Context and Content

By A.J. Diamond

Context and Content
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A deeply personal memoir from one of Canada’s most celebrated architects.
In this personal account of A. J. Diamond’s life and work, he shares how he came to be the founder of the leading architecture firm Diamond Schmitt, one of Canada’s most successful architecture ... Read more


Overview

A deeply personal memoir from one of Canada’s most celebrated architects.
In this personal account of A. J. Diamond’s life and work, he shares how he came to be the founder of the leading architecture firm Diamond Schmitt, one of Canada’s most successful architecture companies. He also explains his principles of design, which at their core are about making a positive impact in the world, considering the needs of the content, client, and context. Diamond gives insight into his design principles in relation to some of his most notable projects, including the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto, la Maison symphonique de Montréal, the Mariinsky II Theatre in Saint Petersburg, and the new city hall in Jerusalem. Diamond also chronicles his family ancestry, his childhood in South Africa, from his birth in his grandfather’s study in the small provincial town of Piet Retief on the borders of Eswatini (Swaziland) and Mozambique, to his university days at the University of Cape Town and Oxford — where he played rugby at the international level, scoring two winning tries for the Oxford Blues against Australia — and the University of Pennsylvania. His memoir traces his immigration to the U. S. and, eventually, Canada as well as his growing architectural practice in Toronto, where he focused on the issues facing his chosen city.  

A.J. Diamond

A.J. Diamond is a Royal Architectural Institute of Canada Gold Medallist, an Officer of the Order of Canada, and a member of the Order of Ontario. He has received both the Jane Jacobs Lifetime Achievement Award and the Ontario Association of Architects Lifetime Design Achievement Award. Diamond lives in Toronto.

Excerpt

Two
Beginnings and Endings

I was born in my grandfather’s library in Piet Retief, in South Africa’s Eastern Transvaal. It was, and probably still is, a dusty provincial town. The library had been made by enclosing a porch across the end of the house with windows. Bookshelves lined the solid end wall of the house. It was strewn with two or three zebra hides. There were two reimpi (made by a mesh of thin hide strips) chairs, and a divan that was covered by a kaross — a throw made of the skins of smaller antelope sewn together.

My parents lived in Cedarville, in East Griqualand, a village that was even smaller than Piet Retief. One of my earliest memories is going with my father by car to the station to collect the newspapers that were thrown onto the platform by the passing express train — Cedarville didn’t warrant a stop by every train. The raised station platform sloped toward the rail line, and my father drove the car onto it, at right angles to the train track. He left me in the car and chatted with the station master while waiting for the express and its bundle of newspapers. He must have left the car in gear, because when I pushed the starter button out of curiosity, the car lurched forward. I can remember the look of panicked terror on my father’s face as he ran to pull on the hand brake just in time. The express roared by a few feet away, its terrifying bulk followed by silence and relief.

The circuit court periodically met in Cedarville, with its accompaniment of magistrates, judges, court clerks, lawyers, and policemen. The policemen were mounted, and wore imposing gear — spiked khaki pith helmets, leather leggings, chrome spurs, and chains to secure the spurs to their highly polished boots. After court was adjourned each day, the court officials and policemen would sit on our long verandah for a “sundowner. ” The horses were tethered to posts in front of the hotel. My Basuto nanny used the police to frighten me into obedience, saying that if I misbehaved they would punish me. With my nanny’s dire warnings in my imagination, the sight of this assembled cavalry terrified me. One day I fled and hid in the back of a car in the garage and was found only hours later. To overcome this fear, my father took me to the police post where the sergeant put me on his knee and gave me a bar of chocolate. I wasn’t so easily fooled — it wasn’t hard to figure out where the chocolate came from.

* * *

Avraham (Aba) Werner, my great-grandfather, after whom I am named, was rabbi of Machzike Hadath Synagogue on Brick Lane in London’s East End from 1891 until 1912. Anglo-Jewry underwent a profound change both in structure and character as a result of the large immigration from Eastern Europe at the turn of the century. Thousands of orthodox Russian and Polish Jews fleeing Czarist pogroms arrived in London. The synagogue was opposite a Nicholas Hawksmoor mannerist church. Originally the synagogue was a church built by Huguenot immigrants in the early eighteenth century, then was converted to a Methodist chapel, then to a synagogue after the Huguenots prospered and moved out of the East End. It is now a madrassa.

