Uno Prii in his Bloor Street apartment, Toronto, 1999. Image by Alfred Holden.
Walmer Flats, 22 Walmer Road, 2020. Image by Vik Pahwa.
90 Warren Road, Toronto, 2017. Image courtesy of Kaido Haagen / Estonian Museum of Architecture.
Who is Uno Prii?
Uno Prii was born on February 28, 1924 in Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia. He escaped to Finland during the Nazi takeover of Estonia and joined the Finnish Army. After the war, he moved to Sweden to study engineering. While there, he married Silvia Kikas, whose family also escaped from Estonia during the war.
In 1950, the Priis moved to Toronto and Uno studied architecture at the University of Toronto. In 1957, he opened his own architectural firm and started designing for developers who were building for the thousands of immigrants coming to Toronto in the post-war years. Throughout his career, Prii built 250 apartment buildings in Ontario, as well as in Ohio and Florida; however, most of his buildings are in Toronto. In 2004, 13 of his buildings were added to the City of Toronto’s Inventory of Heritage Properties.
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A new Canadian life
Uno and Silvia Prii’s early life in Toronto was full of hard work and sacrifice. In those first years in Canada, the couple worked to support themselves while pursuing their career dreams in Toronto. The day after Uno and Silvia arrived in Toronto in 1950, Uno registered in the architectural program at the University of Toronto. Uno didn’t speak English when he began attending classes; however, by Christmas of his first year, he told Silvia that he’d finally started to understand what the professors were saying.
At the same time, Silvia worked in a local library, supporting them both while Uno was in school. In the summers between terms, Uno worked at an engineering company in Sudbury, which allowed Silvia to pursue her own studies. She graduated in 1952 with a librarianship degree from the University of Toronto and began her long career at the Toronto Public Library. Uno graduated in 1955 and received his architecture license in 1957, allowing him to open his own practice designing apartment buildings.
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From Bauhaus to Googie
When he first started out as an architect, Prii designed according to the popular styles of the day, such as the Bauhaus school or International Style. This no-frills design uses lots of geometric shapes and emphasises function. The style was born out of a rejection of classic European styles and became a symbol of industrial progress. Part of its popularity was due to its appeal as an “affordable” (or cheap) way of building.
Although Bauhaus had been a predominant style for several decades by the mid-twentieth century, other modernist architectural movements began to emerge in the 1940s, such as Googie architecture. First seen in Southern California, Googie was a sharp contrast to Bauhaus. This futuristic style is characterized by its use of curves, sharp angles, and exaggeration. These new Space-Age styles intrigued Prii, who was uninspired by the rectangular and sterile nature of the Bauhaus and International styles. He instead wanted to design buildings that were curved, round, and oval. Over the years Prii created his own unique style that was informed by this optimistic architecture.
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The mystery of the Walmer Flats
22 Walmer Road, known as the Walmer Flats, is an Uno Prii design that is more unusual than his others. 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, the Walmer Flats are representative of one of Uno Prii’s earlier projects, when the influence of Bauhaus style in his work was stronger.