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the architourist

Architect Ernest Annau.Courtesy Annau Family

Dappled shade. Gardens. A meandering path underneath a wooden bridge. The splash and trickle of a waterfall. And … condominiums?

“He took real pride in the notion of the architect as not being a hammer, but fitting in, Jane Jacobs-like, Jack Diamond-like, you know? And it was a healthy thing at that time for Toronto and its development.”

Designer Bill Mockler’s words about his former mentor, employer and friend, architect Ernest Annau, may not be emblazoned on a plaque at Avenue Road and Douglas Avenue in Toronto’s Bedford Park neighbourhood, but every brick, every angled roofline and every interesting void speaks a language that’s as anti-hammer as possible. Here, at Mr. Annau’s award-winning Bedford Glen (1976), where the greenbelt across the street runs seemingly uninterrupted into the 207-unit complex, the soft language is that of water, human-scaled domiciles, footpaths, flowers and, ultimately, a way of living unlike anything seen in this city since.

“You’re always trying to recreate the Garden of Eden, is that the idea?” asked Toronto Star architecture critic and author Leon Whiteson of Mr. Annau in a 1986 CBC special titled Canada: A Modern Country.

“I always do, yes,” Mr. Annau answered with a laugh. “If I hadn’t become an architect I’d have become a doctor because I really do like that idea of working with people, and for them.”

We should all thank our lucky stars that Ernest Annau, who was born in Hungary in 1931 to a cancer researcher father and opera singer mother, chose architecture over the medical profession. And, furthermore, to come to Canada in 1951 after living, for a short time, in Brazil and the United States.

But, just like the meandering paths at Bedford Glen and a later project called Rosegarden Mews (more on that in a moment), there were a few bends in the road. His first love, painting and drawing, was studied at the Ontario College of Art. So gifted, he would attend the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich on a scholarship in the late-1950s and early-60s (where he’d switch to architecture), marry Patricia Harding (whom he’d met in Toronto in 1952) in 1963, come back to Toronto to work for John B. Parkin Associates and Bregman and Hamann Architects, until finally hanging his own shingle as Annau Associates in 1972.

  • The Toronto work of architect Ernest Annau. Bedford Glen (1976).Dave LeBlanc/The Globe and Mail

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Even before 1972 Mr. Annau was getting attention … for the design of a new type of phone booth. As reported in the Toronto Daily Star in 1970, Fairview Mall’s futuristic, waist-high, fibreglass bubbles put callers into “a world of [their] own.” And speaking of plastics, one of Mr. Annau’s early commissions was a plastics office building and factory for Ludwig Engel Canada Ltd., in Guelph, Ont.

The 1970s, says Bill Mockler, was an exciting decade. Graduating around the same time the CN Tower was being completed, Mr. Mockler was also aware of Bedford Glen and Mr. Annau’s growing reputation. After working for a more technical-based firm, he craved a design-based firm and, after meeting Mr. Annau at a conference, began at Annau Associates in 1982.

“Ernest was very, very importantly, concerned with the conceptual stage,” he remembers. “What does this [building] want to be? He’d allow us to develop the design … flush it out, with [him] hovering [over us],” he says with a laugh, remembering the office camaraderie at The Colonnade. “And that’s not to say that Ernest didn’t care about the details.” On the 10-storey Winona Housing Co-op (1463 Eglinton Ave. W.), for instance, the team worked out a way to eliminate thermal bridging: “We spent so much time developing these [concrete] arms that would stick out and we got insulation between the balcony by spanning the balcony slabs the other direction – no cantilever.”

And although Annau Associates would design even taller buildings – the two 37-storey Concorde Park towers in Don Mills come to mind – it’s the more intimate projects that defined the firm. A school in Etobicoke, Seventh Street Junior School, that was “designed like a home” trumpeted the Toronto Star in 1988 and, seven years before, Rosegarden Mews, described by Leon Whiteson – this time in print – as deriving from and developing “the Toronto vernacular in a manner that acknowledges and enhances the street.”

Two of Mr. Annau’s three daughters, Catherine Annau, a filmmaker, and Adrienne, a content designer, have gathered on that very street, Walker Avenue, near Yonge Street and Summerhill Avenue, to walk the grounds of the 35-unit, red brick complex with resident and condo board member Brenda South.

“It literally feels like a house,” Ms. South begins, pointing at her south-facing, three-storey unit. Interestingly, what appear to be clerestory windows on a fourth storey actually belong to the unit behind hers. “So that’s their south-facing windows,” she explains, “and then they will have north-facing windows into the courtyard.”

“My dad was a real believer in light and air,” says Catherine Annau, who remembers her father rankling at developers who filled their buildings with tiny, punched windows. “He wanted people to have a lot of light and access to nature.”

Indeed, floor-to-ceiling windows, banded windows, and long ‘slit’ windows bring light into every nook and cranny of the pod-like units of Rosegarden Mews; inside, ceiling cutouts let light drop to lower levels, as do the balconies. Rounded stair-towers, too, are filled with sunshine. Yet despite the photon-party, there are areas that are cozy and cave-like; it’s all very Scandinavian, friendly, and ‘small-m’ modernist. Clean, but not rigid or cold.

“I think Rosegarden Mews was influenced tremendously by Notre-Dame du Haut by Le Corbusier,” Mr. Mockler says. Awarding the project an Award of Excellence in 1979, Canadian Architect magazine judge Trevor Garwood-Jones remarked: “Annau has created a serene, tranquil environment full of interesting views and vistas.”

After enjoying those vistas, the Annau sisters sit with Ms. South on her sheltered patio. They regale her with their father’s journey from artist to architect, his first office above Fran’s at Yonge Street and Eglinton Avenue, and the many hats he wore: critic, lecturer, panelist, volunteer with the Toronto Historical Board, and even president of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in the 1990s. It was also in the 1990s that Annau Associates won an international competition to design China’s first enclosed hockey arena in Changchun.

“He was fun, he had a great sense of humour,” says Adrienne Annau. “He was a very positive, forward-thinking guy.”

And despite the sisters constantly using descriptors such as “jovial” or “happy,” they say some of his art could be filled with dark and disturbing images. “He could do angst,” Catherine Annau says with a smile.

Any demons he may have had, however, never made it to the drafting board or the family dinner table. Instead, Ernest Annau, who died from an aneurysm in 2000, brought light, air, and a sense that anything is possible to Toronto architecture, especially with his mid-rise residential work – something that’s sorely lacking today.

“I think he saw himself as a bridge in that way,” Mr. Mockler says. “It was possible to get some density … and yet have it feel residential.”

And, perhaps, with a touch of Eden mixed in as well.