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The Janiss genius: Architect made his mark on Toronto

The Architourist

The Janiss genius: An architect who made his mark on Toronto

Latvian-born designer Eugene Janiss was known for his bold visions that often challenged traditional sensibilities

The original lobby of 123 Edward St., Toronto, designed by architect Eugene Janiss.

It's just an oversized waiting room now: Knapsacks tossed on benches and expectant stares directed at the trio of elevator doors. Body language here says: "Hurry up at your appointment so we can leave."

123 Edward St., photographed in 1969. Panda Associates Collection

But in 1964, the newly minted lobby of the Toronto Professional Building at 123 Edward St. was all about lingering. To wit: a curved, second-floor balcony serviced by twin floating staircases; a "flying saucer" information desk; by the window-wall, a shallow, burbling fountain; overhead, a complex, metal latticework of triangular domes featuring soft, hidden lighting; walls dressed in gorgeous purple and blue tile with gold accents; shiny floors of speckled blue terrazzo.

It was, says Steve Russell, co-author and editor of books published by the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario, "a marvellous space.

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"Very healing, water sounds. Beautiful."

Save for the terrazzo floors and the tile around the elevator doors on the second floor, it's all gone now. So perhaps it's better I can't ring up architect Eugene Janiss (1911-2004) to get his opinion. "He was very fussy about everything," confirms his only child, 75-year-old Vija Janiss Tripp. "Everything had to be just so."

At least the handsome, pleated curtain-walled exterior won't change; then again, in development-crazy Toronto, who knows?

Architect Eugene Janiss completed his doctorate in architecture and planning in Germany in 1947.

That Dr. Janiss – while he received his bachelor's degree in his native Latvia in 1943, his doctorate in architecture and planning was completed in Germany in 1947 – turned to fine art later in life is understandable, since no two buildings that sprung from his fertile drafting board were alike. All, however, were lovingly crafted as if formed out of sculpting clay. "He really admired the Guggenheim Museum in New York," Ms. Tripp says. "Everything that was kind of far out like that."

His churches were far out indeed. Viewed from above, Hilltop Chapel in Etobicoke is an abstracted fish, complete with tail; viewed from the sidewalk, it's a series of soft curves and recesses in brick, some now dressed in ivy. At Our Lady Queen of the World in Richmond Hill, Ont., the façade represents two praying hands (today, an expanded foyer obscures this). And, like a true artist, Dr. Janiss designed the furniture and light fixtures.

Hilltop Chapel in Etobicoke is shaped like an abstracted fish, complete with tail.

His schools were no less artistic. When Thornhill, Ont.'s Bayview Fairways was about to open in June, 1972, local reporter Margaret Lade wrote rather tongue-in-cheekly in The Liberal that the "strange looking concrete structure" had been rumoured to be an educational building, "but whoever saw such a school?"

These bold visions sometimes ignored the client's pocketbook: At Our Lady, he'd designed the tall, slim bell tower to balance en pointe at the gable's peak. This "added $100,000," says his former partner, Swiss-born Bruno J. Arnold, 83, who founded international development company Euromart in 1962. "So I said, 'Eugene, this is crazy, let's a have a freestanding tower,'" he laughs. "I had a hell of a time to convince him of that."

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Stubbornness and challenging forms: Was it genius or ego?

"No question in my mind that the man was a genius," Ms. Tripp says matter-of-factly. "Unfortunately, that isn't always the most comfortable thing to be. They're very driven people [and] other things get pushed aside. I can remember, even as a small child, he would go to work, we'd have supper and he'd go back to work."

"On a design, yes," Mr. Arnold agrees on the Janiss genius. He hesitates, then adds: "He had a big ego." In 1956, Dr. Janiss would leave Page and Steele, where the two had met, because he'd grown tired of competing with another larger-than-life architect, Peter Dickinson. A few years later, Mr. Arnold would join him and, by 1960, William H. Gilleland (1912 – 1974), who had mentored James Strutt in Ottawa, would arrive to form Gilleland & Janiss Architects (Mr. Arnold's name was absent because he wasn't registered in Ontario). Although it was "one-third, one-third, one-third," Mr. Arnold remembers a strict pecking order: Designs by Dr. Janiss; Mr. Gilleland handled specifications; and Mr. Arnold "brought the jobs in." Eventually, more than a dozen architects were employed at 234 Eglinton Ave. East to help bring Dr. Janiss' visions to life.

Perhaps the Balt felt he had something to prove. After interrupted studies, intermittent work, brief military service and the mass Soviet deportations of the 1940s, the future in Latvia seemed bleak. So, in 1945, the married architect and father fled to Hannover, Germany, to live in a refugee camp. With his sights set on booming North America, his wife, Mirdza, a London-trained nurse, selected Canada. In early 1948, the 36-year-old arrived in snowy Sault St. Marie to work as a manual labourer at Algoma Steel where, eventually, he'd be allowed into the drafting room; a year later, he sent for his family. In April, 1949, now able to speak some English, he'd acclimate at Toronto powerhouse Page and Steele.

A home built for Earl Morris in Scarborough is now significantly altered from original.

When he left, he produced a powerful post-and-beam home for commercial photographer Earl Morris in Scarborough (Liona Boyd would own it in the 1980s) and a circular house for Brampton developer Charles F. Watson, president of Peel-Elder Ltd. In addition to planning the Peel Village subdivision for Mr. Watson – "all wiring is underground, one television antenna serves everyone" – Mr. Gilleland and Dr. Janiss would design his two Shopper's World malls, one in Brampton, one in east Toronto that was shoehorned into a 1921 Ford assembly plant (Ms. Tripp remembers her father was particularly proud of a decorative mosaic he created for the bowling alley there).

A Eugene Janiss-designed butterfly-roofed home at 16 Page Ave.

After designing more homes, including a butterfly-roofed stunner at 16 Page Ave. in Bayview Village, the family cottage in Parry Sound (the only Janiss building the family lived in), libraries, apartment complexes such as Don Mills' Graydon Hall, nursing homes and a few art galleries, Dr. Janiss began a behemoth mental-health facility in Penetanguishene, Ont.; here, projecting brows over bold balconies and floating bridges recall his love of Frank Lloyd Wright's organic work. In April, 1973, The Globe and Mail's Susan Goldenberg wrote that the building had been "semi-jokingly" billed "the Hilton Penetang" by the architect. In all seriousness, Dr. Janiss had studied mental illness and adapted his designs accordingly: "long corridors, which Mr. Janiss discovered are disturbing to schizophrenics, were replaced by short corridors converging on a central core."

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Eugene Janiss’s Graydon Hall, an apartment complex in Don Mills.

While photography would occupy non-architectural hours for most of his life, when work began to dry up in the late-1970s, he took up painting as well. Then, under Montreal-based, Spanish-born Jordi Bonet, he would learn sculpture. "He never sat and read a book just to relax, or watch television," Ms. Tripp says. "He just kept busy, he had things going all the time."

In a self-published, 1989 book highlighting his work, Dr. Janiss wrote: "When asked what I would be when I grew up, my answer was always the same – an inventor, ie. [sic] the person who creates and hopefully achieves immortality."

His sculptural lobby at 123 Edward is long gone. The "immortality" of what remains is in our hands.

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