A Reflecting Lens

Phyllis Lambert looks back on her 75 years in architecture

Architecture Comment International Preservation
Lambert and Peter Rose in front of the Canadian Centre for Architecture, circa 1991. (© Tom Hollyman)
Lambert and Peter Rose in front of the Canadian Centre for Architecture, circa 1991. (© Tom Hollyman)

For the occasion of her 90th birthday on January 24, architect Phyllis Lambert sent the following text about her life and career—from her early days as a sculptor to her work as a photographer, preservationist, and patron. It is taken from the exhibition Phyllis Lambert: 75 Years At Work, on view until April 9 at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal.

1 / Beginnings

Art has always been for me the essence of existence.

A sculptor from the age of nine, at eleven I began exhibiting in annual juried exhibitions at the Royal Academy of Arts and the Société des Sculpteurs du Canada. My sculpture teacher instilled in me objective self-criticism, and I learned manual skills and close observation. I have always drawn. As an undergraduate at Vassar College, in addition to studying art history, in the studio I focused on painting, intrigued by technique, especially that of Rubens (although this is not evident in the self-portrait). However, I was not interested in making small works for private collections. I dreamed of creating monumental sculpture in the public realm: Architecture would be the answer, but I did not know this yet.

Phyllis Bronfman sculpting a bust of her mother, Saidye Bronfman, 1948. (Courtesy Phyllis Lambert fonds, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montréal)

Phyllis Bronfman sculpting a bust of her mother, Saidye Bronfman, 1948. (Courtesy Phyllis Lambert fonds, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montréal)

2 / Seagram Building

With extraordinary good fortune five years out of college, and while studying the history of architecture at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, I became involved in my father’s decision to erect an office building for Joseph E. Seagram & Sons in New York City. In 1954, living and painting on my own in Paris, I received a proposal from him to which I responded in an eight-page, closely spaced typed letter beginning with one word repeated very emphatically: No No No No No. I concluded, “You must put up a building which expresses the best of the society in which you live… You have a great responsibility.” For me the new building had to be a wonderful place to be, to work, for people passing by on the street, for buildings around it, for the neighborhood, for the city, for the world.

With a mandate to select the architect, after six weeks visiting architects in their offices everyone was talking in terms of Mies. There was the aura and generosity of the man, the gentle power of his architecture. I chose Mies.

With the title of director of planning, my job, as I saw it, was to assure that Mies could build the project he envisioned. His beautifully proportioned bronze-clad building rose straight, set back from the street on its half-acre plaza. Seagram changed New York. After 1961, the New York City zoning code introduced incentive zoning to encourage open plazas at ground level by permitting developers extra floor space. Plazas appeared everywhere.

At the turn of the century, in The New York Times Magazine, Herbert Muschamp declared Seagram to be his choice for the millennium’s most important building, bringing the fusion of gothic and classical elements “in a supremely elegant whole.” “The business of civilization is to hold opposites together,” he wrote. “That goal, often reached through conflict, has been rendered here by Mies with a serenity unsurpassed in modern times.”

Contemporary artworks and those we commissioned were publicly accessible in the great spaces of the Four Seasons restaurant designed by Philip Johnson, and strategies were established for changing installations of sculpture on the plaza. It is also essential to note that high standards of documented maintenance have conserved the Seagram building’s exceptional value.


Phyllis Lambert, David Sharpe, Myron Goldsmith, Jin Hwan Kim, and an unidentified student, master class studio, Crown Hall, Illinois. (Courtesy Phyllis Lambert fonds, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montréal)

Phyllis Lambert, David Sharpe, Myron Goldsmith, Jin Hwan Kim, and an unidentified student, master class studio, Crown Hall, Illinois. (Courtesy Phyllis Lambert fonds, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montréal)

3 / Architecture School

Following four years immersed in the process of designing and building Seagram, in 1958 I entered the Yale School of Architecture. After a few semesters I found that Mies’s school at the Illinois Institute of Technology offered what I wanted to learn—the careful craft and consequences of putting materials together. Mies’s most brilliant student, Myron Goldsmith, was my lieber-meister. Our graduate class designed hangars for the new 747 airplanes. My master’s thesis, “A Study of Long-Span Concrete Roof Structures,” was written under the supervision of Goldsmith and the innovative structural engineer Fazlur Khan. Myron liked to say that I never did anything with this investigation; however, the work extended and intensified my predisposition for gathering information in the field, first-hand. 

