Historicist: Space-Age Living, Ahead of its Time

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Historicist: Space-Age Living, Ahead of its Time

Architect Uno Prii's beloved, and despised, apartment buildings.

Photo of 100 Spadina Road by Kevin Plummer / Torontoist.

In the 1960s and 1970s, an era of staid, Bauhaus-inspired rectilinear boxes, architect Uno Prii designed rental apartment buildings defined by swooping curves and space age forms and shapes. They have been hailed, in some quarters, as “whimsical,” “flamboyant,” and “exuberant” expressions of 1960s optimism. Prii’s designs, of which 250 were built across the Toronto area, alongside a handful in Ohio and Miami, have been praised by some for their “rejuvenating” qualities and for their “playful whimsy.”

Prii was an artist whose own dabbling with paint and pottery influenced his use of concrete, which enabled him to see “modern architecture not as boxes, but flowing sculpture,” in journalist Alfred Holden’s words.

Other observers have been contemptuous of Prii, chastising his works as “strange” or “garish and trashy” eyesores that have never blended harmoniously with their surroundings. In Prii’s day and since, his high rises have regularly been highlighted on lists of the city’s ugliest buildings. He was never awarded any architectural prizes or awards.

Perhaps the best that everyone can agree upon, regardless of their opinions, is that Prii was imaginative. “My designs are original,” he himself said, as quoted by Holden in the Star (December 2, 2000). “And originality is the hardest thing to come by.”

Photo of 44 Walmer Road by Kevin Plummer / Torontoist.

Prii seemed destined to be an architect from an early age. During his childhood in Tallinn, Estonia, architecture was a regular dinner table topic of conversation and Prii accompanied his father, an architect and builder, to job sites. After escaping the Nazi occupation to Finland in 1943, Prii began training as a civil engineer in Stockholm the following year. In Sweden, the young man reunited with and wed Silvia, a high school friend who’d likewise fled Estonia. He applied to the University of Toronto’s architecture school and, upon his acceptance, Uno and Silvia immigrated to Canada in 1950.

“I thought Toronto was a beautiful city right away,” Prii recalled in an interview with Jack Batten in an interview for the Globe Magazine (October 17, 1970). “We lived in a basement apartment in north Toronto, and when I travelled down to school, I passed through Forest Hill and all I saw were lovely green trees. Other immigrants said to me that Toronto was an ugly city, but I wondered how they could think such a thing.”

Despite his broken English at the time, Prii excelled and emerged as one of the school’s leading students. He was befriended by Eric Arthur, a professor and progressive architect—who’d been instrumental in Viljo Revell’s space-age design being selected for New City Hall—and worked in Arthur’s firm for several summers before graduation.

(Left: Photo of 20 Prince Arthur Avenue by Kevin Plummer / Torontoist.)

“The classes molded your way of thinking toward one direction,” Prii described the strictures of architecture school for Batten. “When I was there, the ideals were Mies Van Der Rohe and Corbusier and the Bauhaus—straight lines, modern glass, cubist looks. I realized later that the school had brainwashed us. And I know now that the important thing for an architect is to free himself from the straitjacket of school, to unlearn his old lessons and to do his own thinking.”

Photo of 666 Spadina Avenue by Kevin Plummer / Torontoist.

After gaining some experience with other firms, 33-year-old Prii established his own practice in 1957. The timing was opportune. Toronto was in the midst of a boom in apartment building construction fueled by both municipal planning decisions (such as an emphasis on densification along suburban arterials) and the innovation of flying-form concrete construction. Between 1950 and the late 1970s, roughly 2,000 high-rise apartments were constructed in Toronto, particularly along suburban arterials. Most were typical of the “tower in the park” ethos, with a massive, free-standing high rise, along an arterial road, surrounded by copious green space and parking lots.

Marketed as middle-class, family-friendly rental housing, the rental apartment high rises featured swimming pools, dishwashers, maid services and other amenities. Apartment living was, in an era before condominium ownership, the apex of city living. With apartment buildings springing up in the city and along suburban arterials, architectural commissions were plentiful.

(Right: Advertisement from the Toronto Star [March 29, 1969].)

Prii’s earliest commissions for apartment buildings fit the orthodoxy of the day: sleek, rectilinear towers. He didn’t particularly like the early designs. “But,” he later rationalized, “when you start out, you have a staff to pay and clients who often don’t like your fancy ideas.” Just wanting return on their financial investment, developers lacked imagination or weren’t interested in innovative design. “They saw a box of an apartment down the street that was filled with tenants and they said, build me one just like that,” Prii recalled in 1970—at the peak of his career. So he found ways of incorporating colourful flourishes into his rectilinear designs, like 265 Russell Hill Road (1960), a seven-storey building which features blue glazed brick and angular arches above the windows.

