A Jane’s Walk: Estonian Architects and Their Buildings in Midtown Toronto

20 Prince Arthur, Designed by Uno Prii's and Harry Hiller

20 Prince Arthur, Designed by Uno Prii and Harry Hiller

On Sunday, the Estonian Studies Centre  hosted its first Jane’s Walk, “Estonian Architects and Their Buildings in Midtown Toronto“.  The walk, led by  Toronto Architect Käbi Lokk, was an excellent sample of Estonian architecture in Toronto’s Annex and Yorkville neighbourhoods.

During the walk, we looked at the work of four Estonian architects who fled their occupied homeland in the late 1940s. These architects have had a tremendous influence  on Toronto’s postwar architectural style and midtown Toronto.

The pioneer of this group was Mihkel (Michael) Bach. Bach studied architecture in Berlin before the Second World War. In 1949, while living in Sweden, he met a visiting professor from the University  of Toronto’s School of Architecture. The professor encouraged Bach to come to Toronto to join the faculty of modern architecture, which was still in it’s formative years. Bach brought a modernist architectural style from Western Europe to Toronto and is said to have played an important role in the design of Victoria College’s Wymilwood Residence.

Bach would also recruit another Estonian architect with a modernist Scandinavian style, Ants Elken to the University of Toronto. Elken would teach architecture at the University for 33 years. Unfortunately, while Bach had some significant influence on modernism in Toronto in the 1950s, he struggled with personal issues and faded from the Toronto architectural scene in the early 1960s.

However, many Estonians followed Bach and Elken to the University of Toronto School of Architecture in the 1950s, including Uno Prii,  Elmar Tampõld, and Henno Sillaste, whose buildings Lokk highlighted during our walk.

Uno Prii graduated from the University of Toronto in 1955. Prii’s imaginative buildings are often described as “Space Aged,” and have been recognized by many architects today for their uniqueness. The City of Toronto named 13 of Prii’s buildings to to the  Inventory of Heritage Properties in 2004, including 20 Prince Arthur Ave., pictured above.

Also well known, but perhaps not as celebrated are the works of Elmar Tampõld, who graduated from the University of Toronto in 1953. Working with his firm Tampõld and Wells, he was involved with numerous projects along Bloor Street West. These include the brutalist Senator David Croll apartments and Tartu College, both near Spadina and Bloor. Tartu College remains a centre for Estonian cultural life in the city and is a major student residence.

The Senator David Croll apartments, formally know as  Rochdale College, are infamous. As the nexus of hippy culture and later drug culture in the late 1960s and early 1970s the building has become an important cultural landmark. 

While I was familiar with both Tartu and the David Croll apartments, I was unaware of Tampõld’s connection to the Colonnade Building, a luxury mixed-use building along the “mink mile“.

The building was one of the first significant mixed-used projects in Toronto and perhaps Canada. The Toronto’s Star’s architecture critic, Christopher Hume, nicely summarizes what makes the building such an innovation,

“What lifted the Colonnade above the modernist orthodoxies that homogenized the face of cities around the globe was its deep sensitivity to context. A two- and three-storey podium runs along Bloor, which means a continuous streetscape, a critical element in this heavy shopping environment. It also connects Bloor to the open green space behind and Charles St.

Most of the Estonians on the tour who grew up in Toronto during the 1960s fondly remembered the Colonnade and its Estonian confectionary Amjärve. The store apparently once occupied the same space that is now home to Cartier.

During our tour we also took a look at 1132 Bay Street, which was designed by Henno Sillaste, who graduated from the University of Toronto in 1960. 1132 Bay Street was a condominium built in the 1980s. While not a remarkable building, Sillaste was a well known as an expert in curtain-wall systems.

In one of those great examples of how immigration influences both the host country and country of origin,  Sillaste introduced the curtain-wall system to Estonian architects in the 1990s. As a result, the curtain wall is known as a Kanada sein (Canadian Wall) in Estonia.

Lokk ended our tour by discussing a more recent vision to raise the profile of Estonians in Toronto and preserve the legacy of the first generation of the community. The Centre for Estonian Studies is planning a Museum of Estonians Abroad (VEMU), which would be built as an addition to Tartu College.

