They taper toward the heavens like giant plants. They bend, bulge, swoop and soar, thumbing their concrete noses at gravity. They're mysterious, yet familiar.
Do you know Uno?
Architectural historian Catherine Drillis does. Last October, she curated "Sculpted Envelopes: The Architecture of Uno Prii" at the University of Toronto's Larry Wayne Richards gallery to celebrate the life of the Estonian-born architect (1924 - 2000), who saw more than 250 projects realized during his career, most rental apartment buildings. While a few of the 63 sexy drawings on display never left Mr. Prii's fertile drawing board, many grew from lots that once gave root to grand Annex homes, since 1960s Flower-Power Toronto was ready for a little swinging style north of Bloor Street.
Some of these go-go, shagadelic buildings are celebrated and perfectly maintained, such as the now-iconic 20 Prince Arthur Ave.; others lack basic maintenance and show balcony railings that are rusting while layers of concrete fall away.
Ms. Drillis will point to all of these things on Feb. 21 at 1 p.m., when she will host a two-hour walking tour of Mr. Prii's Annex oeuvre (there are Prii buildings all over Toronto, but the Annex has an unusually high concentration). As an Uno aficionado myself, I asked for a sneak peek and Ms. Drillis was kind enough to oblige on a drizzly, late January afternoon.
We began (as will tour-goers) admiring 20 Prince Arthur. Built in 1968 for Polish-born carpenter-turned-developer Harry Hiller, Mr. Prii's best-known building tapers from a dramatically flared base - influenced by medieval flying buttresses according to the architect - to a delicate sky-high crown 22-storeys up and looks, for all the world, like a cartoon rocket ship ready for takeoff. Here, Ms. Drillis talks of a paradox: Mr. Hiller wanted a healthy return on his investment (in other words, an
inexpensive building) yet something that stood out from the crowd. Because of his trust in Mr. Prii's skills as an engineer, artist and architect, he got both. Of great help was the cheap, postwar immigrant labour pool and the new flying-form technology, which made concrete sculpting possible. It was, Ms. Drillis notes, "a blip in time" that could never be reproduced today.
Although not designed by Mr. Prii, our next stop was central to his life. The Royal Canadian Yacht Club at the corner of St. George Street and Prince Arthur Avenue was a second home to the Priis (his widow, Sylvia, is still a member) and it is here that Ms. Drillis tells how young Uno escaped the Nazis during the Second World War by navigating a tiny sailboat, alone, across the Baltic Sea to Finland.
From there, we walk north past some non-Uno apartment buildings at Nos.149, 151 and 153 St. George. In a 1999 Taddle Creek magazine essay, This Fabulous Place, author Alfred Holden describes these as "[f]atureless, rectangular slabs, they are carbon copies with three dimensions"; today, Ms. Drillis draws attention to the "nasty alleyways" in between each to illustrate just how much of a departure Mr. Prii's buildings really were: Looking across St. George, we spy the back of the Prii-designed building at 485 Huron St., and it's just as shapely and interesting as the front.
Once we get to the 1966 building, we discuss how Mr. Prii's buildings came about at the right time. In addition to thousands of newly arriving immigrants, the first wave of forward-thinking baby boomers were reaching apartment-hunting age; had these wild designs been built just 10 years before in a stuffier, more conservative era, they would have failed.
At "the Vincennes" (1966), we take shelter from the drizzle under the swoopy porte cochère to talk about how Mr. Hiller (Mr. Hiller and Mr. Prii worked together on many projects) liked this building at 35 Walmer Rd. because the flared, ultra-deep fifth-floor balconies allowed for rental fees as high as those for top floors. Of note here, too, is the new infill building crowding the original on the formerly spacious lot: "It's park-like, it's not a park, so this green space doesn't have to be preserved," Ms. Drillis says.
A few more Walmer Road buildings are noted - including one near Bloor that once sported an amazing op art metal screen that covered most of its front façade and another with a spectacular yet neglected water feature - then it's back to St. George to finish up with later work from the early 1970s, which Ms. Drillis jokes could be called "the Conquistador Look."
It's true: In a few short years, tastes moved from airy shapes and futuristic white brick to amber-glass coach lamps, understated beige-painted arches and chocolate-brown brick. But while details are less exaggerated, they are no less refined: "His designs just get so accomplished, I think, he can work with the site, you don't get the awkward little spaces."
A quarter-century ago, Mr. Prii's buildings were considered an eyesore; a decade ago, simply a curiosity from the Jetsons age. Today, however, their true nature is revealed: Like a painting or sculpture, these buildings are the hopes, anxieties and optimism of postwar Toronto filtered through the drafting pencil of an immigrant architect-dreamer, then fossilized in concrete.
Even better, they're ready to know once again.
To sign up for the Uno Prii walk, visit architours.wordpress.comReport Typo/Error