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Toronto was lucky to have Jack Diamond live and work in it.
The esteemed architect died earlier this week at age 89 but he’s left a legacy in this city, both physically and philosophically, that has made it a better place.
Perhaps his most well-known building here is the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts at Queen Street and University Avenue. Much is made about the “lantern” effect of its glass façade, and with good reason: no matter the time of day or night I pass by, I reflexively look to see what’s going on inside. It’s a glorious human ant farm that brings the indoors out in a city that is still learning how to be a place with robust public life. We have come a long way though, and Diamond helped.
In 1968, when he was practising with architect Barton Myers, two large old houses on Avenue Road at Yorkville Avenue were preserved and incorporated into “York Square.” The retail and office complex connected the houses together with a funky brick façade and it had an internal courtyard fit for a restaurant patio at a time when legal outdoor patios were a new thing in Toronto.
Sadly, York Square was recently bulldozed, as respect for modern heritage is low here, but it represented a blend of new and old, a very Toronto pairing that doesn’t happen as effortlessly in other cities. Diamond also led a movement to save and repurpose other old buildings at a time when it was common to tear them down, as he did with 322 King St. W. in the early 1970s.
On the other side of downtown an old Victorian knitting mill at the corner of Berkeley Street and The Esplanade was condemned and likely to be demolished in the 1970s, but was purchased by Diamond and renovated into loft-style commercial suites, the kind prized today by so many tech and design companies. Ahead of its time, it even required some loosening of exclusionary industrial zoning to permit the commercial enterprises, a foreshadowing of the 1990s “Two Kings” bylaw that changed the fortunes of the old warehouse districts where King Street intersects Spadina and Parliament.
“Berkeley Castle,” as the building was known after renovation, also became home to Diamond Schmitt for two decades, Diamond’s new firm after partnering with Donald Schmitt.
Originally from South Africa, Diamond arrived in Toronto in 1964 and quickly became part of the reform movement here that was critiquing planning, architecture and political orthodoxy and thinking differently. Developments like York Square were possible, but also Sherbourne Lanes in the mid-1970s.
Like St. James Town a few years earlier, the Victorian residential neighbourhood around Sherbourne and Dundas was to be demolished for towers, but Diamond once again incorporated those residential houses into a long six-storey apartment block that ran behind them. Today we would call it the “missing middle” and is exactly the kind of building that needs to be weaved into every neighbourhood. “Hydro Block,” a lowrise affordable housing development bordered by Beverley, Cecil and Henry Streets, was somewhat similar.
Diamond was big on buildings that fit into the context of the city rather than showy “pavilions.” Such understatement received some criticism with the Four Seasons Centre for not being grandiose enough for such a major building, but now it feels like it has always been there and fits in perfectly.
Similarly, Corus Quay, while quirky and complex on the inside, has a rather subdued exterior. As the first building to go up in the East Bayfront, it seemed unable to carry the weight of that role then, but now other buildings have moved in around it and it’s right at home. Contextual before there was context.
There were local and international buildings too: the Mariinsky theatre in St. Petersburg, Jerusalem city hall, Richmond Hill’s central library, the Metro Central YMCA and many others. He carried a tiny paint kit that could fit into his pocket and did watercolours of the places he visited and the buildings he envisioned. He was always sharply dressed, perhaps something made easier with a lifetime of success, but a model of how to get older elegantly.
Diamond was at the centre of Toronto’s conversation about itself, often weighing in on its future in writing or serving in more formal roles. In 2013 he came out strongly against a possible casino in Exhibition Place, saying “The Exhibition grounds belong to the city of Toronto and the public … But once it’s gone, it’s gone. That is a public good that we should retain.”
Some of his fight has been undermined by his own firm as they are designing the controversial spa that will privatize a big chunk of Ontario Place. Diamond Schmitt is big enough to refuse such commissions.
Still, his bold vision and voice will be missed in a city where not enough people speak out when needed.
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