The First Jane’s Walk of VEMU/Estonian Studies Centre

October 17, 2014

On Sunday May 25th, 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.

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 confectionery Amjärv. 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.

Eric Sehr