How a Russian exile came to Toronto and designed Lawren Harris's Art Deco house.
This weekend, thousands of Torontonians and visitors will explore the nooks and crannies of our landmark buildings through Doors Open. Few of those buildings will have been designed by women architects or by firms led by women.
Between 1920 and 1968, only 28 women went through the architecture program at the University of Toronto. The first women architects in Canada, among them Toronto’s Esther Marjorie Hill, were more likely to take up careers in historic preservation, public service, or home renovation, and less likely to receive large, private commissions. Prior to the Second World War, only five women had registered as architects in the province of Ontario. One of them was Alexandra Biriukova.
Biriukova was born in Russia in 1895. She came by her talents honestly: Her father, Dimitri Birukoff, was the chief civil engineer on the first trans-Siberian railway for the pre-revolutionary czarist government. As a child, she travelled east on the railway with her family as it inched closer to Vladivostok. Before they were exiled, as anti-Bolsheviks, Alexandra received a degree from the School of Architecture in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) in 1914. Her family fled to Italy, where she completed graduate work at the Royal Superior School of Architecture in Rome. Alexandra arrived at Montreal with her sister, Yulia, in 1929. They had located another sister in Dalton (now Kawartha Lakes), and were soon living there.
Yulia, an internationally known painter, moved to Toronto the following year; her arrival was acclaimed by the Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail, which were so proud to have a European artist call a city like Toronto her home. She quickly found work and her portraits were exhibited at local social clubs, where she was heralded as the guest of honour at tea parties.
When Alexandra Biriukova first arrived in Canada, she held no notion other than to practice architecture, as a professional. She wasted little time establishing her own business and building a network of the city’s leading artists and architects, in part because of her sister’s connections. Both women became close with members of the Group of Seven; Yulia’s first address in Toronto was 25 Severn, the Studio Building commissioned by Lawren Harris in 1913. The Biriukova sisters no doubt appealed to Harris’s interest in European modernism and transcendentalist philosophy.
Harris’s continued success as an artist provided him the luxury to pursue architecture as a hobby. In the late 1920s, he commissioned a new residence for himself, on Ava Crescent in Forest Hill. While he had originally requested Douglas Kertland’s services, Alexandra Biriukova had clearly caught his attention. Harris fired Kertland and retained Biriukova. She simultaneously designed the house and applied for her licence as an architect, under the 1931 Architects Act, which had just come into force. Her application was supported by three prominent artists: Harris, Kertland, and architect F.H. Mariani.
The architectural historian William Dendy describes the house, which is situated diagonally on its lot, as “two wings, radiating from a central block” with an entrance in which “the elongated windows above rise together in a tall, narrow arch inset in the smooth wall.” A pine needle motif on the interior balcony railings demonstrates the proud Canadian artistic tradition of applying national symbols to the ideas and forms of European design principles. Its simplified cubist forms, clad in white stucco, made it a landmark in Forest Hill.
Harris didn’t live here long. The Group of Seven disbanded in 1933, and a year later, Harris’s marriage dissolved and he left Toronto. The Harris commission was a false blessing, for it stirred a modest amount of attention, little in the way of money, and no commissions followed for Biriukova. It’s difficult to say whether this was because of the separation of the Group of Seven, the worsening Great Depression, or other factors. However, Biriukova is never listed as an architect in the City of Toronto directories, which instead refer to her second career, as a nurse at the Toronto Hospital for Consumptives in Weston. She withdrew from the Ontario Association of Architects in 1934.
The credit for the design goes to Biriukova, whose name appears on the original drawings. However, over the past 75 years, art and architectural historians have blurred that line, saying that Biriukova’s work was the realization of an idea that had been generated by Harris himself. That misconception is perpetuated by modern art historians, like Geoffrey Simmins, who wrote of the Harris House that “the client himself may have played a large hand in its design” because the highly geometric plan aligns “with Harris’s interests in the spiritual value of pure forms.”
This is not to suggest that relations between Harris and Biriukova soured. On the contrary, after his departure from Toronto, Alexandra moved in with her sister to the Studio Building, renting the rear room of her floor. She lived there from 1938 until at least the end of the Second World War, while continuing to work at the Weston Hospital. She was cited as one of the longest-serving tuberculosis nurses.
She spent her retirement north of the city, and died in 1967, the same year that Expo would provide unprecedented, large-scale opportunities for Canadian architects. According to Geoffrey Simmins, those who knew Alexandra Biriukova in her later years seemed completely unaware that she had been an architect.
Further reading: Gillian McCann, Vanguard of the New Age: The Toronto Theosophical Society, 1891-1945 (Montreal, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012); Monica Contreras, Luigi Ferrara & Daniel Karpinski. “Breaking In: Four Early Female Architects.” Canadian Architect 38.11 (Nov. 1993): 18-23.; Meriké Weiler, “The Lawren Harris Legacy: the Great Painter’s Home has been Avant-Garde for Sixty Years.” City & Country Home 10.9 (Nov. 1991): 100-105.; Blanche Van Ginkel, “Slowly and Surely (and Somewhat Painfully): More or Less the History of Women in Architecture in Canada.” Society for the Study of Architecture in Canada Bulletin 17.1 (Mar. 1991): 5-11.; Geoffrey Simmins Ontario Association of Architects: a Centennial History, 1889-1989. Toronto: Ontario Association of Architects; Annmarie Adams, Designing Women: Gender and the Architectural Profession (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2000); Janice Anderson and Kristina Huneault, Rethinking Professionalism: Women and Art in Canada, 1850-1970 (Montreal, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012)
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