Phyllis Lambert at 90: preserving our urban heritage
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.