We love to wander around our town, stopping to closely examine the texture of places that catch our eyes. Imagine our interest in reading (Globe & Mail article here) about an upcoming guided tour of the Annex neighbourhood which would feature the *Jetsons* style residential architecture of the late Uno Prii. We just had to jump at the opportunity, and we were certainly not disappointed. Mother Nature cooperated with a spectacular late February day and our group of around 30 curious folks was treated to an entertaining & highly informative tour conducted this past Sunday by Catherine Drillis. (seen below explaining how *not* to do it)
Drillis & partner Angus Skene have in the past operated a service called Architours (visit their site here) which conducted walking tours of Toronto neighbourhoods, and they now seem poised to resume again after somewhat of a hiatus. We certainly encourage them to do so.
Our tour started at the best preserved of the cluster of residential buildings that Prii generously sprinkled around a few square blocks of the Annex from the mid '60's to mid '70's, the iconic 20 Prince Arthur Avenue. As Catherine explained, citing 20 Prince Arthur as a positive example, some owners more than others have made the necessary investments to maintain these historic buildings.
Sadly, the lack of upkeep was apparent in later sites we visited. Here at 11 Walmer (below) the balconies are in rough shape & the original brickwork has been stuccoed over giving the solid masses a brutal feel. Still, one can still sense delight in the roofline's curvaceous echo of the balcony forms.
Furthermore, some owners who have made necessary upgrades have failed to respect the design integrity of the original construction, with the most common transgression being the changing of the balcony facings. Attempts to modernize have had the effect of removing the very historic elements that make the buildings so desirable.
22 Walmer Rd. , above & below, once had a decorative metal-screened facade, which is certainly very different from the new look. What has been made evident by the screen's removal is Mr. Prii's sure hand at developing a building's proportions- this one still looks good without the screen.
As seen at 44 WalmerRd. (above & below), the replacement of the balcony fronts has completely altered the character of the building. Notice that the connection of the concrete entry canopy to the building looks clumsily naked without the patterned band of the balcony fronts. Gone is the interconnectedness of the building's detailing. The circular cutouts of the entrance canopy & round fountain seem somewhat frivolous or arbitrary without the strongly punched horizontal bands that once were there.
Ms. Drillis noted the irony in the current fondness that the neighbourhood feels for these structures, and the grassroots efforts to ensure their preservation. It seems that at the time they were built the local community fought very vocally to stop their construction, citing the destruction of the character of the Annex as it was at that time. When it comes to people's resistance to change, it's true that *plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose*
Prii was a true *modernist* in that he espoused the right for all to healthy living spaces, even those who could only afford rental accommodations in an era when not owning property was equated with being lower class. He understood that the architectural program must dictate the physical solution. In the case of the structures we visited, that meant simple, inexpensively constructed buildings that earned their owner handsome profits, yet which were ingeniously infused with a forward looking exuberance that we dare say hasn't been matched since.
Catherine Drillis is an Uno Prii scholar who is obviously passionate about this architect's body of work. She curated a Prii exhibition last autumn at the U of T's School of Architecture, which we are truly sad to have missed. She maintains a web site, Uno Prii Architect, which catalogues as many of his structures- which are prolifically distributed across the GTA- as possible. As his records are no longer in existence, she suspects there are countless buildings around town that are as yet unattributed to the man. It will be fun, armed with a little insight thanks to our Annex tour, to add *Prii sleuthing* to the activities we can indulge in as we stroll our fascinating streets.