George Tanaka was born in Vancouver of Japanese parents in 1912. He attended Vancouver Technical School and after graduation in 1920 began working with a Nisei gardener, Mr. Moritsugu. He studied architecture and landscape architecture on his own, reading books and periodicals at the public library and was greatly influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright's comments about Japanese gardens. When Canada's War Measures Act forced Japanese-Canadians to move from the west coast during World War II, Tanaka separated from his family in 1942 and came to Toronto, where he worked in electronics while becoming politically active in the Japanese community. Tanaka served as a volunteer in the Canadian Army Intelligence Corp for over a year near the end of the war, when his participation finally was allowed by the government. Afterwards, he continued his efforts on behalf of Japanese-Canadians, first as chair of the Japanese Canadian Committee for Democracy in 1946 and then as national executive secretary of the National Japanese Citizens' Association, from 1947-1953.
He returned to landscape architecture in 1955 establishing his own professional office and quickly achieved recognition with articles about his work in various professional and popular publications. He was elected vice-president of the Ontario Association of Landscape Architects, 1967-1970, and in 1969 won two of the three top Excellence in Design Awards at the first national competition of the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects. In 1972, he was elected to a two-year term as a member of the CSLA Board and served as its secretary. Tanaka was elected a Fellow of the Society in 1975, and in 1976 was honoured at Ohio State University by a retrospective exhibition and guest lectureship. He was introduced as having "distinguished himself through a number of award-winning projects in Canada as one of contemporary society's foremost landscape sculptors and landscape architects. His work displays a unique sensitivity gained from his Japanese heritage to the intrinsic beauty of natural materials."
As part of his talk to students and faculty at Humber College, Toronto, in 1981, Tanaka said: "the materials of Nature - the rocks, the stones, the trees, the plants, the water and the earth itself - are used as the 'Design-Tools' by which the landscape-forms take shape. The use of Tension in design as between diverse elements: the hard element against the soft; the rugged rock against the flowing curve of a pathway, for example, gives the design a spirit of tension and an aesthetic quality. Whatever the qualification of the design problem, the results are to find a happy Balance and Harmony in all of the elements. Nothing is left to casual chance or to irresponsible placement." He also said: "All of the hopes and dreams, and even the fears, that played a part in my total experience, has influenced me."
George Tanaka and his wife, Cana, died in a 1982 automobile accident. In 1988, the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre in Toronto, which Tanaka had helped to found some 25 years before, honoured him with a special tribute and retrospective exhibition of his design projects.
The George Tanaka fonds originally came to the Library in 1996 from George Tanaka's brother on behalf of the Tanaka family, via Professor Walter Kehm of the School of Landscape Architecture. A significant further accrual to this collection came in 2014 via Professor Sean Kelly, also of the School of Landscape Architecture. This fonds consists primarily of project files covering the years 1955-1984, including designs, drawings, sketches, and planting plans, as well as his personal library. The 1996 donation has been catalogued in the Library's electronic catalogue, PRIMO: more than 160 records. Full records include project names and dates, format and quantity of materials, clients and related persons, and a brief description of the contents of files along with the library's call number indicating their location. A very brief listing of the 2014 donation is available on on-site. All materials are open.
Architectural Plans; Artwork; Photographs; Published Material; Technical Drawings; Unpublished Material and Manuscripts