Those Were the Days

Despite his passing, Uno Prii’s philosophy of city living lives on in the apartment houses he left behind.

July 12, 2001

Uno Prii

Uno Prii departed from this world the way he lived in it—with a lot of fun.

The Toronto architect, who designed high-rise apartment houses where thousands of people reside in the Annex and midtown Toronto, died on November 27, 2000. A memorial service was held January 21st at the Royal Canadian Yacht Club city clubhouse on St. George Street. There were tributes from friends and family, but it was not a funeral, not even a wake. It was a party. There was beer and wine and sandwiches and unlimited hors d’oeuvres and then cake and coffee amid banter that went on for hours in a big, crowded dining room.

The yacht club’s lithographs of great sailing boats hung, as usual, on the walls. Prii was an avid sailor, hence this venue for his send-off. But, on this Sunday afternoon, the room was also decorated with family photos and images of buildings Prii had designed. They sure looked familiar. Many—I think the best—of his hundreds of buildings are in midtown. Maybe you live in one: they include 20 Prince Arthur Avenue, 11, 35 and 44 Walmer Road, 100 Spadina Road, and 191 and 277 St. George Street, to name just a few.

In 1981, soon after I moved to Toronto from Ottawa, my best friend from high school moved into apartment 703 at 35 Walmer Road. We liked the big balcony, and the sculpture of the lady (since removed) in the lobby. Otherwise, the building, dating from 1965, was still too new to be understood. We could not see, yet, the alternative view this building represented: modern architecture not as boxes, but flowing sculpture, poured (literally, with concrete) onto big-city lots where previously stood baroque mansions (35 Walmer was once the address of Timothy Eaton).

But in recent years, there has been new interest in Prii’s buildings, particularly among young people, many of them tenants who see the structures with fresh eyes and fewer prejudices. Wasn’t it Lewis Mumford, the twentieth-century scholar of city life, who said, “The commonest axiom of history is that every generation revolts against its fathers and makes friends with its grandfathers”? This may explain why the crowd, on January 21st, was motlier and more interesting than you would expect in the blue-blazered, very-establishment R.C.Y.C. Former city councillor Ying Hope was there, yet so were shaved-and-pierced twentysomethings and teens in cargo pants. “He invited us to his seventy-fifth birthday party,” said Angus Skene, the young architect who hosts Structures, Rogers Cable’s neat series about architecture and city building. He and Prii had made friends in 1999 when Skene did a show about Prii’s buildings. “He was in a room full of old friends, and still collecting new ones,” said Skene. “It was nice to be part of the new collection.”

Lately, a new establishment has been won over. “Clearly, Uno Prii had the courage and capacity to be enormously creative,” said Larry Richards, dean of the faculty of architecture at the University of Toronto, who also attended the January 21st event. “We are enormously, enormously proud to have Uno as one of our graduates, and to have this legacy of really amazing architecture in the city of Toronto.”

I first met Prii while working on an essay about Annex apartment houses for the Christmas, 1999, issue of Taddle Creek. I simply looked him up in the phone book and dialed. At once I was invited to lunch at the St. George clubhouse. He wasn’t seeking publicity. We ended up talking about sailing—I think he hoped to recruit me as crew—until his wife, Silvia, steered us in the right direction. Later, I went to see the Priis at their condominium on Bloor Street East. I found a compact, comfortable home decorated with abstract paintings, sculptures, and ceramic art, much of it created by Prii and his wife during their lifetime of artful experiment and domestic puttering. On the patio, overlooking the Rosedale ravine, were pots and planters Prii had decorated. Silvia brought one of these to the memorial service—a mere plastic bucket of the kind Canadian Tire ships small shrubs in before you transplant them. Uno Prii had transformed it, with mere paint, into a Mattisse-like work of art.

Still, with Prii’s buildings now aging and needing repair, and relations between tenants and landlords tense as high rents and thin profit margins put pressure on each, you would think that no one would be much concerned with how these buildings rate as architecture, or who designed them, or the experiences that flow from living in them. Not so.

“I have nothing but cherished memories of my nine or so months at that apartment,” Juliet O’Neill, the Ottawa Citizen’s national reporter, told me last July. O’Neill was a tenant at 44 Walmer Road in the late nineteen-nineties, while at the University of Toronto on a Southam Fellowship following a stint as a foreign correspondent in Moscow. The journalist remembered, about 44, “the Romanian concierge who disappeared in the middle of the night; my untenured professor/neighbour whose film-making friend from India left me a love letter and swore me to secrecy; the proximity to my friends, the Grays, on Huron Street.” She was so fresh from Russia that she could detect a Baltic mood in the design. In fact, Uno Prii was born and grew up in Estonia, on the Baltic Sea; he escaped during the Second World War, after which his country was occupied by the Soviet Union until glasnost. Said O’Neill: “The flamboyant shape of the building and driveway and mosaic-lined entry gave me a feeling of comfort and familiarity—some echo of an effort to be grand, or perhaps a parody of such efforts. I was never sure which. Now I know that the effort was simply and wonderfully to have fun and create interest. What good aims for daily life…as well as architecture.”

At the R.C.Y.C. celebration there was also piano playing and singalong. “Those were the days my friend/we thought they’d never end,” everyone serenaded in a version of the popular song from the nineteen-sixties, cleverly customized for Uno Prii. “In practice Uno soared high like an eagle/From his drafting board the buildings grew/Anywhere in town you still can seem them/So elegant and always seeming new.”

There may have been a mention of God at the city clubhouse on January 21st, but then again, maybe not. Uno Prii was not a religious man, and this shaped the way he lived. He “believed that life is not a journey to a better place,” Sheila Latham, a family friend told the gathering. As a result, “he knew how to live.”

Now his days have ended, but Uno Prii’s philosophy is expressed exuberantly in the architecture he left, which is all around us. Crack open the champagne.

(Originally published in the February, 2001 issue of the Annex Gleaner.)