Toronto Star (September 27, 1969)

Toronto Star (September 27, 1969).

But ever adventurous, Prii preferred loops and flowing curves—just like Morris Lapidus was pursuing in South Florida—to the straight lines and squares of the Bauhaus movement, which Prii felt had “robbed architecture of its soul.” He considered highly praised buildings like the Toronto Dominion Centre to epitomize what he labelled “elegant boredom.”

“I got tired, eventually, of these straight boxes,” Prii told Holden in Taddle Creek (Christmas 1999). “I thought, ‘Let’s have a little fun. Why not create a different style that would make the buildings more interesting to people, and more appealing, and have their own life and character?’ I was painting in my free time, doing some sculptures. So it became natural to me.”

Photo of 35 Walmer Road by Kevin Plummer / Torontoist.

With his background in engineering, Prii recognized the potential for concrete, then becoming the construction material de rigueur, to overcome the design limitations of masonry. “So my idea was to give it a sculptural expression,” he recounted for Robert Burg of the Star (March 27, 1999), “and besides that, I actually got to do something different and not just a regular boring building.”

In the 1960s, developers often commissioned drawings from Prii then balked at far-out designs that challenged their preconceptions of what a tower should look like. “[T]hey would come back, have a look at [my proposal], get up from their chairs, turn around, and I would never see them again,” the architect told Burg. “One of them actually said, ‘I see I have come to the wrong architect.’ Got up, turned around and left.”

Photo of 11 Walmer Road by Kevin Plummer / Torontoist.

Harry Hiller, a Polish-born carpenter who’d become a real estate developer, was one of the few who immediately grasped what Prii was driving for. Their collaboration resulted in ten buildings, including 11 Walmer Road (1963), 20 Prince Arthur Avenue (1968), and 44 Walmer Road (1969). Like Prii, the Polish-born Hiller had escaped oppression in Europe. And, like Prii, Hiller wanted to leave his mark on the city. The carpenter-turned-developer’s only instructions were: “Don’t make me bankrupt. Do a building you think is a work of art but simple.” At this, Prii succeeded, striking the right balance between art and consistently meeting deadlines and budget allocations. His ability to do so consistently burnished his reputation with local developers.

Curved balconies were a recurring feature of Prii’s mid- to late-1960s work. This could mean individual balconies looping along the face of a building, as at 11 Walmer Road (1963)—which one tenant described as “…a touch of Miami Beach … but a long walk to the ocean”—and the Brazil Towers at 485 Huron Street (1966). Or it could mean a single, but divided, rounded balcony that gives the building a nearly-circular profile along the horizontal—as seen on 300 Eglinton Avenue East (1964) and 44 Walmer Road (1969)—the latter known informally as the “flower tower.”

(Right: Photo of 485 Huron Street by Kevin Plummer / Torontoist.)

In other buildings, Prii’s emphasis on curvature was expressed vertically. At 35 Walmer Road, a 15-storey building known as The Vincennes, the architect extended white concrete walls beyond the building envelope to create a dramatic, sculptural flare at the fifth floor—on both the front and back of the building. Beyond the aesthetic appeal, the flare created deep balconies that enabled the owner to charge as much rent for a fifth-floor apartment as a unit on an upper floor.

Photo of 20 Prince Arthur Avenue, between 1977 and 1998. From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 1465, File 6.

Prii likewise used projecting shear walls on the 22-storey high rise at 20 Prince Arthur Avenue (1968). Sweeping smoothly upwards form an exaggeratedly flared base to a rooftop crown 22-storeys above the ground. The building looks futuristic, recreating the lines of a rocket ship or bell-bottom pants, depending on your perspective. But Prii claimed centuries’-old inspiration for the tower’s distinctive feature. “With Twenty Prince Arthur,” he told Batten in 1970, “I finally decided on a contrast of the old and the new. I took the flying buttresses from the medieval cathedrals and I applied them to a modern building.” The rest of the design is restrained: just windows and smooth white surfaces in between the eight evenly spaced buttresses on the building’s south and north faces.

Photo of Jane Exbury Towers, 1966, from from Spacing Magazine's Flickr (under Creative Commons)

Photo of Jane-Exbury Towers, 1966, from from Spacing Magazine’s Flickr (under Creative Commons).

Reminiscent of 35 Walmer and 20 Prince Arthur are the soaring concrete buttresses of the Jane-Exbury Towers (1969), a cluster of five towers staggered across a large suburban lot along Jane Street north of Wilson Avenue. At the time of its construction, the complex was called “a spirited break in the sky-line of the northwest section of the city” by the Star‘s Mack Parliament who described them as “sitting on elevated saucers [and tapering] to blunt peaks.” Prii explained his intentions to the journalist: “I was trying to create something that was functional yet with a spirit about it—a building with an air of its own.”

