Phyl­lis Lam­bert at 90: pre­serv­ing our ur­ban her­itage

The Canadian Jewish News (Montreal) - - News - JAN­ICE ARNOLD jarnold@thecjn.ca

She’s only just turned 90, nev­er­the­less Phyl­lis Lam­bert traces her pas­sion for the built en­vi­ron­ment and ur­ban her­itage back three-quar­ters of a cen­tury, to when she was a teenager captivated by the houses she passed walk­ing to school from her home atop West­mount.

So the ti­tle of a new ex­hi­bi­tion chron­i­cling her ca­reer and ac­tivism, “Phyl­lis Lam­bert: 75 Years at Work,” on at the Cana­dian Cen­tre for Ar­chi­tec­ture (CCA) un­til June 4, is not an ex­ag­ger­a­tion, nor is the sug­ges­tion that did not hes­i­tate to roll up her sleeves.

“I was al­ways driven by cu­rios­ity, which led to in­ves­ti­ga­tion of how to ad­vance an idea and put things in place,” she said at the Jan. 17 launch, just ahead of her mile­stone birth­day on Jan. 24.

Lam­bert re­mains the hands-on found­ing di­rec­tor emer­i­tus of the CCA, which she es­tab­lished al­most 30 years af­ter res­cu­ing the for­mer man­sion of Baron Shaugh­nessy, founder of the Cana­dian Pa­cific Rail­way, from de­mo­li­tion.

An ac­com­plished sculp­tor by her pre­teens, Lam­bert knew early on that mak­ing small works that would sit in some­one’s liv­ing room would not be enough for her.

“I dreamed of cre­at­ing mon­u­men­tal sculp­ture in the pub­lic realm. Ar­chi­tec­ture would be the an­swer, but I did not know this yet.”

Lit­tle won­der, as women of her gen­er­a­tion were vir­tu­ally ab­sent from the pro­fes­sion.

This doc­u­men­tary dis­play, cu­rated by Lam­bert her­self, is a con­cise chronol­ogy of how a shy girl from a wealthy Mon­treal Jewish fam­ily came to over­see the con­struc­tion of one of the mid-20th cen­tury’s most ad­mired com­mer­cial build­ings and later be­come an out­spo­ken ac­tivist to save Mon­treal’s ar­chi­tec­tural her­itage, which was in­creas­ingly fac­ing the wrecker’s ball in the name of modernization.

Her work would cul­mi­nate with the cre­ation of a unique cen­tre to nur­ture both schol­ars’ re­search and un­der­stand­ing that ar­chi­tec­ture and ur­ban plan­ning should be ev­ery­one’s con­cern.

Lam­bert was paint­ing in Paris in 1954 when her fa­ther, Samuel Bronf­man, shared his plans to erect a build­ing for Sea­gram’s in New York. What he en­vi­sioned was ser­vice­able, but hardly mon­u­men­tal.

Her re­ply – “no, no, no” – was an eight­paged, densely type­writ­ten letter, headed “Dear­est Daddy” and dis­play­ing a knowl­edge of clas­si­cal ar­chi­tec­ture gained through self-education.

“You must put up a build­ing which ex­presses the best of the so­ci­ety in which you live,” she im­plored, and all could en­joy. Bronf­man ditched the “com­pe­tent” ar­chi­tect he had ap­proached and put his daugh­ter in charge of se­lect­ing a new one, giv­ing her the ti­tle of di­rec­tor of plan­ning.

Ger­man-born Lud­wig Mies van der Rohe was chang­ing the sky­lines of Amer­ica with his dar­ing mod­ernist de­signs, and Lam­bert knew he was the one.

I dreamed of cre­at­ing mon­u­men­tal sculp­ture in the pub­lic realm.

Phyl­lis Lam­bert

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