The Diamond Trade

In the opening pages of Insight and On Site: The Architecture of Diamond and Schmitt, pundit-du-jour Richard Florida begins his foreword by misquoting the lyrics of the theme song of the television show Weeds. “Little houses on a hillside, little houses made of ticky-tacky,” writes Florida, unwittingly wringing the satire out of the 1960s folksong Little Boxes whose lyrics describe suburbia as “little boxes on a hillside.” The word “boxes” is what imbues this song with its withering architectural critique: when houses are all designed alike, they are not houses; they’re just boxes. But a pragmatist might shrug that it’s not worth quibbling, because most architects never bother to read the texts anyway; they just scan the pictures and bylines. Florida, the social scientist and bestselling author who coined the buzzterm “creative class,” is himself a brand name, and it’s hard to discern any reason for the inclusion of his brief and underwhelming preface except to smear on the same daub of celebrity that bedazzles museum trustees.

Insight and On Site is certainly not the only monograph afflicted by this inherent contradiction. Architectural publishing is grappling with two common and conflicting goals–one of them to make a broad, socially trenchant statement and the other to enhance their own firms’ profiles in the global marketplace. When these two independently reasonable goals conflate into one architect-sponsored monograph, they cancel each other out. Herein lies the irony: for all their high production quality and illustrious subjects, the new genre of books often seems to be as formulaic and self-important as the architectural culture they decry.

In this context, Insight and On Site is not a bad monograph but a typical one, and a proviso of just how difficult it is for any architectural firm to walk the line between elucidation and self-aggrandizement. Mere documentation of a studio’s work is dull and solipsistic. Attempting to position one’s work in the context of world issues is one way around it, but it can backfire. In the essays of Insight and On Site, grandiose statements in oversize type blare out from the pages, such as this: “The planning and building of cities has never been more crucial because today’s issues are not focused merely on aesthetics but on survival.” Splayed out over an entire page, such an assertion reeks of disingenuous sanctimony. Global survival has always figured hugely among the issues of the day, ever since our ancestors flopped out of the primordial slime to face bouts of starvation, plagues and warfare. For that matter, there is nothing “new” or unique about architecture that pays attention to context, sustainability, community and creativity, Richard Florida’s preliminary assertion notwithstanding.

The past century’s transitional periods–Neoclassicism to Modernism and then Modernism to Postmodernism (or, for that matter, right back to the Ten Books of Vitruvius) were natural opportunities for an honest-to-god manifesto, whether you agreed with it or not. Thus Le Corbusier’s Vers une Architecture and, almost 50 years later, Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture both exuded a true sense of urgency and relevance, even though offering ideologically opposing arguments. Back then, architects did not feel the need to festoon their manifestos with celebrity endorsements or lavish photography, and yet they made a resounding impact just the same. The Diamond & Schmitt argument is that architecture should neither fall prey to the current culture of celebrity nor to the cult of beauty. But its pop-cultured foreword and its exhaustive display of its own projects in lavish full-page bleed argue otherwise.

On a bright note, the prose itself does not succumb to the doltish and grammatically suspect bafflegab of so many architectural treatises. The gifts of co-author Don Gillmor, one of Canada’s most talented magazine writers, have no doubt been well harnessed here, and Witold Rybczynski serves up some clear and straightforward interview questions. And much of the architecture is programmatically impressive if not often sexy: Diamond & Schmitt is justifiably renowned for good urbanism, consistently high-quality background buildings and the occasional subdued feature building, such as Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. It’s no crime–an oblique compliment, actually– to say that their work will never be mistaken for celebrity architecture. Their importance in city-building is widely recognized across Canada. But it’s irksome to go through the book’s concise analyses and small black-and-white photos of “iconic” structures (such as Bucky Fuller’s geodesic dome and Libeskind’s ROM extension), and then suddenly get blasted by page after page after page of huge colour photographs showcasing Diamond & Schmitt projects of much lesser renown. The thoughtfulness of their argument against iconism is unfortunately swept away in this tsunami of self-promotion. Maybe they need two separate books, or a more even-handed graphic design, or a more ruthless photo editor. In an inherently awkward hybrid–“part manifesto, part monograph” as the jacket blurb asserts–it’s hard to avoid mixing the message. One day, we might see architects reach a point of quiet power, wherein their discourse will be unclouded by the market-driven need for renown. Until then, sic transit gloria mundi: take comfort that all those vacuous celebrity creations won’t stay famous forever.CA