Toronto Through My Lens

Uno Prii’s Annex Apartments

Uno Prii (February 28, 1924 – November 27, 2000) was an Estonian-born Canadian architect. He designed approximately 250 buildings, many in Toronto, but also around southern Ontario and the United States. Some of Prii’s best-known works are apartment buildings in the Annex neighbourhood of Toronto, featuring outlines which make sweeping curves; these are the buildings I’ll focus on in this post.


11 Walmer Road

Curved balconies are a recurring theme on Uno Prii’s buildings. They act as a kind of false front for the standard flat-walled interiors. Prior to its 2018 renovation, 11 Walmer Road was white concrete, a trademark style of Uno Prii. The building was a collaboration with Polish-born carpenter Harry Hiller, who also collaborated with Prii on 44 Walmer Road.


22 Walmer Road (Walmer Flats)

22 Walmer Road, known as Walmer Flats, is an Uno Prii design that is more unusual than his others, in that it is a low-rise eight-storey building. Today, the balcony panels are made of blue glass, but they originally had a more playful design with large circular cut-outs.

The exact date of the Walmer Flat’s construction is unknown, likely dated to late 1956 or 1957. Based on its boxy design and the lack of whimsy seen in most other Prii buildings in Toronto, Walmer Flats is representative of one of Uno Prii’s earlier projects, when the influence of Bauhaus style in his work was stronger.


In the Swinging ’60s, as Toronto began to emerge from its staid conservatism, architect Uno Prii’s Miami Beach-inspired apartment buildings became instant landmarks for their sculptural, flamboyant exuberance. Initially dismissed by the architectural establishment as garish and trashy, Prii’s work began to be rediscovered in the mid-1990s as part of the renewed interest in Modernist architecture and design.
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35 Walmer Road

35 Walmer Road, known as The Vincennes, was built in 1966 and signified a new type of apartment building in the Annex. Uno Prii’s designs were a new take on apartment buildings and added a fresh style to the neighbourhood. In contrast to the big and box-like buildings that came before it, The Vincennes was flowing, sculptural, and made of poured concrete.

Rising 15 stories, the building represented the aspirations of city living. Zoning laws in the city required tall buildings to be set well back on landscaped lots, inspiring Prii to create The Vincennes’ large sculptural flare we see today. The futurist sense of Prii’s designs have been described as a symbol of hope and optimism for the future.

A little backstory on The Vincennes:

The home of Timothy Eaton, founder of T. Eaton Co. Ltd., once stood on the same spot as The Vincennes. The Eatons moved into the mansion in 1889, indicating the Annex’s position as “a good address.” After Timothy’s death in 1907, his son and successor, Sir John Eaton, moved out of the Annex, signalling the shift of Toronto’s wealthy family to the surrounding suburbs. Many Annex mansions became boarding houses, student homes, or business offices. Timothy’s daughter, Josephine, gifted the original Eaton house to the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire in 1934, which served as their headquarters until 1965, when it was sold. Like many of the original mansions, it was demolished to make room for the apartment buildings of the 1960s and 70s.


44 Walmer Road

44 Walmer Road is an excellent example of architect Uno Prii’s unique style. Apartments like this one became commonplace in Prii’s repertoire of buildings.

Affectionately called the Flower Tower, 44 Walmer Road has become one of Prii’s most iconic works. When it was first built in 1969, the balconies had circular, cut-out designs along the railing. This inspired the nickname Flower Tower by Toronto Life because it served as a reminder of the 1960s playfulness of “flower power,” going against then-current ways of building.

Besides the balconies, the circular theme is also found in the canopy structure over the door, where circle cut-outs emit light. It is again repeated with the arches and fountain in front of the building. Uno Prii’s love of circles, loops, and curves gave the building a sculptural sense of fun, making the building stand out against its rectangular neighbours. Uno Prii and his wife Silvia planned to live in the Flower Tower after Uno’s retirement, but the building was so popular and the waitlist so long that the Priis were never able to live there.

In 2001, the Flower Tower was sold to new owners, who renovated the building and removed the iconic circular cut-outs from the railings. One critic stated the change of this “high-sculptural, landmark tower” would drive the city further into “architectural mediocrity.”

Despite protests from tenants and Uno Prii’s family, the Flower Tower’s circular elements were lost. Tenants, architects, and historians called into question the renovation – if architecture is art, does a new owner have the right to change an architect’s original design?


