Tuesday, June 19, 2007

In Search of a Soul Review

In Search of a Soul: Designing and Realizing the New Canadian War Museum. By Raymond Moriyama. Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver/Toronto. 2006.

Canadians have long been in some confusion about how they feel about war. We take a lot of pride in the performance and reputation of our troops in the First and Second World War, and we’re proud of our country’s international reputation as both brokers and keepers of peace. We are all in favour of supporting the UN, and we are also in favour of having our troops go to war-torn parts of the globe to help people restore order, set up schools, purify drinking water and so on.
We’re not, however, as keen on the part where our troops have to kill people or risk being killed themselves, and we are certainly not happy about incidents such as the behaviour of the Canadian Airborne Regiment in Somalia in March of 1993 when Shidane Arone, a 16-year-old Somali youth, was tortured and beaten to death by members of the Regiment which was subsequently disbanded. The current role of Canadian troops in Afghanistan and the casualties they have suffered are also not sitting easily with a lot of Canadians.
And yet we attend memorial services in record numbers, and feel a very deep, national desire to remember and honour the history of our armed forces.
Our national ambivalence about war, and – Somalia notwithstanding - our pride in the history of our armed forces, is reflected in the creation of the new Canadian War Museum that was completed in Ottawa in May, 2005, in time for the sixtieth anniversary of VE Day.
In the introduction to his book, In Search of a Soul: Designing and Realizing the new Canadian War Museum, architect and author Raymond Moriyama reflects on this sense of, if not discomfort, then uncertainty, that Canadians often feel when contemplating Canada at war as he described his feelings about taking on the task of designing and creating the museum:
“I struggled between happiness and frustration. In the process, memories of my first foray into architecture… emerged from the deep crevices of my mind. Seeking solace from the degradation of life in an [Canadian] internment camp, I designed and secretly built a tree house on the side of Little Mountain, an elongated hill next to the Slocan River in the shadow of the Rockies. Remarkably, this spot shares many similarities with the war museum site in Ottawa. However, my tree house was not a museum – it became my sanctuary during wartime.”

What a fine, Canadian irony it is that a child of a wartime internment camp of Japanese Canadians should eventually create what is both museum and monument to Canada at war.
All Canadians would do well to visit this remarkable structure, and to reflect on its meaning. The building emerges eastward from the ground, with textured concrete that makes it look both like a bunker, and like the prow of a battleship clad in copper to match the rooftops of other public buildings in the area. The small windows on the bow spell out lest we forget in both English and French using Morse code. The copper used on the interior of the building is from the roof of the Library of Parliament which was refurbished in 2004.
As he remembers the journey from the government’s decision to replace the old museum on Sussex Drive in Ottawa and the invitation sent out to architects to submit a proposal, to the completion of the project in 2003, Moriyama takes the reader on a detailed and often emotional journey of this important and lasting project. The book is gratifyingly filled with colour photographs that enhance the detailed and fascinating account of every meticulous step in the building of the museum.
Included in these colour plates are images of some of the exhibits, and images of landscape features and war images that supplied much of the inspiration for the highly unusual design of the museum. Some of the innumerable challenges faced by Moriyama and his large team is summed up in his observation that
“This vitally important content [the exhibits] requires safe storage, strict environmental controls and protection from vandalism and flooding. At the same time, the museum that houses it must be able to display this content in an accessible, appropriate, enjoyable and educational manner. The heavy artefacts – artillery, vehicles, airplanes and a fifty-four tonne Centurion tank – require not only a substantial volume of space, but also special floor loading and ceiling supports. The design of appropriate displays that respected the unique and precious qualities of every artefact, from paintings and medals to love letters and uniforms, was one of the most challenging tasks.”

The result of Moriyama’s experiences, genius, and clear understanding of the importance of his work are carefully detailed in this insightful and fascinating book of the creation of the Canadian War Museum. Most of all, of course, the building itself stands as a monument to not only Moriyama’s vision, but to his country’s struggle to come to terms with its own military place in the world.
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