My great-grandfather, who had changed his name from Chaima to Werner so that Russian agents would not be able to track his illegal emigration, is buried in Edmonton, U. K. His wife, Simma Gittle, who died in 1906, is buried next to him. Matching tombstones mark their graves. The gravesite of my paternal grandfather, Joseph Dimant, is unknown, but is probably in Rosseini, Lithuania. He was murdered by Russian soldiers in 1917, a militia that ravaged the Baltic states. The grave of his wife, Sarah Risa, is also unknown, but presumably is in Lithuania, as well. Jacob Werner, my maternal grandfather, son of rabbi Aba Werner, emigrated to South Africa in the early 1890s. He married Rachel Levy, a Glaswegian. Both are buried in Piet Retief. My mother was born in Glasgow in 1901 on a family return visit from South Africa. Jacob and Rachel Zipporah Diamond, my parents, are buried in Durban, South Africa. My maternal forebears were spared the Holocaust, unlike my father’s family, most of whom remained in Europe.

* * *

My father, Jacob Dimant, began his immigrant odyssey in Rosseini, Kovno Giberna, (County Kovno, now Kaunas) Lithuania. He left at sixteen to avoid being drafted into the Czar’s army, which then occupied Lithuania, and emigrated to South Africa. This must have been the winter of 1901 or 1902. His parents, and those of a few of his companions, had bribed the border guards to let their boys cross the frontier; it was illegal to leave the country without permission. Unfortunately, the guard had been changed when they arrived at the border, so they spent a freezing day and night in a forest until the guard was changed back the next day. The boys then took a train to Hamburg, and bought steerage passage to Cape Town. The blanket and cookies Jacob’s mother, Sarah Risa, had given him for the journey were promptly stolen on board.

My paternal grandfather’s brother had previously emigrated to South Africa and had anglicized his surname from Dimant to Diamond. For family consistency, my father did the same upon arriving in Cape Town. He arrived with no English and few skills, although his immigration papers state his profession as photographer. The languages he spoke — Russian, Polish, Lithuanian, Yiddish, and German — were of little help, although the Yiddish and German made learning Afrikaans easy.

He managed to get a job with a jeweller selling a popular gold brooch that featured a miniature pick, panning tray, and gold nugget. He sold them to passengers on the Union and Castle liners that brought tourists to the Cape. He also sold tubes of ostrich feathers. After three months, he took half his salary in kind and half in cash, to begin trading on his own. He bought a bicycle, and in six months was entirely on his own.

Ostrich feathers were a great and fashionable luxury, and like gold, mostly came from South Africa. The ostrich farmers of the Karoo, the semi-desert area that lies to the east of the fertile southwest Cape, supplied the fashion houses of the world’s capitals with the finest feathers. The feather market was in Cape Town. My father went from selling feathers to tourists to buying the product directly in the feather exchange, to trading feathers as a commodity, and finally to breeding ostriches and producing the feathers himself on properties he bought in the Karoo. His feel for feathers was literal — he once gave evidence as an expert witness in an ostrich-rustling trial, where he was blindfolded and still able to distinguish between feathers from different districts in the Karoo. His skills and entrepreneurship earned him a partnership, at the age of twenty-three, in one of the two major ostrich-feather producers in Oudtshoorn, the principal ostrich farming district of the Karoo. Joseph, Hotz and Diamond were represented in Paris, London, New York, and Montevideo.

He had a smart trap drawn by a pair of matched dapple-grey horses. On buying trips, farmers would put him up overnight, as there were no other places to stay in those remote rural areas. The farmers welcomed his visits; being Jewish he was revered, as Afrikaner farmers of that generation were stalwart members of the Dutch Reformed Church, and the Old Testament was central to their faith. The Jews were the Chosen People (“For you are a people holy to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his own possession, out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth”).

He would spend three or four hours a day in the saddle while farming ostrich and, later, sheep, and his love of that life never left him.

Before the First World War, ostrich feathers were a more lucrative commodity than gold, and my father saw little need to diversify. He was able to bring his parents to South Africa for a tour, although they didn’t take to Africa and returned to Lithuania. My father never told me that his father was killed in a pogrom in 1917. I learned that from my cousin Esther. Of my father’s family contemporaries, she and her sister were the only survivors of Belsen concentration camp. Esther’s husband was taken away by the S. S. at 2:00 a. m. and never seen again. Her two children, a boy of eleven and a nine-year-old daughter, whose names I never knew, were shot in front of her.

With his success, my father bought one of the first cars in the Eastern Cape, a Hupmobile. Ironically, it was the automobile that killed his ostrich business. The large, feather adorned hats wouldn’t fit into a saloon car, and boas and hats would fly off in an open one. The collapse of the ostrich market was a financial disaster, but my father devised an irrigation system and turned his dry Karoo properties into sheep farms. The best farm was in Somerset East, where he had gone to live. Then the wool market collapsed in the Depression of the 1930s. After that he ran a small hotel in Dordrecht, a village in the Eastern Cape, though this clearly had no great future. He then began to barter blankets for skins, hides, and grain in nearby Basutoland. Blankets were worn as a sort of warm cape by the Basuto. He would take pony trains loaded with blankets up into the Drakensberg, a formidable mountain escarpment that separates the coastal plains from the veld of the high interior plateau, and come back loaded with hides and grain. With the proceeds of this trading he bought a hotel and trading store in Cedarville, in what was then East Griqualand. It was during this period that he courted, then married Rachel Zepporah Werner, whose family lived in Piet Retief in the Eastern Transvaal, a town larger than Cedarville. Cedarville was undeniably a dorp, a derogatory Afrikaans term for a small, unimportant village.

