Site Seeing With Hume: The Alan Brown Building Gets Its Grade

Alan Brown Building
Photo courtesy of Christopher Hume.

Architects and building designers beware, renowned architecture critic and veteran journalist Christopher Hume is reviving his condo critiques, exclusively for TorontoStoreys.com.

Alan Brown Building
Architect: Uno Prii
Style: Brutalist
Completion: 1983
Address: 77 Elm St.

Grade: D-

 

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Okay, it’s not exactly a condo but 77 Elm Street, the Alan Brown Building, ranks as one of the most bizarre examples of residential architecture in Toronto. Designed by Uno Prii, the Estonian-born architect who gave the city some of its most exuberant apartment towers in the 1960s and ‘70s, it was a different sort of project, even for him. At a time when architects were obedient followers of orthogonal Modernist orthodoxies, Prii opted instead for swoops, curves and early space-age aesthetics. In a city of squares and rectangles, straight lines and right angles, his buildings stood out. People either loved or hated them.

READ: A Toronto Firm Could Win The Most Generous Prize In Architecture

But Prii’s nightmare on Elm Street is unique in Toronto. This outlandish structure, which consists of a residential slab atop a five-storey parking garage, arguably represents Prii at his worst. Almost everything about it seems wrong. Just try to find the entrance. It’s not easy. Try to discover a connection to the street. It’s even more difficult. There isn’t one. It’s as self-contained, as hermetically sealed a building as exists in the city.

READ: How Design And Architecture Can Improve Toronto’s Community Well-Being

No surprise that from the moment it opened in 1983, it has been consistently been considered one of Toronto’s ugliest buildings. It’s not hard to understand why; its concrete surfaces feel arbitrary and inappropriate. As an object on the cityscape, it’s the architectural equivalent of a black hole. The entrance stands among the most depressing and demoralizing anywhere. On the other hand, there’s something grimly fascinating about the whole thing. The placement of residential above a parking garage illustrates a disturbing willingness to sacrifice street presence to accommodate the car, which apparently takes precedence over the human inhabitants above. Though some might argue this arrangement is eminently practical, the result is a building that gives almost nothing back to the city it occupies.


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