I could see apartment buildings as giant sculptures. I thought people would remember these buildings…I got tired, eventually, of these straight boxes. I thought, let’s have a little fun.
Uno Prii

100 Spadina Road

Completed in 1969, Uno Prii’s 100 Spadina Road Apartments is known for its sweeping curves, decorative surfaces, and articulated balconies. The facade’s enormous, parabola-shaped swoops make it instantly recognizable among its neighbours.

In 2002, the building was purchased by new owners. Since then, its has become an excellent example of the care given to preserving heritage sites. The building was given full heritage protection in 2007, a move which saved many of its distinctive elements.

When it was built, the building’s balcony guards were made using mass-produced decorative concrete blocks. These were difficult to maintain and deteriorated over time. At first, the new owners, Park Property Management, in consultation with ERA Architects, Brook Restoration and Ontech Building Consultants, planned to etch the design of the original blocks onto glass fronts. In the end, the designers chose to install a new “fritted” glass guard, which replicated the original design of the decorative blocks.

“Fritted” glass on balcony fronts

To create fritted glass, a special kind of ceramic material called frit is bound to the glass, creating textures and patterns. This method also reduces glare, cuts building cooling costs, and minimizes potential danger to birds. Although the original concrete blocks were not preserved, the new glass design maintained a portion of Uno Prii’s original vision.


485 Huron Street

Brazil Tower at 485 Huron Street is one of a series of 13 buildings listed on the City of Toronto’s Heritage Property Inventory since 2004. As we see again here, Uno Prii was a designer of apartment buildings with rounded curves and youthful, whimsical forms. It is said that his structures recall the optimism of the 1960s; this one, built in 1966, reflects that. The curved balconies, characteristic of many of his designs, add a touch of Miami Beach flair that give the building a rounded profile.

Cromwell, the building management company who maintains this building, has restored this magnificent tower to its original and much-loved appearance. The interior has been revisited to provide the comfort and today’s high-end features. The lobby, hallways, and elevators have been refurbished. The garage, freshly redone, also offers a large designated space for bicycles.

Curvilinear balconies are a recurring feature of Prii towers, but in most cases the undulating shapes act as sort of a false front for standard flat-walled suites. At 485 Huron Street, however, behind the rounded balconies are actual semicircular walls. Like bay windows, these costly but effective elements increase natural light and views.


20 Prince Arthur Avenue

Uno Prii claimed 20 Prince Arthur Avenue, built in 1965, was his favourite building, and it’s easy to understand why: the tower captures space age excitement with a rocket-like profile that flares outward at the base, then soars 22 storeys to scalloped peaks.

Blue-coloured balconies blend into the sky, emphasizing the curving white concrete shear walls. 20 Prince Arthur is probably Prii’s most luxurious and best-maintained building, set in expansive, lushly-landscaped grounds with a freestanding fountain. Unfortunately, my shots taken during a mid-February visit do not show off the grounds to their full potential.

Sweeping smoothly upwards the sheared walls form an exaggeratedly flared base to a rooftop crown 22-storeys above the ground. The building looks futuristic, recreating the lines of a rocket ship or bell-bottom pants, depending on your perspective. But Prii claimed centuries’-old inspiration for the tower’s distinctive feature when he commented:

With Twenty Prince Arthur I finally decided on a contrast of the old and the new. I took the flying buttresses from the medieval cathedrals and I applied them to a modern building.

The rest of the design is restrained: just windows and smooth white surfaces in between the eight evenly spaced buttresses on the building’s south and north faces.


Legacy

Uno Prii died on November 27, 2000, leaving behind a repertoire of architecture in Toronto. Like many great artists, he wasn’t often recognized during his own lifetime. He is credited with changing the face of both the Annex and Toronto, reshaping the skyline with space-age, rocket-like designs, pointing skyward towards a hopeful future.

In 2004, 13 of his buildings, mostly located in the Annex, were listed on the Inventory of Heritage Properties. The interest in Prii’s buildings also stems from young architects. Although many architects of the 1990s didn’t take his work seriously, architects of the 2000s see them with fresh eyes and fewer prejudices. Uno Prii’s work shows us that creativity comes from how the tools and materials at hand can be used in new and fantastic ways.

This has been such an interesting post to research and create, and I’ve learned so much about one of Toronto’s most prodigious architects. Uno Prii has created so many more structures in our city, and I look forward to researching those and creating further posts on this exceptionally talented man and his creations.


References

Heritage Toronto: Capturing Mid-Century Toronto

Cromwell

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TORONTOist

1 Comment

  1. David

    I’ve been in the Prince Arthur building . Always liked it. It’s always nice to see buildings that have interesting shapes and not just cubes.

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