Article (July 01, 2001)

Traditionally, the RAIC Gold Medal address provides the recipient with the opportunity to muse over a lifetime of work, often in the form of retrospective lectures showcasing important projects and highlights from a distinguished career. It is a celebration of individual achievement and a rare opportunity to bask in the reward of peer recognition. In this year’s Gold Medal address at the RAIC Festival in Halifax, Jack Diamond broke with this tradition to deliver instead an impassioned call to action in defence of the beleaguered Canadian city.

The timing of the speech was propitious on a number of levels. Coming as it did on the first evening of the Festival, it set the tone for the days that followed, infiltrating a number of presentations and discussions. It also came on the heels of the C5 Summit, a conference hosted by Winnipeg Mayor Glen Murray that brought together the mayors of Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Toronto and Montreal. Convened at the suggestion of redoubtable urban guru Jane Jacobs, who also attended, the Summit centred around strategies to address the problems faced by Canada’s largest cities.

As might be expected from a meeting of mayors, the C5 Summit focused on issues of governance, in particular the outdated relationship between Canadian municipalities and senior levels of government. Beholden to their provincial masters, Canada’s cities lack the political and administrative autonomy required to properly manage their own affairs. The increasingly common practice of amalgamation and downloading of services is exacerbating the problem, with cities having to shoulder a greater burden without access to adequate revenue. The result is a great strain on civic services ranging from social assistance to housing to transit to urban infrastructure.

Building on this theme, Jack Diamond fashioned his Gold Medal presentation as a call for architects to step beyond the commonly understood responsibilities of the profession–the design and delivery of individual buildings–to assume a leadership role in the development of healthy, viable cities. “I want to reinforce,” he said, “what you already know: that our profession has a special responsibility and an inspiring opportunity to contribute to the well-being of everyone… But the voice of the architect is not heard in our land. If it were, both our communities and our profession would benefit. It is we who can set the standards and help craft the solutions. To do so we must lead by example, both in our work and as citizens of our communities, taking every opportunity to affect legislation and influence social policy.”

“Fine words,” the late British art historian Kenneth Clark once said, “but fine words butter no parsnips.” They can, however, provide the necessary inspiration to action. Diamond’s words certainly seemed to have an impact on incoming RAIC President Diarmuid Nash, who invoked them in his first address to the Institute at the conclusion of the Halifax Festival, the theme of which was Legacies… with Attitude. Jack Diamond’s address provides the framework for a very significant legacy, one that places architects at the centre of public life and that has the potential to reinvigorate the profession for renewed cultural and public significance. It is the role of the RAIC, as our national body, to ensure that–to paraphrase Diamond–the voice of the architect is heard in our land, and that it is expressed with clarity and conviction. The Institute should see to it that the challenge posed by this year’s Gold Medal winner does not go unheeded. Marco Polo