Book Review: Context and Content—The Memoir of a Fortunate Architect

Photo by Jim Ryce

Context and Content: The Memoir of a Fortunate Architect
By A.J. Diamond (Dundurn Press, 2022)

REVIEW Stefan Novakovic

In the opening chapter of his memoir, architect A.J. Diamond recounts a conversation with Vladimir Putin. Following the lengthy—and astonishingly bureaucratic—design and construction process to build Saint Petersburg’s now-iconic Mariinsky II Theatre, the renowned Canadian practitioner chronicles a complex development saga, capped off with a quip from the dictator himself. So impressed was Putin with Diamond’s design that he compared it to the works of Italian architects that designed much of Saint Petersburg in the 18th century. “They did a good job, as you have done here,” Putin told Diamond. “We did not let them leave the country.”

It’s a fleeting anecdote, but one that illustrates the breadth of an uncommonly varied and eventful architectural career. In the newly published Context and Content: The Memoir of a Fortunate Architect, Abel Joseph “Jack” Diamond reflects on 60-odd years of architectural practice, as well as a personal journey spanning from a childhood in South Africa to a rugby career in the United Kingdom, and culminating in a leading place in Canada’s contemporary architectural canon.

Born in 1932 in the South African town of Piet Retief, Diamond traces a rustic childhood and a long family history. Told in elegantly simple prose, the intimate narrative touches on formative memories, Jewish faith, the Holocaust, race relations and more, situating Diamond’s life and work within an impressively broad context. For better and worse, it is a memoir first and an architectural book second, with Diamond’s design career folded into the more fundamental stuff of life.

Still, Diamond’s lucid and succinct narrative offers insight for the architectural reader—and his reflections on working with Louis Kahn are an early case in point. Upon graduating from the University of Cape Town and enjoying an outstanding rugby career at the University of Oxford, Diamond, who was looking to escape apartheid-era South Africa, enrolled as a Master of Architecture student at the University of Pennsylvania, where Kahn was a faculty member.

While Diamond was a student, Kahn’s seminal Richards Medical Building was under construction on campus. Diamond likens the foundational interplay of laboratories and supporting functions—or ‘served’ and ‘servant’ spaces—to the polarities of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s music, or “the power and sweep of Beethoven, compared to the minimalism of Philip Glass.” It’s a culturally and historically attuned reading of design, translating the complexities of architecture into accessible language. The insight highlights Diamond’s polymathic sensibility, and his ability to communicate architectural ideas to the public.

It’s a talent that would serve him well. After stints in academia and practice—including working in Kahn’s office—the architect and his wife Gillian eventually settled in Canada, with Diamond establishing the University of Toronto’s first post-graduate program in architecture. It wasn’t exactly love at first sight. “When we arrived in Toronto in 1963, I thought we had made a great mistake,” Diamond recounts. “It seemed a city of Presbyterian narrowness and architectural mediocrity.” Luckily, there was more to the place, and after several years in academia, Diamond became a practicing architect, establishing a six-year partnership with Barton Myers in 1968, and subsequently setting up an eponymous practice in 1974.

In Toronto’s Baldwin village, the Beverley Place Hydro Block proved a watershed. Combining a contextually attuned scale and fine-grained urban rhythm with substantial density, the five-storey affordable residential complex created “housing that shared some of the characteristics of a single-family house—a street address and soundproofing between units.”

Completed in 1978, Beverley Place also solidified an influential paradigm. Combining sensitivity to its surroundings with a commitment to preservation of existing built form, the Hydro Block project—and Diamond’s subsequent work in Regent Park—helped establish “the bedrock of my practice,” Diamond writes. “I embraced an economy of means, and rejected the imposition of random dramatic forms that ignored the needs of the space and client. This meant paying attention to both the context and the content of the building.”

This simple yet refreshingly cogent ethos would serve Diamond well throughout over half a century of practice. Combining a restrained, yet poetic, sensibility with a businessman’s attention to budget, Diamond exemplified the sober, thoughtful qualities of Canadian modernism par excellence. “The aesthetic of the building should reflect its purpose, not the ego of the architect,” he writes.

As an early champion of adaptive reuse, heritage restoration and vernacular architecture, Diamond also became a vocal champion for Toronto’s public realm, opposing the Spadina Expressway and the Pickering Airport in the 1970s, as well as the expansion of the downtown Island Airport in the 2000s. (In recognition of his architectural and civic activism, he also served a five-year term as Ontario’s Human Rights commissioner.)

A pragmatic willingness to work within modest means reaped major international rewards, including cultural commissions such as Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre, Montreal’s La Maison Symphonique, Lubbock, Texas’s Buddy Holly Hall and Saint Petersburg’s Mariinsky II Theatre. Aided by Diamond’s long-held passion for acoustics, the firm now known as Diamond Schmitt Architects (established in partnership with Don Schmitt in 1989) became a leading force in cultural and civic architecture. From Israel’s Jerusalem City Hall to the breathtaking (yet ultimately unsuccessful) late-career competition entry for London’s Holocaust Memorial, Diamond’s practice proved as varied and eclectic as his life story.

While Diamond’s intimately personal narrative makes for a vivid reading experience, the lack of greater architectural detail is occasionally grating. To the book’s detriment, project years are too rarely cited (for example, the 1978 completion of Beverley Place is never specified), with decades and eras melding to blur vital context. But it is hardly a fatal flaw: Diamond has earned the right to look back and tell his story in his own cadence. And like his buildings, his words are sometimes elevated by their very lack of pretense and grandeur, becoming more than the sum of their parts.

Stefan Novakovic is an architectural journalist who previously served as the Associate Editor of Canadian Architect.