With this proclivity and my passionate interest in the city, seizing on President Lyndon Johnson’s new anti-poverty “Model Cities Program,” I volunteered with Antonis Tritsis—a PhD student in urban planning who would later become minister of planning in Greece—to work on changing the city of Chicago’s plan to replace Bronzeville, a notoriously deteriorated neighborhood rich in Black cultural history, with new high-rise “ghettos.” The city ultimately designated Bronzeville as an area of “Conservation and Rehabilitation.” The experience proved to be an invaluable training ground for my work with community groups in Montreal.

Seagram was always on my mind. While in Chicago I made a scheme for Seagram East, and I also worked with the director of the mayor’s office of Midtown Planning and Development in New York City on the possibilities of transferring Seagram’s unused air rights in order to remove future pressure to build on the Seagram plaza. The present owner of the Seagram building has recently transferred the air rights to the adjacent site facing Lexington Avenue that he purchased, where he is now erecting a very tall tower.

4A / Projects: Saidye Bronfman Centre

After I obtained my master’s degree in 1963, my family commissioned me to design an arts center in Montreal to be known as the Saidye Bronfman Centre of the YM-YWHA, in honor of our mother. Fazlur Khan urged me to experiment with precast concrete; however, I wanted the personal experience of designing a Miesian structure. My intention was to connect building and community, so that people inside would be conscious of the landscape and of the people outside, and those outside would be aware of the activities inside. I especially loved the theater’s great seating shell, which is seen in the photographs. Unhappily, it was demolished in order to increase the number of seats.

Commuting to Montreal from my office in Chicago, I reconnected with the city I had left twenty years earlier and became aware of the unique architectural quality of its neighborhoods of greystone buildings.

Lambert, circa 1967. (Courtesy Phyllis Lambert fonds, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montréal)

Lambert, circa 1967. (Courtesy Phyllis Lambert fonds, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montréal)

4B / Projects: Photographic Missions

Greystone. A theory class in city planning at IIT raised my desire to tangibly understand city building. Photographing the greystone buildings of Montreal was a way to do so. I had worked with a 35mm camera to investigate structure and environment, but to avoid distortion and to obtain a high level of resolution I asked Richard Pare, a young Englishman studying photography in Chicago, to join me with a view camera.

Among the possible ways of analyzing city fabric, the focus on a material of construction provides insight into a wide range of topics. This approach would be impossible in cities like Paris or Jerusalem, where all buildings are faced with local stone. However, in Montreal, the North American city with the greatest number and concentration of stone construction, such focus is revelatory. At first pragmatic, Montreal gray limestone buildings came to hold special symbolic value. In the 17th and 18th centuries, thick stone walls provided protection against attack, against fire, against the cold. Eventually they became prestigious markers of status.

Observation of the architectural language of these buildings—which includes how the stone is cut and surfaced and laid, building location and siting—indicates not only the dates of construction, but also their ethnic, religious, political, economic, and social contexts, coupled with the aspirations of their owners and builders. Sectors possessing buildings with various combinations of these characteristics differentiate the territorial divisions of the city, which still correspond to the seigneurial system of land tenure established during the French regime.

Photographing greystone buildings (1972–1974) brought me back to Montreal to fight against urban demolition and heightened my desire to undertake more photographic missions.

Courthouse: A Photographic Document (1978), edited by Richard Pare, was initiated by me for the United States Bicentennial. Rather than photographing many buildings of one material and many functions contained in one city, this photographic mission investigated a single building type as it spread across the continent and the change in a nation’s view of itself. The county courthouse registers basic human transactions, but above all it embodies the rule of law, a fundamental component of American democracy. Wolf von Eckardt, in The Washington Post (May 20, 1978) found it to be equally as important as the Seagram Building as it “acquaints us with the richness and ingenuity of our own indigenous architecture.”

Similarly, under my direction, the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) commissioned photographers to investigate other concepts relating to human settlement. Clara Gutsche and David Miller made the images of An Industrial Landscape Observed: The Lachine Canal (1992), a publication and an exhibition that traveled in the Montreal region, to raise awareness of the extraordinary spaces of 19th-century structures that were being abandoned but could be repurposed—as many have since. Viewing Olmsted (1996) is the work of three photographers of different generations and practices whom the CCA commissioned to investigate Frederick Law Olmsted’s design of landscape in different ecologies in all seasons. The project extended over seven years. The CCA continues to commission photographers as well as filmmakers in relation to exhibitions and publications.

5A / Conservation and Restoration: Montreal

Photographing in Montreal in the early 1970s brought me into contact with architects who felt an urgent need for Montrealers to know about the city’s overlooked buildings and unobserved history. Each contributor wrote a chapter for Exploring Montreal; my chapter is titled “The River Edges.” At the same time, Richard Pare and I focused with tripod and camera on greystone structures, passersby commented, “Why that building? It’s old, it will be demolished.”