The museum and archive could be part of the cultural corridor that stretches along Bloor from University Avenue to Bathurst Street and includes the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, Royal Ontario Museum, and other cultural centres such as the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto . Thomas Tampõld, Elmar’s Tampõld son, designed the proposed addition to Tartu College. An excellent example of how a second generation of Canadian-Estonian Architects are now making their mark on midtown Toronto.

Museum of Estonian's Abroad (Väliseesti Muuseum - VEMU)

Rendering of the Proposed Museum of Estonian’s Abroad (VEMU)

A (Jane’s) Walk: Sheppard Avenue West

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This weekend was Jane’s Walk weekend. Jane’s walks are free walking tours led by locals, on the first weekend of May each year. They are meant to celebrate the legacy of Jane Jacobs, the famed urbanist writer who lived in Toronto for 38 years. I took part in one on Saturday and lead my own on Sunday where a group of 15 joined me outside of Downsview subway station to explore the changes sweeping across Sheppard Avenue West.

The reason I choose to walk this stretch is because it is the first in the City to be subject to rules that encourage the urbanization of a suburban street. Since 1993, the Secondary Plan and the Official Plan have called for buildings to be built close to the street, continuous building façades, sidewalks that contain street furniture, street trees, and enhanced paving, parks, courtyards and walkways, and most importantly commercial uses on the ground floor.

The street is a living laboratory of how some of the core ideas of Jane Jacobs are being applied along suburban arterial streets through planning rules and zoning regulations. It is the first place the City has tried to build a main street from scratch. As a result, some of the things we looked at during our walk included walkability, the mix of uses, the diversity and age of buildings, and density.

What we saw a much denser street. The area has seen considerable mid-rise, mixed used growth. Developers have demolished over 50 of the street’s 133 bungalows to make way for about a dozen new mixed-use buildings since 1993. The population has grown by 23 percent while many inner suburban neighbourhoods in Toronto have seen a decline.

Yet, instead of new shops and stores, the real growth in employment has been office and services. Because there are so many spas, pharmacies, and medical offices, I’ve coined it the “health strip.” The retail spaces in the new buildings cannot compete with the thriving Sheppard Plaza at the corner of Sheppard and Bathurst. The developers know it as well, which is why many of the newest buildings have abandoned pure retail space at grade and are now building live/work units.

The success of a main street also really depends on the neighbourhood and how it connects to the street.  As a result, we did a lot of walking between Sheppard and the streets directly behind it. It was clear that the links between the two were at best poor and far between. The important retail nodes and the communities behind them were poorly connected hurting the Avenue’s overall walkability. The street itself is still a fast suburban arterial. We saw many people struggle to cross Sheppard, taking cover in “pedestrian bunkers,” including one man who was just about clipped by a car, which instead of slowing down laid on the horn. The built form along Sheppard may be changing but the street has not. It is still fast and dangerous.

A fast street, poor connections to the surrounding neighbourhood, and intense competition from the retail plaza make the Avenue very much a work in progress. Not quite a suburban arterial, not quite a main street, but instead a unique 21st century Toronto street.

A Walk: Eglinton Avenue East

I found myself along Scarborough’s Golden Mile last weekend and decided to walk to Kennedy Station instead of jumping on the bus. My walk covered the last 2.5km of what will be the Eglinton-Scarborough Crosstown.  It is an area that will be experiencing some significant change in the next decade. So here is a snapshot of what I felt walking along the street on a cold January day. I wonder how this walk will feel in 2023?

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A Walk: Scarborough City Centre

This is the first of my posts about a walk. Hopefully many more to come.

Recently, I took a brief walk in Scarborough City Centre while on my way to pick up groceries at the Loblaws Super Centre. I’ve been to Scarborough City Centre many times but I have never wandered north of the SRT track. Highlights: the modernist feel of the SRT juxtaposed with the new towers, the unique signage, and the quiet yet charming Albert Campbell Square.   I took all the pictures with my phone:

SRT pulling into Scarborough Centre

Wayfinding signage

Albert Campbell Square