Eesti Elu
Toronto Estonian House, Estonian Centre Project, and Community Building Estonian Life
Eestlased Kanadas 09 Dec 2017 EL (Estonian Life)Eesti Elu
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Alja Pirosok
 - pics/2017/12/50801_001_t.jpg

There are some important heritage considerations we should keep in mind as we decide the future of Estonian House.

Toronto City Council approved a by-law to designate 958 Broadview Avenue, Chester Public School, as being of cultural heritage value or interest. The by-law, as noted, does not protect the additions to the original building that the Toronto-Estonian community made after purchasing the building in the 1960’s. But the point of a proposed city-wide survey of heritage properties is to get more information about what is actually out there.

In the case of Toronto Estonian House, there is not only Chester Public School, the key elements and features of which have largely been preserved intact, but also the 1960’s Michael (Mihkel) Bach's "Modernist" design of the Great Hall. Listing Bach’s 1960’s addition to Estonian House as a heritage property is a goal worthy of consideration. Ironically the fact of its existence was hidden at the Architectural Symposium and Exhibit at Tartu College to which came architects, journalists, and advocates of an expanded concept of heritage.

A heritage case has been made by professionals who visited the exhibit, among others, for the Modernism of concrete towers, like those in the Annex, which include Estonian Uno Prii's apartment buildings. Thirteen of Prii’s buildings were named to the City of Toronto’s Inventory of Heritage Properties in 2004. Attention has more recently been drawn to the Scandinavian variant of Modernism, with the publication of the updated 2017 edition of Toronto Architecture: A City Guide. This Scandinavian style of Modernism is embodied in St. Peter’s Estonian Church and additions to Toronto Estonian House.

Photos of both the Estonian House Great Hall and the interior of St. Peter’s Estonian Lutheran Church appeared prominently in the Globe and Mail print preview of the exhibit (“Postwar Estonian Architects left their mark on Toronto”, September 15, G1 & G4). But the attribution of the design for the Estonian House Great Hall was incorrect, in the newspaper article and on the Exhibit poster, so there was no link of Estonian House to the renowned architect of Estonian heritage who designed them both.

Michael Bach is featured as a well-known innovator and educator who helped bring European Modernist architectural design to Toronto. The correct attribution of the design of the Estonian House Grand Hall would establish architectural and cultural significance, and explain the resemblance to the interior of St. Peter’s Estonian Church, “Bach’s masterpiece”, shown along with the exteriors of both buildings, including the addition by Guido E. Laikve, in the article by Architourist columnist Dave LeBlanc.

Jarmo Kauge, curator from Tallinn, received from a VEMU archival volunteer a copy of Toronto Architecture: A City Guide after he was asked in the Q & A whether he was aware of the publication. He was not.

The Tartu College exhibit, titled “Building a Community: Estonian Architects in Post-War Toronto” is a collaboration between the Museum of Estonian Architecture and The Museum of Estonians Abroad (VEMU). The significance of the omission of the renowned designer of Estonian House’s Great Hall was threefold: 1) from the standpoint of the cultural heritage value or interest to Toronto; 2) the significance to the Estonian diaspora community, and to community building, of that heritage structure within Toronto Estonian House and 3) the academic focus and academic integrity that has been a raison d’être of VEMU, Tartu Institute and now the Estonian Studies Centre.

The Exhibit title “Building a Community” was thought to be “puzzling” by a guest speaker at the Architectural Symposium who advocates preserving the heritage of cultural communities. In Tallinn, a source suggested, it might be changed. Guido E. Laikve, architect for the most recent addition to Toronto Estonian House, pictured also in the aforementioned Globe and Mail article, is identified on an Exhibit poster as “The Community Architect”.

The theme for the upcoming conference organized by the VEMU Chief Archivist for the Baltic Heritage Network is “New Beginnings of Baltic Diaspora”. Among the suggested topics are “collaborative efforts of diaspora communities and homeland in preserving, digitizing and researching the history of the Baltic diaspora”, and “community life and belonging”.

Community life arguably comes alive in the working out of the tension between different views of its character. Not an unalterable environment to be appreciated, revered, or acted upon technically, it makes reference to an opportunity for mutual and reciprocal influence and so, a context in which the agitations and frustrations released from trying to persuade one another, in regards to the relationship of Estonian House and the Estonian Centre Project, sharpen our sensitivity to accountability.

City by-laws can be repealed by the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB). The restoration of a role for citizens in city planning has been the goal of calls for OMB Reform to which the province has been responsive. In the meantime, in the words of Globe and Mail architecture critic Alex Bozikovic, “Heritage preservation experts can’t keep up with Toronto’s development pressures and many unique buildings are being lost forever” (“It’s a race against time in a rapidly changing city”, November 18, M7).
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