The demolition of the Van Horne mansion on Sherbrooke Street in 1973 ignited twenty-three citizen groups to form Sauvons Montréal. In 1975, Héritage Montréal raised funds so that conservation groups could take action in order to give a face to each building, like family portraits. Our tools to stop demolition included marching in the streets, publishing ads and booklets, working with residents, and ultimately working with a whole neighborhood and the Federal government to establish Canada’s largest not-for-profit cooperative housing renovation, Milton-Parc. Also known as the McGill ghetto, Milton-Parc was exemplary; community values were asserted; no one was evicted, and families could continue to live in security in the downtown, without risk of gentrification.

Investment in renovating low- to medium-income neighborhoods is as important as the conservation of monuments or building anew. Since 1997 the Fonds d’investissement Montréal (FIM), which I head, has brought private sector investment to the urgent need for communitarian housing beyond the limits of government programs.

Gene Summers and Lambert, restoration architects; the lobby of the Biltmore Hotel, Los Angeles, circa 1976. (Hedrich-Blessing/© Chicago History Museum/Courtesy Phyllis Lambert fonds, CA)

Gene Summers and Lambert, restoration architects; the lobby of the Biltmore Hotel, Los Angeles, circa 1976. (Hedrich-Blessing/© Chicago History Museum/Courtesy Phyllis Lambert fonds, CA)

5B / Conservation and Restoration: Abroad

In the mid-seventies, along with urban guerrilla activities in Montreal, and distressed by wanton demolition in other cities and less-than-thoughtful real estate development, I formed a firm as architect and developer with Gene Summers (then partner-in-charge at C. F. Murphy Associates in Chicago and formerly Mies van der Rohe’s major assistant). We were convinced it was possible to vastly improve the quality of life in cities and also to be financially successful. We proved this in pioneering the renovation of a major hotel property, the 1,000-room Los Angeles Biltmore, which was slated for demolition. Built in 1921 in connection with the rise of the era of the automobile, the renovated hotel re-established its prominence and encouraged rebirth of part of the old downtown.

My work in conservation and renovation led the president of the World Jewish Congress, in connection with the Camp David Accords, to ask me to study the conditions, and then to take the steps needed to substantiate an interfaith religious center in Egypt. The very presence of the three monotheistic religions in close proximity in Old Cairo—the Ben Ezra Synagogue and the surrounding Coptic and Marianite churches within the fourth-century Roman fortifications, with the Mosque of Amr ibn al-As, the first mosque erected in Egypt, close by—offered the necessary context. The synagogue had been abandoned since the Six Day War: Were it to fall into ruin, the evidence of the cohabitation of the three religions would have been lost to history. Furthermore, its symbolic message was urgently needed. Conservation of the synagogue (whose foundations, we discovered, date from the 11th century) and its precinct was complicated and fascinating, but for me it was indispensable above all to document the process and to undertake and publish archaeological and historical research on the synagogue, for this was the only way to substantiate the existence of this cohabitation.

6 / Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA): Idea and Design

More was needed to make architecture a public concern. Much more. Everyone seems to know something about painting, sculpture, and films, but not about architecture. Architecture frames our daily lives; it creates the medium in which we grow and learn, and live. Yet as an art form and social structure its language is mostly unknown. Clearly, architecture is unequivocally a public concern.

It was crucial to establish a place where the many aspects of creating the built world could be discussed, a new type of cultural institution, with the specific aim of increasing public awareness of the role of architecture in contemporary society and promoting scholarly research in the field. An international and interrelated collection composed of prints, drawings, photographs, architectural archives, and books would support research and induce knowledge and debate generated through publications, exhibitions, seminars, and other programs. Such places existed only in part. I discussed creating such a place with art historian and museum director Daniel Robbins and asked him to undertake a study of the mission, collections, operations, and staffing of institutions with related programs, whether library or museum or research center.   

Lambert and Peter Rose in front of the Canadian Centre for Architecture, circa 1991. (© Tom Hollyman)

Lambert and Peter Rose in front of the Canadian Centre for Architecture, circa 1991. (© Tom Hollyman)

Slowly and in stages the collection was formed in temporary quarters in New York and Montreal. Our activities tested conservation, operational requirements, and programming for the design of a purpose-built institution. Finally the Shaughnessy House (which was built in 1874 and I had acquired in 1974 to stop the wave of demolition in the city—and it was then classified as a heritage building) and new construction would accommodate the CCA that I planned. In the fall of 1983, Peter Rose and I began to discuss qualities of light and air needed to enjoy and yet protect the works of art on paper of which the collection is largely composed. We tried many ways of relating the mansion and the much larger new structure. We wished to make the new building and the restored Shaughnessy House an inspiring place to be, for those who work there, those who engage in research, and those viewing exhibitions or consulting the collection. Construction began in May 1985; the building opened to the public in May 1989; Melvin Charney’s sculpture garden, which is part of the Quebec government’s program for the integration of art and architecture, was dedicated a year later.

