Architecture, Travel

Uno Prii: not an architects’ architect


[Ian Macready]
The Vincennes Tower from 1966

“They thought my work just looked funny…they didn’t like me…they didn’t like my work at all.” Oh well I suppose that can happen to the best of us. But more than a decade after his death in 2000, he is having a bit a revival with a younger generation of Torontonians, after some decades of being at best ignored and at worst sneered at by the more serious members of the architecture community of his adopted city. Born in Estonia in the 1920s and a war time journey, starting in a small sailing boat across the Baltic, through Finland and Sweden, he ended up in Toronto in 1950 to join the largest group of Estonians outside their home country, in order to study architecture.  By the late 1950s he had started his own practice just in time to be part of the building boom of the sixties, to create new dwellings for the rapidly expanding population.

And over the next 25 years or so, he designed as many as 250 buildings, most of them in Toronto, big slab apartment buildings, often 20 stories high. And at some point he decided to start having a bit of fun with them, to make them a bit more memorable and easier to identify for the tenants. It was while working with the Polish-born developer Harry Hiller that he produced some of his most exuberant work.  The most famous ones are located in the Annex district, next to the University in central Toronto, a traditionally liberal and bohemian (Margaret Atwood is a denizen) part of town, largely consisting of 100 year old plus single family houses, in a specifically localised design mix of Queen Anne Style (here she is again – see earlier post) with the Romanesque. So these slab apartment buildings were never quite going to fit in. Uno Prii decided to add a little bit of futuristic flare to his buildings to compete with all those flourishes on the much older existing housing stock. From trumpet-shaped fountains underneath parabolic arches standing in front of rounded apartment buildings, to the flared base on Prince Arthur Towers with its sweeping bold vertical lines up to its pointy tips, it’s a bit of Jetsons styling to make people feel they are living in the modern age.

Clearly these are not to everybody’s taste, and even Mr. Prii had a bit of a change of heart with one of his last buildings, which is a strange Brutalist concoction, a few blocks north of the City Hall (see an earlier post), a large apartment building sitting on top of a 5 storey car park. Here, Uno Prii mixes up Easter Island imagery with a Stonehenge Post and Lintel construction to create a building on Toronto’s ugliest list, although it has its fans. After this one, he packed up his studio and went back to his sailing boats, which is how he had fled Estonia some 40 years earlier. And it was at the Royal Canadian Yacht Club that his memorial service was held in early 2001, with many of his new younger fans in attendance. Apparently, like his buildings, the memorial service was a lot of fun.

Prince Arthur Towers built in 1968
Getting quite expressive at ground level
The view of the entrance
The sweeping front facade
The balconies at the Vincennes
Who does not like a fancy canopy?
Or for that matter a fountain like this one?
100 Spadina Road - nice bit of mid-century styling
Refurbishment taking place at the back of 100 Spadina
Brazil Towers
He's gone all brutalist in the 80s
The apartment building is positioned over a five storey car park
A bit of Easter Island in downtown Toronto
One more look at the Brutalism of the Alan Brown Building