Photo of 44 Walmer Road by Kevin Plummer / Torontoist.

His buildings were popular with tenants. When Uno and Silvia wanted to downsize from their home—from their modest house filled with antiques and even a staircase salvaged from a Walmer Road mansion demolished for one of his apartment towers—to take an apartment in 44 Walmer Road, none were available. With a waiting list of potential tenants, the Priis had to settle for a unit on Bloor Street East.

Prii’s works were not received particularly warmly by the architectural establishment. Criticized by his peers “for not taking architecture seriously enough,” Prii received no accolades or awards over the course of his career. “They didn’t like me,” Prii later complained to Holden. “They didn’t like my work at all.”

Critics considered his work, at best, oddities or curiosities, and, at worst, eyesores. “Prii’s buildings aren’t anonymous in the way that most of the other dull apartments in Toronto are,” one young architect damned with faint praise in 1970. “He’s come up with a definite look. But the trouble is that it’s a terrifically funny look.”

Photo of 35 Walmer Road by Kevin Plummer / Torontoist.

He wasn’t even that original, critics suggested, since apart from some grandiose decorative elements tacked onto the exterior, Prii’s buildings were pretty ordinary on the inside. “The buttresses are extraneous,” the same young architect remarked uncharitably of 20 Prince Arthur’s defining features. “They certainly aren’t needed to hold up the walls, but the more important question is, what the hell have they got to do with living in the Twentieth Century at the corner of Bloor and Avenue Road? They’re anachronistic.”

Through the 1970s, Prii focused more on rectilinear designs incorporating set-backs and other detailing to break up the clean geometry, and shifted from his characteristic smooth white cement to textured concrete in muted hues of brown and grey.

Photo of 77 Elm Street, 2013, by Brian Carson from Flickr (under Creative Commons)

Photo of 77 Elm Street, 2013, by Brian Carson from Flickr (under Creative Commons).

Public and critical acceptance of his work reached its nadir with the Alan Brown Building (1983) at 77 Elm Street. A “strange Brutalist concoction” sitting on top of a five-storey parkade, in the words of one critic, the structure has been consistently named one of the city’s ugliest buildings ever since its construction. It is “hysterically bad instead of just plain bad,” architectural critic Adele Freeman quipped in the Globe and Mail (July 28, 1984). She added: “Among its many charms are aboveground parking, an arrangement of rocks by the front door and a profusion of splotchy concrete cut-outs strewn across the façade for no apparent reason. (Of special interest are the PacMan cutouts rearing up from the balconies.)”

Prii shuttered his practice in the mid-1980s, though, in retirement, he continued sketching designs for buildings which would never be built.

Before Prii’s death in late 2000, his works were rediscovered, and admired, by a new generation of architects and urban enthusiasts. He’s been the subject of an increasing number of articles and publications, as well as the focus of gallery exhibitions and walking tours.

(Left: A 46-storey residential proposal once planned for Church Street, between Carlton and Bloor, as illustrated in the Toronto Star [September 27, 1969].)

Some of Prii’s buildings have been immaculately maintained. Others were allowed, over the decades, to rust, discolour, and degrade. The distinctive balconies flowing across the 13-storey face of 44 Walmer Road like waves—sheets of metal with circular cut-outs matching the perforations in the concrete entranceway canopy below—were removed during renovations in 2001, replaced with mundane, clear glass alternatives. The move struck Jack Batten, in his book The Annex (Boston Mills Press, 2004), “as the equivalent of painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa.”

In the early 2000s, a growing number of observers sought to preserve landmarks built by Toronto’s leading modernist architects—John C. Parkin, Peter Dickinson, and Prii—from similarly unsympathetic alterations, or even the wrecking ball. More than a dozen of Prii’s buildings, mainly those in the Annex, were named to the Heritage Property Inventory by the city’s preservation board.

“Uno Prii’s buildings were a shock to the Toronto of his day,” the Toronto Society of Architects wrote in support of the designation, as quoted in Michael McClelland and Graeme Stewart’s Concrete Toronto (Coach House Books and E.R.A. Architects, 2007). “While dealing with the difficult economies of private development, often for rental houses, his buildings showed an unbridled enthusiasm for newness and innovation.”

Sources consulted: Jack Batten, The Annex: The Story of a Toronto Neighbourhood (Boston Mills Press, 2004); Michael McClelland and Graeme Stewart, eds., Concrete Toronto (Coach House Books and E.R.A. Architects, 2007); Shawn Micallef, Stroll: Psychogeographic Walking Tours of Toronto (Coach House Books, 2010); and articles from the Globe and Mail (December 22, 1964; and September 29, 2003); Toronto Life (November 1996); and Toronto Star (March 1, June 7, and September 27, 1969; and January 24, 2014).

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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