The mandate for the CCA building and Mel Charney’s garden was to repair the damage to the urban fabric caused by mid-century in-town-highway engineering. The intention for the garden, like the intentions for the research center and museum, was to initiate dialogue between architecture, nature, and the urban fabric, and to relate architecture’s past and present, evoking its future.

7 / CCA Explorations

The CCA was conceived and designed to fulfill several functions: to collect (as a museum and research library); to archive and document (conservation and curation); to support research (a study center); and to conceptualize and broadcast knowledge (exhibitions and publications). In the early years after opening, we discovered ways of presenting ideas about architecture. I have selected a few exhibitions that have represented our purposes and provided a sense of the broad range of our collection as well as the research involved in their presentation.

Our first exhibition and publication, Photography and Architecture: 1839–1939, not only showed the CCA’s unique collection for the first time, but also established the subject, bringing together these two arts when they were beginning to be recognized as art forms in their own right, and their artifacts purposefully collected. The exhibition traveled to Cologne, Paris, New York, and Ottawa from 1982 to 1984, even before the design for the CCA building had begun.

In 1989, its building complete, the CCA held its opening exhibition, Architecture and its Image: Four Centuries of Architectural Representation. It was designed to present works from our collection cutting across media, period, and place while also providing an in-depth look into the nature of architectural representation and insight into the purposes of the CCA. The exhibition emphasized the fact that architectural artifacts are not actual buildings, but evidence of the study and critical thought inherent in their creation.

The Pantheon: Symbol of Revolution, also exhibited in our inaugural year, demonstrated that a number of related works, of different mediums, different dates, acquired at different times, from different sources, can provoke new research and interpretation when held by one institution. At the CCA, drawings, prints, books, and various printed documents and manuscripts show key aspects of the creation of Soufflot’s church Sainte-Geneviève for Louis XV and its transformation to the Panthéon, temple of the great men of France during the French Revolution. Soufflot’s classical church revolutionized French ecclesiastical architecture. However, his use of columns, rather than massive piers, to support a heavy dome caused structural problems threatening its stability. The collection holds numerous documents from the early 19th century studied by famous architects and engineers to stabilize the building. Other documents relate to desacralization of the church during the French Revolution, and the changes made in order to create an atmosphere commensurate with the Panthéon, in which the illustrious dead of the nation are buried. After its return to worship in 1822 under the restoration of the monarchy (indicated by a pediment design by Baltard), the church’s vocation as the Panthéon, a civic monument, was finally and definitively reasserted with the funeral of Victor Hugo in 1885.

Opening the Gates of Eighteenth-Century Montreal was the first of a series of exhibitions over the years, in which the CCA explored unknown histories of Montreal. A decade of unprecedented research on the walled town was based on extensive archival material on land holding and building contracts, together with volumes on civil law and other primary sources, undertaken by the Groupe de recherche sur Montréal, which I had formed. The exhibition and book focus on the interrelationships of three key elements of Montreal’s urban form over a century and a half: the fortifications; the ownership, distribution, and use of property within the fortifications; and the character of buildings. For the exhibition, the CCA borrowed extraordinary, essentially unknown artifacts from museums and archives in France, Ottawa, Quebec, and Montreal, and, in its first venture in the use of the digital, created interactive databases to reconstruct aspects of the town and its defences through which visitors could navigate the streets of Montreal three hundred years ago.

In the years approaching the 100th anniversary of Mies van der Rohe’s birth, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, based on its holdings, planned the exhibition and publication Mies in Berlin, and the CCA, based on its holdings, planned Mies in America. Mies had declared in 1955, “My kind of architecture they should just call a structural approach,” but his work in America was not understood. Closely studying his drawings at MoMA and the CCA, I set out to learn how, after 1939, in the heartland of industrial America, step by step, Mies moved from the romantic poetics of his German years to the poetics of a rational, structural architecture. Mies commented on the difference between the way we think about and use the word structure. In the English language, he said, everything is a structure. In Europe it is not so. A shack is called a shack and not a structure. “By structure we had a philosophical idea. The structure is the whole from top to bottom, to the last detail—with the same ideas.” In addition to exhibiting drawings and models, we commissioned films in order to help to immerse the visitor in Mies’s idea. The exhibition opened in 2001 at the Whitney Museum in New York and traveled to Chicago before its last showing in Montreal. Mies in America was my last exhibition as director of the CCA.

For more details on Phyllis Lambert: 75 Years At Work, on view until June 4 at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) in Montreal, see the CCA’s website here.

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