December 1, 2007
Toronto architects create a light-filled center that exudes religious symbolism—without getting specific.
Like many schools across North America, the University of Toronto spent much of the past decade struggling with an awkward problem: how to reconcile the spiritual needs of a diverse student body with its own secular mandate. So Moriyama & Teshima Architects (MTA) faced an equally tricky challenge in creating the university’s Multi-Faith Centre, which opened last spring. A renovation within a 1980s classroom building, it had to offer students—principally Muslims, Sikhs, and Buddhists—a space for prayer and for critical dialogue: an agora that was also mosque, temple, and church.
To come up with an architectural response, MTA partner Jason Moriyama and project architect Carol Phillips looked for common elements of religious practice. “Incorporating light seemed to be something that was universal,” Moriyama says. Thus the heart of the 6,000-square-foot center is a large prayer room defined by a translucent plane of onyx that wraps from a wall onto the ceiling. It’s a powerful signpost toward transcendence—and, since it’s on the eastern wall, also toward Mecca and Jerusalem. The onyx is divided into panels with a bit of cross-cultural numerology: twelve squares are subdivided to suggest, among other things, the Holy Trinity, the four cardinal points, the eight spokes on the Buddhist wheel of life, and the twelve tribes of Israel. (“There’s no specific liturgy that comes with multi-faith,” Phillips says wryly, “so we’re making it up.”)
But while the slabs have a tremendous natural beauty, the overall effect is highly artificial. The light comes from hidden fluorescents, and the Iranian onyx is actually made up of quarter-inch panels laminated onto glass for strength. “It’s almost a ton of stone up there,” says Moriyama, an alumnus of both Frank Gehry’s office and Coop Himmelb(l)au whose father, Raymond Moriyama, founded MTA in 1958. “It looks effortless, but it was a challenge to get it there.”
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The same goes for the entire project, which featured a small budget and a marginal venue on the university’s downtown campus—the L-shaped building has awkward historicist details and strange geometries. Its institutional vocabulary of terrazzo and exposed concrete is still in place, and MTA’s interiors offer a surprising counterpoint of finer materials: along with the onyx are limestone, Venetian plaster, and custom sapele millwork. Such details add a sense of ritual, but it’s the symbolism of the prayer room most of all that’s made the center a special place within a workaday context. “Muslim communities worship here and they’ve described the room as inspirational, and the same word has been used by United Church groups,” Richard Chambers, the center’s director, says. “And it’s really about the light.”