Writing

Getting To Know Uno

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I have an article on the modernist architect Uno Prii, who built many wonderful apartment blocks around Toronto in the 1960s and 70s, in the forthcoming issue of the magazine of the 20th Century Society. Above is a proof of the article as it will appear in the printed magazine; below are the opening paragraphs – I’ll publish the full piece shortly after publication date.

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GETTING TO KNOW UNO

Peter Ustinov described Toronto as ‘New York run by the Swiss’ but the Canadian city fails to match its American counterpart for architectural swagger. Yet the forgettable glass and steel condos that define much of the city’s built environment don’t tell the whole story: in the 1960s a group of Estonian-born architects introduced a period of experimentation that, although brief, left Toronto with a modernist legacy that is palpable to this day, if you know where to look.

Of the 100 or so Estonian-born architects who moved to Toronto in the middle of the 29th century none was more prolific, nor made more of a lasting impact, than Uno Prii (1924-2000). Characterised by architectural writer xxx as a ‘carefree optimist’, Prii was a committed bon vivant who sought to imbue even the most quotidian building with a sense of purpose and artistic joie de vivre: the rectilinear box popularised by the International Style prevalent at the time – a ‘Bauhaus straitjacket’, as Prii termed it – was never going to be enough. 

A devotee of Morris Lapidus, the American architect whose ‘Miami Modern’ neo-baroque defined that city’s midcentury aesthetic, Prii’s style was all about whimsy, of great bold concrete brush strokes, of a fanciful and flamboyant daring. His buildings curve and bulge unexpectedly, their concrete whiteness brightening up what can be a dull cityscape.

Perhaps the greatest example is 20 Prince Arthur Avenue, a 20-storey apartment block whose dramatic profile which tapers inwards as it rises to the summit, lends the building a space-age charm, albeit with historical roots: Prii was inspired by the flying buttresses of European cathedrals. While the individual apartments were fairly basic, the exterior allowed Prii to exercise his imagination. As the architect said: "I felt I could treat them as big sculptures, so that the guy who lived there could say, 'I live in this building,' and people would say, 'Oh, I know that building.’". In the case of 20 Prince Arthur Avenue, the dramatic shape wasn’t just for show: the extended balcony footage of the lower blocks meant the client was able to charge similar rent to those living on the higher levels. 

Dean Nicholas