Tilting Architectural Thinking
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Tilting Architectural Thinking

Photo of the Runnymede Public Library by Wanda G.

There were no direct comparisons drawn between architects John M. Lyle and Jack Diamond by Ryerson architecture prof Marco Polo, who moderated last evening’s readings and discussion at Harbourfront Centre. As part of the fifth annual Festival of Architecture and Design, Diamond read two chapters from Insight and On Site: The Architecture of Diamond and Schmitt (Douglas & McIntyre, 2008)—written with his long-time design partner, Donald Schmitt, and Don Gillmor. And Lyle was discussed by Glenn McArthur, whose recent A Progressive Traditionalist (Coach House Books, 2009) charts Lyle’s life and work as one of the twentieth century’s foremost architects.
Any direct comparisons would’ve been rather artificial, as there is little stylistically to compare Lyle’s Runnymede Library to Diamond’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. But, as last night’s discussion revealed, there are tenuous similarities between how each fits its moment in time. Both were iconoclasts of a sort.

Originally trained in Beaux-Arts classicism, Lyle came under the influence of European modernism and increasingly pushed against the conservative Canadian architectural traditions of his day. As Christopher Hume has written, “Lyle found himself in the middle; looking backwards and forwards at the same time.” Rather than simply importing the new style of modernist architecture into Canada wholesale, Lyle wanted to adapt European influences to suit Canada’s local context and materials—just as a regionally flavoured modernism had emerged in Scandinavia. Lyle’s self-conscious efforts to create a distinctly Canadian architecture culminated with the Runnymede Public Library, where he combined French-Canadian influences, Ontario materials, and ornamental imagery of native Canadian flora and fauna. With a number of Bank of Nova Scotia branches across the country, and the former TD branch at Yonge and Gerrard, Lyle’s work helped shift architectural thinking towards greater freedom from the country’s conservative classicism.

Photo of the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts by @ThetaState from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Diamond was also a man in the middle. During his youth in South Africa and education at Oxford, he was a rugby player who enjoyed painting watercolours. As he told the Star in 2006: “I rather revelled in that—being in, and not in, either camp.”
As a result, he too is unafraid to buck contemporary architectural trends. In an era when corporations and museum boards seek instant icons, and when the celebrity of an architect often overrides how a building will suit the local community, Diamond and Schmitt have made a career of designing highly functional, but stylistically understated buildings like the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, and York University Centre.
Last night, he continued his long tradition of railing against starchitecture or as Diamond has called it previously, “car crash” architecture—a position architecture critic Witold Rybczynski, who was originally scheduled to speak but was unable to attend at the last minute, has recently endorsed.
Noting at the outset of his talk that he’d intended Insight and On Site to be didactic, accessible to the public, and to stimulate their interest in how architecture works, Diamond’s reading selections and responses to audience questions reinforced that architecture is not separate from political issues. Using examples of buildings from around the world, while skipping over the parts of the text that mentioned his firm’s own works, Diamond emphasized how the best designs respect and enhance a building’s function and how people will use it. If a building’s façade is more important than its function—if the eccentric spaces in museums become the bane of exhibit designers—it has failed its users. An architect ought not be a merely an artist who leaves it to the engineers to fix or disguise a building’s flaws or who designs with no regard to cost. Diamond has again and again reiterated his call for a new kind of architecture of restraint more suited to creating the sustainable and liveable city of the future. Rather than being put to extravagant purpose—to build tallest or be most dramatic—technology can and should be employed to curb our worst excesses and, to echo Diamond’s recent op-ed in the Globe and Mail, “be gratifying environmentally, technically, and functionally.” Given the present economic circumstances, it’s time to find the beauty in economy.