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Prolific architect Jack Diamond helped shape a burgeoning Toronto – The Globe and Mail


Architect Jack Diamond at the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto in April, 2013.Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Jack Diamond’s career began with a treehouse. Aged nine, he found a pallet on his family’s banana plantation in South Africa. With the help of the family gardener, he installed it in a pine tree and surrounded himself with boughs. Almost eight decades later, he still remembered “the exaltation of first imagining and then creating this secure and secret place,” he wrote in a 2022 memoir, Context & Content. “The pallet had become something wonderful because of my hands, my imagination, and my work.”

Mr. Diamond would become an architect of bigger projects, including La Maison Symphonique in Montreal and the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto. Working from the latter city, his adopted home, he built one of Canada’s most prominent architecture firms. He also became an influential advocate on architecture, planning and municipal issues. He died peacefully on Oct. 30 at the age of 89.

Abel Jack Diamond was born Nov. 8, 1932, in Piet Retief, a small town in the East Transvaal region of South Africa. Both of his parents were descendants of Russian Jews; the family of his mother, Rachel, via the U.K., and his father Jacob directly from Lithuania. His parents moved to Durban, where Jacob ran a successful hotel, and Jack “grew up with a strong sense of material security,” he wrote in Context & Content. He also built his self-confidence as a successful runner and rugby player. Despite these comforts, growing up Jewish in a racist society – one in which, as Mr. Diamond saw during the Second World War, there was strong popular support for the Nazis – could be uneasy. Mr. Diamond often encountered antisemitism in his youth, and responded with “a strong sense of social justice,” recalled his son Andrew Diamond, “that stuck with him his whole life.” The elder Mr. Diamond was drawn to anti-apartheid activism, starting with a campaign to desegregate university facilities during his time at University of Cape Town.

He studied there in the mid-1950s and learned a mix of modernist ideas and classically inspired training drawn from the École des Beaux-Arts. Mr. Diamond graduated with a thesis on concert halls and their acoustics, learning from the acoustic successes of 19th-century halls.

Those two themes, of respect for architectural history and a passion for music and concert halls, carried through Mr. Diamond’s later career. ”He always have a deep love from music and for sound,” said Don Schmitt, Mr. Diamond’s partner at Diamond Schmitt Architects and a colleague of 40 years. “Designing those project was a great point of pride.”

First, though, Mr. Diamond went to Oxford to study politics, philosophy and economics – hoping that he could return to South Africa and fight apartheid as a politician. He courted a fellow student in the program, then Gillian Huggins; she would become Gillian Diamond 1959. “He was then exactly as he was to the end,” Ms. Diamond recalled. “Full of energy, full of life, irrepressible.”


Mr. Diamond in August, 2002.Louie Palu/The Globe and Mail

The couple moved to South Africa, but only for a short time. The Sharpeville Massacre of 1960, when police killed 69 protesters, gave the couple an impetus to leave the apartheid state. “We foolishly felt that there was no peaceful solution” to the state’s injustices, Ms. Diamond recalls. “We didn’t imagine a future in which Nelson Mandela would lead the country.” Mr. Diamond would always pride himself on a passion for social justice. He was appointed Ontario’s commissioner of human rights in the 1990s.

Leaving South Africa, Gillian and Jack landed in Philadelphia in 1961. Here he studied with and then went to work for Louis Kahn. Mr. Kahn was a critical figure. A diminutive Philly native with a heavily scarred face, he became one of the 20th century’s most influential architects through a small group of buildings that combined Classical ideas about space and form with modernist technology. “There was a unique mix of traditional values and a very modern sensibility,” said Gary McCluskie, a Diamond Schmitt partner who worked with Mr. Diamond for decades.

Also in Philadelphia, Mr. Diamond acquired a new vocabulary for talking about buildings in an urban context – the newly formalized discipline known as urban design. “There was new thinking among architects and designers,” said Ken Greenberg, a Toronto urban designer who knew Mr. Diamond for half a century. “They were moving away from the idea of the city as a tabula rasa that had been part of Modernist planning, going back to a city of streets and blocks.”

He brought this thinking to Toronto, where the Diamond family – now including a daughter, known as Suki – settled in 1964. For $31,500 they purchased a large 1892 house in the Moore Park neighbourhood, which would be renovated “several times, over the years, as budget allowed,” Ms. Diamond recalled with a laugh. The family would remain there for 49 years.

According to Andrew, his father was much the same at home as he was in public: “There were no two sides to him,” Andrew Diamond said. “He expected perfection from himself, and thought others should strive for that. … At the same time he was humble to a fault with his own perceived weaknesses, empathetic and supportive as a father.”

