Postwar Estonians left their mark on Toronto
New exhibit shows how Uno Prii, Michael Bach and a handful of other architects quite likely accelerated adoption of modernist design in the city
Should you find yourself standing on roof of Tartu College at 310 Bloor St. W., wind whipping up your hair, be prepared for an assault of Estonian architecture. Starting with the former Rochdale College by Tampold and Wells, your eyes scan west to take in 666 Spadina Ave. by Uno Prii, followed by an unconfimed Prii at 720 Spadina. North of Bloor, a number of Prii apartments follow on Huron Street, Walmer Avenue and Spadina; even the pointy crown of Prii's familiar 20 Prince Arthur, which was listed on the city's heritage register in 2004, is visible from here. In all, you'll count about 10 Estonian-designed buildings.
"So the concentration is rather dense," Jarmo Kauge says as he chuckles over the phone from his home in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. This panoramic photograph, along with many others, will soon be on display at VEMU/Estonian Studies Centre at Tartu College for Mr. Kauge's exhibit Building a Community: Estonian Architects in Post-War Toronto.
Two years in the making and requiring three monthlong trips to Toronto by Mr. Kauge, 30, head of the photography department at the Museum of Estonian Architecture in Tallinn, the show illustrates how, without the Estonian invasion, Toronto may have not become as modern as quickly in the postwar period.
While many Torontonians know of Mr. Prii's work since "his background story has often been told in the media," Mr. Kauge estimates that, from the 1950s until the mid-1990s, there were as many as 45 Estonian-Canadian architects working in Canada. And that figure may be an underestimate, since after stops in Sweden and Germany, tens of thousands of middle-class professionals fled here after the Soviet occupation of 1940; in fact, the 1961 census lists close to 19,000 Estonians in Canada. After signing one-year contracts to work as farmhands and general labourers, "they mostly ended up in Toronto," says Mr. Kauge, which became "the social and cultural centre of Estonians in Canada.
"Toronto is the only one where you can see this influence of the Estonian diaspora on the physical space and architecture of the city."
Even the University of Toronto helped. In the 1950s and 60s, three Estonians – Michael Bach, Ants Elken and Taivo Kapsi (Kapsi had formerly worked in Finland for Viljo Revell) – taught the generation of Canadian architects who would oversee Southern Ontario's building boom of the 1960s and 70s. In fact, Mr. Kauge has it on good authority that Raymond Moriyama cites Mr. Bach as "one of his greatest influences."
And while the exhibit, which opens on Sept. 22 with an 11 a.m. symposium, will consist of only photos by Kaido Haagen and Mr. Kauge's text – coming from Tallinn, it must be travel-friendly – it will be essential viewing for fans of European modernism in Canada. And although it will certainly include much of Mr. Prii's expressive, swoopy work, it will also shine the spotlight on the early works of Elmar Tampold of Tartu College fame, such as his sleek, curtain-walled office building at 124 Eglinton Ave. E., or the later, warm-brick, sheltering building he designed for the United Steelworkers on Cecil Street, completed in 1972.
Also by Tampold and Wells is a wonderful, hidden-from-view building that kisses the Lake Ontario shore on Nursewood Road near the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant – "I love this building because it's so Bauhaus, it's a perfect square," Mr. Kauge says – along with a handsome seniors building, College View, at 423 Yonge St.
Gallery goers will also learn (as I did) that the buildings of Don Mills's Olympia Square at 789 and 787 Don Mills Rd., which are attributed to Bregman + Hamann, were designed by an Estonian at that firm, Kaljo Voore, who also penned the Skylon Tower in Niagara Falls. They'll also discover that a long building featuring seven bays and raspberry-pink spandrel panels at 815 Danforth Ave. was the brainchild of Mr. Bach, whose career was cut short in the 1960s owing to personal problems.
While active, however, Mr. Bach produced many churches, such as the A-frame at 3159 Lawrence Ave. E. and Central United in Barrie, Ont. His masterpiece, however, is St. Peter's Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church at 817 Mount Pleasant Rd. "I think it's one of the best churches I've ever been to, and I've been to Italy," Mr. Kauge says without hesitation. "It's just so cozy, and the light is perfect … I don't know, I felt so good inside this church."
Architects such as Guido E. Laikve, who designed the front portion of Estonian House at 958 Broadview Ave., Emmanuel Lutheran Manor at 1684 Victoria Park Ave., which Mr. Kauge calls "an interesting hybrid building," and a low-rise, stepped apartment complex on McCowan Road north of Steeles, plus Henno Sillaste, who penned the high-rise condominium at 1132 Bay St. and the condominium-office complex at 160 Frederick St., will also get a much-deserved spotlight aimed at them.
And while one might leave this exhibit with a sense that Estonians dominated Toronto modernism for decades, Mr. Kauge concedes this was not exactly the case. "That's how Toronto is – it's an international city built by immigrants; in addition to Estonians, there were English [and] Australian architects, architects who had graduated from Harvard, for example, so it's this huge mix-and-match."
However, from certain rooftops, one could easily be fooled into thinking otherwise.
Building a Community: Estonian Architects in Post-War Toronto opens on Friday, Sept. 22 and runs until February, 2018, at VEMU, 310 Bloor St. W.