How Jack Diamond’s architectural vision made Toronto better
Toronto was fortunate to have Jack Diamond living and working there.
The esteemed architect died earlier this week at the age of 89, but he left a legacy in this city, both physically and philosophically, that made it a better place.
Perhaps his best-known building here is the Four Seasons Center for the Performing Arts at Queen Street and University Avenue. We talk a lot about the « lantern » effect of its glass facade, and for good reason: no matter what time of day or night I go, I look by reflex at what is happening inside. It’s a glorious human anthill that brings out the interior of a city that’s still learning to be a place with a robust public life. We’ve come a long way though, and Diamond has helped.
In 1968, while practicing 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 with a funky brick facade and it had an interior courtyard worthy of a restaurant patio at a time when legal outdoor patios were a novelty in Toronto.
Unfortunately, York Square was recently bulldozed, as respect for modern heritage is low here, but it represented a mix of new and old, a very Toronto pairing that doesn’t happen so easily in other cities. Diamond also led a movement to save and reuse other old buildings at a time when it was common to demolish them, as he did with 322 King St. W. in the early 1970s.
On the other side of the city center, a former Victorian knitting mill on the corner of Berkeley Street and the Esplanade was condemned and subject to demolition in the 1970s, but was bought by Diamond and renovated into suites loft-style commercial spaces, the kind favored by so many technology and design companies today. Ahead of its time, it even had to relax exclusionary industrial zoning to allow commercial businesses, a foreshadowing of the 1990s “Two Kings” settlement that changed the fortunes of the former warehouse districts where King Street intersects Spadina and Parliament.
« Berkeley Castle », as the building was known after its renovation, also for two decades became the home of Diamond Schmitt, Diamond’s new venture after its partnership with Donald Schmitt.
Originally from South Africa, Diamond arrived in Toronto in 1964 and quickly became part of the reform movement which criticized urban planning, architecture and political orthodoxy and thought 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 area around Sherbourne and Dundas had to be demolished for the towers, but Diamond again incorporated these residential homes into a long six-story building that ran behind them. Today we would call it the « missing link » and it’s exactly the kind of building that needs to be woven into every neighborhood. « Hydro Block », a low-rise 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 an understatement was criticized by the Four Seasons Center for not being grand enough for such a significant building, but now it feels like it’s always been there and fits in perfectly.
Likewise, Corus Quay, while quirky and complex on the inside, has a rather understated exterior. As the first building to go up in the East Bayfront, it then seemed unable to bear the weight of that role, but now other buildings have settled around it and it feels like home. Contextual before there is a context.
There were also local and international buildings: the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, the City Hall in Jerusalem, the Central Library in Richmond Hill, the Metro Central YMCA and many others. He carried a small painting kit that could fit in his pocket and made watercolors of places he visited and buildings he envisioned. He was always well dressed, perhaps something easier with a life of success, but a model of how to age gracefully.
Diamond was at the center of Toronto’s conversation about herself, often weighing in on her future in writing or serving in more formal roles. In 2013, he spoke out strongly against a possible casino at Exhibition Place, saying, “The Expo grounds belong to the City of Toronto and to the public… But once it’s gone, it’s gone. It is a public good that we must preserve.
Part of his fight has been undermined by his own company as they design the controversial spa that will privatize much of Ontario Place. Diamond Schmitt is big enough to refuse such commissions.
Yet his bold vision and his voice will be missed in a city where too few people speak up when needed.
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