At work in Toronto, Mr. Diamond found his professional footing. He worked briefly with John Andrews, lead architect of the CN Tower, but founded his own practice in 1967. His first significant project was York Square, in the Yorkville neighbourhood. This took two pairs of semi-detached Victorian houses, and placed new structures behind and beside them to create a courtyard. New brick facades bore a circular motif – vaguely evoking Kahn and the postmodern pioneers Venturi & Scott-Brown – and the old houses were painted with a bold graphic pattern.

York Square (demolished in 2022) was published in journals around the world and helped define a brand of modernist architecture that was specifically Torontonian. The architects “have sensitively used the old buildings without trying to pretend they are something else; they have made them not in the least bit quaintsy, but of our times,” the critic and theorist Jane Jacobs said at the time. “To see the possibilities in what to most people would have seemed the most humdrum materials is [a great] contribution.”


Mr. Diamond, right, with American architect Barton Myers, on March 31, 1969.Harry McLorinan/The Globe and Mail

Those words reflected Mr. Diamond’s work through the 1970s. By then he had partnered with Barton Myers, an American architect he had met at Penn, both to teach and practice.

The two collaborated on buildings that followed the York Square ethos. A co-op housing project, Beverley Place, preserved 12 Victorian houses and replaced others with a red-brick five-storey apartment building. Many of the apartments have front doors to the street, while the whole complex shares a courtyard and garden. For another project, Sherbourne Lanes, Diamond & Myers took a tower and laid it down on its side – adding density while keeping existing buildings intact.

Mr. Diamond became involved in shaping the future of Toronto. Alderman David Crombie was elected mayor in 1972, marking the ascent of the “Reform movement” in local politics. These downtowners were strongly opposed to the large-scale private redevelopment of city neighbourhoods. Architects including Mr. Diamond, Mr. Greenberg, Eb Zeidler and George Baird provided specific ideas about city-building.

John Sewell, who succeeded Mr. Crombie as mayor, had worked closely with Diamond & Myers on Sherbourne Lanes. “In terms of design, Barton and Jack showed the way,” Mr. Sewell said.

That partnership would not last. Mr. Diamond was often described as mercurial and outspoken. “He had the courage of his convictions,” his son said. He and Mr. Myers split acrimoniously in the mid-1970s.

Mr. Myers’s office would evolve into KPMB, while Mr. Diamond continued in his own practice, which eventually became Diamond Schmitt. Alumni of the firm include partners at the award-winning firms MJMA and GH3. “Diamond Myers and their successors had a very clear sensibility,” Mr. Greenberg said, “sophisticated and adventurous about materials and form, but also very attentive to streets and framing public spaces.”

The Diamond office continued to explore the fusion of modernism and Classical traditions. In 1984 they completed a new YMCA complex in downtown Toronto with strong roots in ancient Rome. “We were thinking of Romanesque ways of building with thick brick walls and terrazzo floors,” Mr. Schmitt recalls. “There was a rediscovery of some aspects of architectural history in the air. The aim was to make something with civic qualities, with a sense of solidity and permanence.”

Later, Mr. Diamond would lead two significant projects in Israel: the country’s foreign ministry and Jerusalem’s City Hall. The latter combined varied existing buildings into a new ensemble, arranged around a new “civic plaza equally accessible to all points of the compass,” he wrote – including from Arab East Jerusalem.

The architecture firm eventually grew to a staff of 300 people. It has completed cultural and civic projects across the country, from the University of British Columbia to Queen’s University and in the city of Montreal. And the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto established a strong public face for opera in the city, with a glass-walled “city room” facing University Avenue. That integration of indoors and outdoors, and an emphasis on space for the public to gather, “were always crucial parts of his thinking,” Mr. McCluskie recalled.

The Four Seasons led to an important commission in Russia: a second hall for opera and ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. This project was beset by bureaucratic and political infighting, but Diamond Schmitt persevered, winning praise for Mr. Diamond from Vladimir Putin. (According to Mr. Diamond’s memoir, Mr. Putin joked about making him stay in the country forever.)

Throughout his career Mr. Diamond made many forays into political and civic advocacy, sometimes through pieces in The Globe and Mail. “He was always an activist, always writing and provoking,” Mr. Schmitt recalls. His issues of concern included Toronto’s waterfront redevelopment, the state of the city’s island airport and a proposal for a downtown casino.

He was also a member of a commission on regional planning in the Toronto area led by Anne Golden in the mid-1990s. “Jack was one of the country’s great planners,” Ms. Golden said. “Working closely with him was how I really came to understand the social, environmental and economic benefits of compact urban form.”

Mr. Diamond never fully retired, but in the past few years he stopped his daily visits to the office. During the pandemic he wrote his memoir, and Ms. Diamond recalled that he was generally in fine health. He died suddenly while returning from the family’s vacation home in the Caribbean with Gillian and Andrew and his family. “I think in the end he just wore himself out,” Ms. Diamond recalls. A man of great energy, Mr. Diamond died just days before his 90th birthday.

Along with his wife and son, Mr. Diamond leaves his daughter, his children’s spouses and four grandchildren.