My mother never liked Cedarville. She hated its parochialism and had few friends in the district. My parents decided that Cedarville wasn’t the best place to bring up a Jewish child, and in 1935 they sold everything and moved to the east-coast city of Durban, in the Province of Natal. It was a courageous move, especially since South Africa was hit particularly hard by the Depression. Durban lies in a subtropical zone, with a lush and fertile coast. The city was established in the nineteenth century by the British and their agent Sir Benjamin d’Urban. It had been a thriving Indian Ocean port, both an industrial and tourist city, but the Depression had taken a toll.

My father looked for a new enterprise. As he was familiar with running a hotel and bottle stores, he conducted a form of market research by following the trucks that delivered beer from the two local breweries — the Castle and the Lion—and chatting with their drivers. Eventually, he discovered a hotel in the suburb of Bellair with a bar and bottle store that was moving large volumes of beer, but didn’t appear to be prospering. The Bellair Hotel was owned by two Irishmen, the Bisset brothers. Located on the old mainline, it had a substantial blue-collar and East Indian (mostly Hindu) population. The Bisset brothers made their own substantial contribution to the consumption of alcohol, which explained the poor profits. They were happy to lease the hotel to my parents—why work when you could make as much without working? My father insisted on a long lease, which was just fine with the Bissets.

With very hard work and careful control, the hotel, bar, and bottle store began to produce a substantial income. After the fall of Singapore in 1942, Durban had the only dry dock capable of repairing troop ships and warships on the Indian Ocean: the city prospered. The Bellair Hotel had an open-air dance floor, laid out around a giant ficus tree, and it became a popular place for soldiers, sailors, and airmen heading to India and Egypt. It was the big-band era: the sounds of Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller wafted through the evening air.

At first my mother directed the catering side of the hotel, and, when necessary, acted as housekeeper. My father worked as a barman when things got busy. They simply did what was necessary to make the business a success. When the hotel eventually came up for sale my parents were in a position of advantage, with their long lease, to buy the property. This was followed by the purchase of the Malvern Hotel further up the main line. They also began to accumulate underdeveloped industrial sites around the city. As a consequence, I grew up with a strong sense of material security.

The nursery school I attended was idyllic. Joyce Borden, the daughter of our local senator, ran the school in her house. It was one of the early houses of Natal, built in high Victorian colonial style: wide verandahs with cast-iron posts, multicoloured tile floors, rooms with high pressed-metal ceilings that opened onto verandahs with French windows and louvred mahogany shutters.

School was conducted under the leafy umbrella of a bulbous ficus tree. A blackboard stood on an easel under the tree. When it rained, we used the billiard room, with its ornate clerestory and conical green-shaded lamps hung low over the billiard table. The sunken garden, with its pools, lily ponds, and grottos, was the stage for the annual pantomime. I have a picture of myself from one performance, dressed as a pixie.

Two great iron gates on stone posts marked the entrance to the drive. We used to swing on these — or rather, to sail. One we named the Queen Elizabeth, the other the Queen Mary. Senator Borden, if he drove by, would stop and we would hitch a ride in the dickey seat of his stylish coupe. Joyce Borden had a brother who had his own airplane, and he once flew over the house and dropped a bag of candies for us on the tennis court. Tragically, he was killed in a plane crash not long after. Joyce never married. She took to drinking as she grew older, and had an affair with the local doctor, Dr. Sacks. When I went to Oxford she went out of her way to tell me how gratified she was, but she said it with some surprise, I think.

Reviews

Diamond has written a memoir with the same qualities as his buildings and sketches: beautifully crafted, nothing in excess but rich in hidden insights and perspectives. A great read, wonderful stories, beautifully told.

Diamond's belief in architecture as the mother art is capable of reconciling often opposing forces to create places of meaning for which people have always yearned.  

A deeply beautiful memoir — wise, measured, grateful — a moving assertion of what it means to live a life of passion, civic responsibility, and intense engagement with the world.

Jack Diamond and his firm have created landmark buildings both at home and abroad, relentlessly guided by principle and his commitment to make a better world. … I have long admired him, but reading his life story has given me a deeper appreciation of just what an interesting journey he has travelled in making his difference in the world.

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