Woman of substance

As Phyllis Lambert turns 90, an exhibition in Montreal charts her remarkable career, from working on the Seagram Building to advancing public awareness of architecture and heritage

Master class studio, Crown Hall, Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), c1961: student, David C Sharp, Phyllis Lambert, Myron Goldsmith, Jin Hwan Kim.
Master class studio, Crown Hall, Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), c1961: student, David C Sharp, Phyllis Lambert, Myron Goldsmith, Jin Hwan Kim. Credit: Phyllis Lambert fonds, CCA

As first jobs in architecture go, Phyllis Lambert’s is hard to beat. While a sculptor in her twenties, she famously became director of planning of the Seagram Building (1954-58) in New York City, working with both Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson on the seminal skyscraper for her father’s company.

This and her myriad other achievements are documented in the new exhibition Phyllis Lambert, 75 Years at Work, held fittingly at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA), which she founded in Montréal in 1979. Lambert herself has curated the exhibition, staged to mark her 90th birthday. Though time-consuming, it wasn’t a particularly difficult task since, she says, ‘I know the subject very well.’

But many visitors to the exhibition won’t, and for them, it’s an opportunity to learn about the woman behind one of America’s greatest modern buildings. They will also learn about Lambert’s broader activities advancing public awareness of the role of architecture in society, and supporting Montréal’s urban heritage through organisations such as Héritage Montréal, which she set up in 1975. She also established both the largest non-profit cooperative housing renovation project in Canada at Milton Park, and the only private investment fund in Canada supporting the regeneration of low and medium income in neighbourhoods. Add to this her photography work and her design and founding of the Saidye Bronfman Centre in Montréal, and it’s clear that there was no shortage of material to draw on for this show.

Seagram Building, view from northwest in the afternoon, 375 Park Avenue, New York, 1958. Lambert worked on this as director of planning with architects Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson.
Seagram Building, view from northwest in the afternoon, 375 Park Avenue, New York, 1958. Lambert worked on this as director of planning with architects Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson. Credit: Ezra Stoller. CCA ©Ezra Stoller/Esto

It could have been a very different story if Lambert had followed the path that she says might have been expected of her background: finishing school and a suitable marriage. Instead, she pursued sculpture and when her father was in the early stages of the Seagram Building project with another design, talked him into giving her the job of overseeing the endeavour, undaunted by the prospect of handling such a substantial project with no architectural training. She clearly thrived. Not only was she instrumental in the appointment of Mies but she drove the project through to completion, working closely with both Mies and Johnson. Like Mies, the Montréal-born Lambert was an outsider to New York City. She recalls that while Mies didn’t talk that much, ‘you felt the inner brilliance of the man’.

‘It was a fantastic experience. I’d walk to work on the Seagram Building in the morning knowing that I was doing something so wonderful. I adored it,’ she says. 

She talks of how the Seagram Building demonstrated that architecture is a public concern.

‘When you’re intervening in the fabric of the city, you have a moral and social obligation to create something special – otherwise it’s only a building… You’re creating a marvellous place for people to work – after all, they'll spend most of their time there. You’re creating a wonderful place for people walking by. And you’re creating a wonderful place for the surrounding environment, the whole city and the world.’

  • Pier Associates' composite photograph of Phyllis Lambert and David Fix in their studio, 403-409 East Illinois Street, Chicago, USA c1970, reproduction.
    Pier Associates' composite photograph of Phyllis Lambert and David Fix in their studio, 403-409 East Illinois Street, Chicago, USA c1970, reproduction. Credit: Phyllis Lambert fonds, CCA ©Pier Associates
  • As the sun goes down and the lights go on: Seagram Building, view from northwest at dusk.
    As the sun goes down and the lights go on: Seagram Building, view from northwest at dusk. Credit: Ezra Stoller. CCA ©Ezra Stoller/Esto
  • Exterior of Saidye Bronfman Centre at night, 1968, photographed by Richard Nickel. Architect: Phyllis Lambert.
    Exterior of Saidye Bronfman Centre at night, 1968, photographed by Richard Nickel. Architect: Phyllis Lambert. Credit: Phyllis Lambert fonds, CCA, ©Richard Nickel. Courtesy of the Richard Nickel Committee, Chicago, Illinois
  • Phyllis Lambert and Gene Summers, principals, Ridgway Ltd, Architects and Developers.
    Phyllis Lambert and Gene Summers, principals, Ridgway Ltd, Architects and Developers. Credit: Photographer unknown, c1976. Phyllis Lambert fonds, CCA
1234

Her experience on the Seagram Building led to her subsequently training as an architect. But she never settled for a narrow definition of the role, preferring to engage variously and widely in city heritage issues, public consultation and urban regeneration. She has particularly enjoyed her work at the CCA, where she is now founding director emeritus.

‘I like the CCA role most,’ she says. ‘We’re clients in that we commission exhibitions, photography, and bring together the work of major architects in an educational role.’

Lambert hopes visitors to the new show will see that architecture is a much broader practice than designing buildings. She admires architects such as Diller Scofidio + Renfro for the breadth of their creativity, and while she doesn’t want to be drawn on her favourite architects, she praises Peter Eisenman as ‘hugely influential in changing attitudes of architects in seeing architecture as an art and not just a profession and a business’.

As she enters her 10th decade, she’s clearly not intending to rest on her laurels. With the exhibition of her 75 years (and still counting) career now launched, Lambert is already looking ahead to her next project, an exhibition and book on her research and photography of Montreal’s historic greystone buildings.

Phyllis Lambert, 75 Years at Work, until June 4, 2017, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montréal