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Illustration of Jack Diamond, principal, Diamond Schmitt Architects. (ANTHONY JENKINS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Illustration of Jack Diamond, principal, Diamond Schmitt Architects. (ANTHONY JENKINS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

THE LUNCH

The house that Jack Diamond built Add to ...

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.

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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.

Another reason for eschewing a lavish lunch is that this is Friday, and at 4:30 p.m., Mr. Diamond will join the weekly beer-and-popcorn session, a bonding exercise where drawings are presented and critiqued in the manner of a university class. The event knits together 120 people with diverse egos and tastes – “the best graduate seminar in town about architecture,” says the founder, who first came to Canada as a teacher. There is no talk of insurance, deadlines or business – just the craft, and the founders can demonstrate they are still, at heart, designers.

The three floors occupied by Diamond Schmitt are divided into studios where people work together on specialties and projects. The core team that creates a design “owns it” all the way through production – similar to worker teams in an auto factory taking charge of a single car’s production. This continuity is valuable in an era when a building’s life cycle costs have become more critical than capital costs – as reflected in the increasing demand for certification under the green-oriented LEED program.

Many architects see their profession as a priesthood, and not a grubby business, but Mr. Diamond has a reverence for commerce – perhaps inherited from his father, a risk-embracing Lithuanian immigrant to South Africa who made, lost and remade fortunes in ostrich farming, trading blankets and skins, sheep-ranching and hotels.

Diamond Schmitt barely makes the top 100 architectural firms in the world, with an annual revenue estimated at under $30-million, but it operates across a span of sectors. Although its signature buildings are cultural, it does much more in education and health care – each accounts for more than a fifth of its business. Performing arts, at about 14 per cent, grabs the headlines.

Mr. Diamond learned the lesson of diversification early, when Ontario, under then-education minister Bill Davis, went on a school-building spree and a number of architectural firms focused on that market. When the school boom ended, many of them got slaughtered, he says.

Hence, Mr. Diamond was a leader in going after projects outside Canada – and yet Diamond Schmitt is not one of those Canadian firms rebuilding Shanghai or Beijing. The firm left China after being badly burned in one venture, and now it is carefully angling to get back in – mainly because its younger generation wants it.

Mr. Diamond gets many of his personal kicks designing homes for the Euro-rich – he has been working on a house in Zurich and a complex of second homes on the Black Sea. His clients are relatively insulated from Europe’s hard times. “Their wealth is not subject to the vicissitudes of the marketplace – it is very patient, long-term money.”

The new Mariinsky Theatre became his baby, after the theatre’s creative director Valery Gergiev visited Toronto and was impressed by the Diamond-designed opera house. The challenges of the new theatre had chewed up other design firms, but Mr. Diamond signed on because of Mr. Gergiev’s vision. The result is a glass and limestone modernist building that has sharply galvanized opinion – between traditionalists who deride it as a crass “Mariinsky Mall” and defenders of its vibrant public spaces and acoustic merits– and who argue its great virtue is that it does not overwhelm the city’s 19th-century edifices.

He now knows that architects in Russia have no power, except to nag public works officials. “I have to kick their ass and be a bully or a whiner to get anything changed. That is why it is such a stressful occupation there. The fact that I have achieved this quality is a bloody miracle.”

For all his collegiality – and his advancing years – this is one competitive guy, reflected in his jabs at rival architects who come with design “ideologies,” rather than adapting a building to the context of geography, climate or technology. “If there is a pointy-building schtick that [an architect] does, you will get a pointy building. Whether in Denver or Toronto, you will get the same thing,” he says, in a reference to Daniel Libeskind, who designed the Royal Ontario Museum’s controversial Michael Lee-Chin Crystal.

Over the years, Diamond Schmitt has won its share of prizes, as evidenced by a shelf of baubles in a corner of the office. As Mr. Diamond walks by, he wonders, in his world-weary way, why so many design awards are badly designed themselves.

It suggests an aging warrior who has nothing left to win or lose, and it is, of course, a charade. The legend clearly lusts for more – and he will never stop drawing. “I am 80, and I have the same waistline and weight I had at 17. People in the firm who are a quarter of my age can’t keep up.” And they are not alone.

CURRICULUM VITAE

A.J. (Jack) Diamond

BACKGROUND

Born Nov. 8, 1932, in South Africa

Bachelor of architecture, University of Cape Town; masters in politics, philosophy and economics, University of Oxford; master of architecture, University of Pennsylvania.

Met wife Gillian at Oxford 57 years ago; They have a son and daughter and four grandchildren.

SIGNATURE BUILDINGS

Osgoode Hall Law School, Toronto

Jerusalem City Hall

Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto

Montreal Symphony House

Harman Centre of the Arts, Washington D.C.

HOBBIES

Loves music – baroque, chamber and “the voice.” His favourite voices are those of Russian soprano Anna Netrebko and French soprano Natalie Dessay.

Played rugby in his youth, squash in his prime. Now he’s walking.

On his night table: Engineers of Victory: The Problem Solvers Who Turned The Tide in the Second World War, by historian Paul Kennedy

IN HIS OWN WORDS

On the Mariinsky job: Mariinsky is a validation of our position [as cultural architects], and for me, next to architecture, music is my love. To do what is arguably the most important cultural project in the world is a huge honour.

On critics: Any building in St. Petersburg is subject to huge criticism by chauvinistic Russians and I understand that.

On the lost element: Architects sometimes don’t understand that being on schedule and on budget is as critical to success as winning design prizes.

On his father’s dream: After three university degrees – in which my parents supported me – my father said, ‘How much you make?’ When I told him, he said: ‘You mean it took three degrees to earn so little? Why not join me in the business?’ I said: ‘I’m an architect.’… He probably thought I was something of a failure.

On the dangers of non-diversification: It is crazy for anyone to depend on one customer – and especially if they are powerful enough to go elsewhere. Canada does that. It’s too easy – with the U.S. so close, we scratch our back yard for a few minerals, we sent them down there and we don’t process them. It’s madness!

On the design challenge: The secret of design success is making a virtue out of necessity, like the flying buttresses and rose windows in a cathedral.

On staying independent: Maybe once or twice a month, we get bids to acquire us. I don’t even answer the phone.

On being an urban activist: As a professional, there is an ethical and moral component to this [role]. I am not a hired gun.

On casino culture: It sterilizes the area around it and sucks the life out of small enterprises. From a moral point of view, I find it reprehensible that governments depend on revenue from those who are most vulnerable.

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