The Architecture of A. J. Diamond, Donald Schmitt & Co.

148 pages,
ISBN: 0929112318

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Red Bricks & Bright Glass
by John Ferguson

Jack Diamond was a breath of fresh air in Toronto when he opened an architectural practice in 1968. At times, he was a gust, and even periodically a gale. This brief volume-an entry in the series of monographs currently emerging from the Technical University of Nova Scotia under the rubric "Documents in Canadian Architecture"-is something of a weathercock of his career to date.
Diamond arrived in Toronto from South Africa by way of Oxford and Philadelphia. In partnership with the elegant Barton Myers-a Virginian with a similar lack of respect for Toronto's porridgy past-he rapidly applied a cocky buffing-up to the city. "Diamond & Myers" was almost a mantra in architectural circles at the time, a phrase summoning up clean red brick and bright panels of glass that flew in the face of a tenacious Victorianism.
But in the mid-seventies, this aesthetic twosome broke up; from the ashes rose the firm of A. J. Diamond & Associates, on whose work the bulk of this careful monograph concentrates.
The separate firms set up business on adjacent floors of the old Eclipse Whitewear Building on King Street West, which Diamond and Myers had purchased together and renovated in 1970: arguably the first local example of the conversion of a nineteenth-century industrial building to a modern use (a process that continues to underwrite Toronto's claim to central core vitality). The junior staffs of the two firms, undeterred by the bitterness that was sometimes palpable between the two floors, once organized an inter-office volleyball match. Asked if he might offer a few words of encouragement to his team on the eve of the match, Jack Diamond hesitated for a moment and then replied: "You'd better win, or don't bother coming back tomorrow."
This might serve as a mission statement, even a crucial design principle, for his firm. The work that is profiled here in detail-from the National Ballet School and the Earth Sciences Centre at the University of Toronto to the Richmond Hill Library and the Jerusalem City Hall, award-winners all-is powerful, informed by a confidence and clarity of thought that jumps out of the book's fine drawings and photographs. The forcefulness is immediately recognizable in the achievement of a cultural athlete who puts winning first.
The book is primarily, and quite properly, a collection of illustrations. There are a few brief essays that attempt to interpret the language spoken by the illustrations, small verbal adornments to the bolder images of the buildings. The pictures are the real story. Where the essays venture into the interpretive quagmire, they bog down in limp generalities. An introductory squib entitled "Room and City: The Presence of the Past", by Brian Carter (chairman of Architecture at the University of Michigan), hovers over the work of "Works", saying that it is "building a truly civic architecture for a prosperous and rapidly developing society in a country committed to constructing a distinctive social democracy." The same could be said about any half-decent Canadian architect. This is an example, unhappily frequent in architectural writing, of a critical trope that might be called Permanent Novelty: the apparent discovery of a quality endlessly hailed as new and inventive but in fact common to all practitioners of any merit. It might also be called the Exaltation of the Utterly Fundamental. Whatever the best name, it makes the writing pale beside the work.
Even Robert Fulford, that estimable critic, cannot entirely escape this unfortunate association between muscular architecture and 98-pound-weakling prose. His summary essay, "The Sanctity of Context, the Ethic of Tact", rumbles gracefully around in generalities about the firm until it decides that "an ideal of citizenship, as opposed to a virtuoso ideal of architectural stardom, apparently governs much of what they produce." Which begs the question whether carrying such a gentle ideal-or any ideal-to bold lengths is not the stuff of which architectural stardom is made.
And there is no doubt that, on the strength of the work herein, Jack Diamond is a star. If this book is a weathercock of his career, it points firmly towards more success, the direction fixed by a strong wind of single-mindedness. There is a refreshing bravado-perhaps not out of place in any corner of Canadian culture-in its underlying credo: "You better win, or don't bother coming back tomorrow." 

John Ferguson is an architect in Dundas, Ontario. For a brief period in the early eighties, he toiled in the Diamond breeze.


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