Jack Diamond designs cultural cathedrals – the opera house in Toronto, the symphony hall in Montreal and now, the magnum opus of the architect’s long career, the new Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, the Russian city’s most important artistic addition since the time of the czars.
Yet there is nothing grand or soaring about where he works – a shoebox office in a century-old former garment factory in downtown Toronto, with a pedestrian view of traffic rumbling along a nondescript street.
But look more closely, and you can see this is a shrine – to a career and vision that over five decades has created one of Canada’s most exportable brand names.
The office displays Mr. Diamond’s first measured drawing as a student – of an old chapel in Cape Town in his native South Africa – his watercolour paintings of Laotian colonial buildings and, above all, a homely green brute of a drafting table that takes up far more space than makes sense.
“I love drafting – I love drawing,” explains Mr. Diamond, a slim, urbane 80-year-old whose boyhood urge to sketch buildings overrode the wishes of his serial-entrepreneur father for young Jack to go into the family businesses.
This is a shining moment for the architect who immigrated to Canada 50 years ago, and not just because of the official opening of the Mariinsky II opera-ballet house, a triumph of ornery stubbornness over Russian bureaucracy. He will also receive recognition next week from the Ontario Association of Architects for lifetime achievement in design.
Yet his most accomplished design may be the house that Jack built – Diamond Schmitt Architects – which is his answer to the eternal puzzle for creative businesses: How to exact the financial and performance discipline of a large company, but allow for the spirit and drive of a boutique studio.
Like all architects, Mr. Diamond makes his statement through the environments he creates – and his office practically shouts out “practical, non-ostentatious” – but not quite humble. Mr. Diamond is never short on pride or pugnaciousness. He is a lifelong civic activist who is now railing against developers and politicians who support a casino in Toronto’s central core. And he chides superstar rivals for imposing their stylistic “predilections” on everything they do – such as “pointy” buildings and billowing exteriors.
He cheerfully agrees he does not have an aesthetic brand, but brings a “principled approach” – with buildings that not only look great but are right for the space and context, that function efficiently on the inside and outside, and respond to clients’ long-term needs. “We don’t tolerate anyone who has a romantic, whimsical approach,” he says.
At Diamond Schmitt with its 120 employees, the founder projects the image not of some distant celebrity but a working architect, who can play hardball in the down-and-dirty world of construction or grow misty-eyed at the sound of strings in a Mahler symphony wafting through the $700-million Mariinsky II. (The original Mariinsky, completed in 1860, sits nearby.)
He rejects the idea of the celebrity architect but sees himself akin to a movie director. “A director doesn’t do the acting, hold the [light] gaff, or do the sound, but he does hold it together with an artistic hand,” Mr. Diamond says. “It’s a not a one-man effort, not like doing a painting or sculpture; this is a complex enterprise and so managing is part of it.”
To show how this managing happens, he is hosting lunch in his office before we stroll a bit among the cubicles. The fare is ordered-in sandwiches of turkey and chicken, with a heaping bowl of Caesar salad.
At his age, he picks carefully among the projects he woos and works on, while his long-time partner Donald Schmitt, about 15 years younger, is the company’s primary rainmaker. At one point, Mr. Schmitt blows through the office, just back from a Chicago client meeting and scrambling to make a conference call on time. The two partners are now among 15 principals who own shares in the firm.