor plan for first floor Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library 

You can see the internal street on the floor plan above going from the top right corner on Collier across the top and then down to the bottom left Yonge and Asquith entrance.  You can also see the landscaping in the original plan and the actual landscaping in these photos below that was visible on the east side of the building in the area between the Library and the car wash. 

Toronto Reference Library 1977 view from north east - facing south west, showing the Collier Street entrance and east side landscaping.

Toronto Reference Library 1977 view from north east - facing south west, showing the Collier Street entrance and east side landscaping.

The photos above and below are from 1977 and show the original east side of the building (facing the car wash). There was extensive landscaping and a path that descended about 20 feet downwards into an amphitheater.  The photos show two different angles of the back of the Library (Collier Street entrance) from 1977, including how Moriyama broke up the large brick expanses with the diamond/pyramid shaped windows.  You can also clearly see the step back of the first level of the building (below on Asquith side) and how this relates to the roof line across the street on Yonge.

Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library 1977 view of east side exterior and landscaping


The varied water features (waterfall, ponds, and fountains) were intended to mask street noises and also act as a natural security barrier.

1977 Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library lobby showing entry pool and waterfall

1977 Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library lobby showing entry pool and waterfall

When Raymond Moriyama designed the foyer of the building he created one of three water features - here we see the waterfall and pool (the others are the basement base of the elevators and also the main floor pool around the base of the stairs).  With its lower ceiling and waterfall/pond (and the original mirrored wall to the south- east side) the foyer was intended to act as a calming element in the transition for library users coming in from the busy street to acclimatize them to the library proper. He originally imagined "gently rising mist" over the front pond - and a sculpture of some sort was part of his original design for the building.

Aiko Suzuki was an already established artist when she was the named the winner of a competition in January 1977 to design a piece of art to go over the entry pond. The funds to pay for this large scale commissioned piece were to be raised by private donation and took over four years to raise. The original cost was $36,000 and by March 7, 1981 when it was unveiled the cost had risen to $44,000 (a fund raising committee raised half the money from 47 individuals and corporations and the rest came from a matching Wintario grant).  According to writings at the time, there are 1 million feet of white nylon fiber and it was the largest fiber sculpture ever commissioned in Canada. It also hasd2,000 feet of finely honed wooden booms to help shape and suspend it from 146 points in the ceiling.

Lyra fiber sculpture Toronto Reference Library by Aiko Suzuki


It took Suzuki eight months to complete her 45 by 23 foot sculpture. It took her only three days to install it.  The piece is called Lyra (after the Greek goddess of the lyre/harp). There were also five pounds of earth colored specially dyed strands of fibre used to provide nuance to the mainly white piece. The work was a combination of groups of fibre hanging vertically from the ceiling to varying heights above the water and with other swag elements interspersed. According to a Toronto Star article by Lotta Dempsey July 26, 1980 Suzuki " sees the strands of white and earth tone fibre moving delicately with air currents - "breathing" - and catching light as its visual harp like music.... "I am not a weaver, or a craftsman" she says firmly " I am an artist. And I simply use a new medium for the abstract concepts I had in my paintings".  Aiko Suzuki's daughter maintains a website of her mother's art work and creative life where there are other photos and also reviews of her work.

Lyra fabric art over entry pond of Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library by artist Aiko Suzuki - 1981 photo by Applied Photography Ltd

Lyra fabric art over entry pond of Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library by artist Aiko Suzuki - 1981 photo by Applied Photography Ltd


Moriyama was an early advocate of accessibility, a small but telling detail here - the entry to the library was not through turnstiles but rather push bar to make wheelchair access easier.  Similarly, counters and inquiry desks were kept low.



Other features included different levels, natural lighting, coordinated coloring, hanging and potted plants and carpeted walls and desks.



There were a lot of people at the official opening the evening of November 2, 1977. 

Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library November 2, 1977 opening day.

"Moriyama is that rarity in our times: A poet of space.... perhaps it is for his poetic vision that Metro chose Moriyama to give expression to its cultural aspirations ... Moriyama said "Scarborough (the Civic Centre) I practiced on. Metro Library is my perfection"

Leon Whiteson Toronto Star Oct 18, 1988. 

   Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library official opening November 2, 1977.


But it's this image that I find most symbolic of the building and the architect's aspirations for it - the lone student studying in one of the pyramid shaped windows, a macramé plant holder with a hoya plant (a spider plant would have been more 70s iconic!). Note the orange carpeted side panels and seat - the inviting texture and colour. She's quietly engrossed in a book, she's comfortable and she's using the collection in her own way and hopefully discovering herself in the process. As Moriyama wanted - she's created her own intimate personal space and personal experience in self directed learning.

Metropolitan Toronto Reference Library window photo of young woman reading 1977.  

I used this library as a high school and university student. I've worked here as the Senior Department Head of Arts, for the last 11 years, and it's been a privilege and joy to work in this magnificent building.

Every day I see the positive effects the architectural design has on the public and staff.

Raymond Moriyama, I think you reached your goals with this building.

Thank you.


If you are interested in the architectural history of the building then you might enjoy this free upcoming program, Toronto's Reference Libraries: Past & Present on Wed Nov 22, 2017,  7:00 p.m. - 8:00 p.m.

If you are interested in the history of the site that the Toronto Reference Library sits on you will enjoy my colleague Barbara Myrvold's series of blog posts. Barb is a gifted local history expert and we're lucky to have her.