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If buildings are art, should they be altered from their original form?

September 16th, 2015 · No Comments

44 Walmer Rd. faced changed to its character in 2001

In his Aug. 24, 2015 column for The Globe and Mail, “A pop art prize”, Dave Leblanc points to Alfred Holden’s May 2001 column in The Annex Gleaner about 44 Walmer Rd., a design by renowned architect Uno Prii. Leblanc reminds us that the questions raised by Mr. Holden in 2001 remain relevant today. Here is a reprint of that Gleaner column.

Although diminished by the removal of its curvaceous balcony adornments, architect Uno Prii’s 44 Walmer Rd. – as it stands today – remains an artistic statement in design. Brian Burchell, Gleaner News

Although diminished by the removal of its curvaceous balcony adornments, architect Uno Prii’s 44 Walmer Rd. – as it stands today – remains an artistic statement in design. Brian Burchell, Gleaner News

By Alfred Holden,

Are buildings art?

The question is seldom posed. But it’s a legitimate one that raises some potentially important legal and ethical issues, in the light of construction work that’s going on right now at the large apartment house at 44 Walmer Rd.

In recent weeks crews have removed the building’s most artful and distinctive feature – the curvilinear, circle-patterned balcony railings that made 44 Walmer something of an icon.

Just last month, in its Icons column, Toronto Life pictured 44 Walmer on a two-page spread. The headline was “Flower tower” – a nice play on the way the sensuous design of 44, like the attitude of youth in the sixties era during which it was built, went against boxed-in ways of thinking.

“Playful whimsy” is how a new book East/West: A Guide to Where People Live in Toronto sums up this design by architect Uno Prii. With its “idiosyncratic quality and lightheartedness”, the building “brings an unexpected lightness and joie de vivre to sometimes staid Toronto”.

Prii died last November and I wrote about him in February’s Gleaner.

The current alteration was undertaken so crews could get at balcony concrete for much needed repairs. Nothing wrong with the repairs, but the building’s owner, Gaetano D’Addario, has said the old railing design is gone for good. “I did not like it,” he told me point blank over the phone. And as he put it emphatically, he owns the place.

Legally perhaps, but does he own it completely?

Some readers may remember the case of the Eaton Centre Canada geese, which may offer legal, and certainly moral, inspiration for those concerned about 44 Walmer Rd., and other buildings of merit.

In 1982, as part of a Christmas marketing campaign, it was decided to tie red ribbons around the necks of the flock of fiberglass geese that hang in the south end of the mall’s galleria. The geese are the creation of noted Canadian artist Michael Snow and he was horrified. Snow took the Eaton Centre to court.

A judge found that under Canadian copyright law artists can sell their work, but retain important residual rights: their artistry isn’t to be distorted or modified in unseemly ways by those who buy it. In December of 1982, the red ribbons flew south.

Typically, buildings are not seen as art. Yet buildings everywhere, from the Parliament buildings to the Toronto Dominion Centre to many midtown homes, clearly are art.

Uno Prii was an artist. When I visited him and his wife a couple of years ago, I found their Bloor Street condominium filled with paintings, sculpture, and pottery by the architect. Instantly, I knew where his sculptural buildings came from.

In Ontario, various rules and protocols exist for protecting historic and significant structures. But as Rosie Horn of the Toronto Preservation Board admitted when I called her about 44 Walmer Rd., the system is gutless, toothless. The free-enterprising freewheeling United States has much tougher rules, and enforceable standards set by the Secretary of the Interior. Compared to Canada, Margaret Thatcher’s Britain was, and is, draconian. In France, the prosperity of the nation is seen to depend, in part, on strategic, intelligent stewardship of the nation’s remarkable store of landmark architecture. Is 2001 the time, and 44 Walmer Rd. the place, for ordinary people to take on the issue, by playing hardball under something like the copyright law? The tenants have a law student working on their behalf, in what’s become a long-standing battle with their landlord.

With the balcony railings already off, it seems too late to do anything about the building, but I am not sure.

D’Addario, judging from his response to my phone call, is certainly feeling the pressure. “Wait until the decision is made,” he said to me, opening the door, later in the interview, at least superficially. “It’s a decision we have to make and I am going to take my time to make it.”

“He keeps the place up,” tenant David Aylward told me in the lobby on April 30, “but he’s a bit fancy in his ideas.” Other recent alterations – a marble floor in the foyer and lobby over original terrazzo, a new stucco-over-foam exterior with classical details – reflect a bid to remake modernist 44 into neo-Casa Loma. D’Addario didn’t mention another fact – that his company, Navy & Jim Investments Ltd., has applied to convert 44 Walmer Rd. into a condominium. That’s something with multiple implications for the lives of the tenants today and tomorrow. A public hearing will be held at City Hall at 10 a.m. on May 15. If I lived there, I’d be sure to go.

Whatever happens, I think the owner, by removing a key architectural feature, is taking the wrong approach to his real estate. The very people to whom the building is marketed – the tenants and ultimately the public – have long noticed 44 is a real designer building. Newspapers, magazines, and books are giving the property unsolicited praise, the kind of publicity that cannot be bought at any price. That reflects more about what people want than faux columns and marble floors.

Larry Richards, Dean of Faculty of Architecture at the University of Toronto, in an April 12 letter to the Toronto Preservation Board chair Catherine Nasmith, wrote: “44 Walmer is a highly sculptural, landmark tower…designed by one of Toronto’s most important 20th century modernist architects.” Referring to the railings which define the building, Richards wrote, “this change will drive our city further toward architectural mediocrity”.

In recent years, not enough has been said about botched renovations and still less is done about it. Apartment buildings, so important to the city fabric, are particularly prone – they are treated by their owners, of all people, like worthless old cars, to be patched up with Bondo and souped up with stick-on accessories from Canadian Tire.

So I urge 44 Walmer tenants and their legal advisers to think art, take action, and make theirs a landmark case. These should kick some teeth into worthless laws that right now allow the willy-nilly destruction of art, architecture, and achievement that is of immense value to the future pride and reputation of the city.

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