May 15, 2017
by Tanya Southcott
Phyllis Lambert’s self-portrait in oil on canvas from 1947. Photo: Phyllis Lambert Fond, CCA © Phyllis Lambert.
Architecture frames our daily lives; it creates the medium in which we grow, learn and live. Yet as an art form and social structure, its language is mostly unknown. Clearly architecture is a public concern.
So wrote Phyllis Lambert, when building the case for her magnum opus, the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) in Montreal. But Lambert’s words can also be read as a blueprint for a life spent in the service of architecture.
Among notable contributions are her pivotal roles as Director of Planning for Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building in New York, as founder of the non-profit organization Heritage Montreal, and as architect of the Saidye Bronfman Centre for the Arts in Montreal, the latter in honour of her mother. The exhibition Phyllis Lambert: 75 Years at Work—curated by Lambert herself to coincide with her 90th birthday—traces this public, yet deeply personal relation-ship with architecture, underscoring Lambert’s commitment to the city, the built environment and intellectual research.
The exhibition fleshes out formative moments in Lambert’s lifelong involvement with architecture through a series of artefacts care-fully selected from the CCA collection and the Phyllis Lambert fonds, displayed in the seven large vitrines lining the institution’s corridor gallery. These range from a self-portrait dated 1947, one of her earliest artistic endeavours, to the catalogue for Mies in America, her last exhibition as Director of the CCA in 2002. The eclectic selection includes the oft-quoted letter to her father from June 28th, 1954—a harsh critique of his proposal for the Seagram tower and early manifesto on architecture. Also on display: a bird’s-eye-view of a model for a 747 airplane hangar—her master’s class project while at the Illinois Institute of Technology—and alternate sketches for the entry sequence to the CCA, made in conversation with architect Peter Rose.
A view of the Seagram Building from 1958. CCA © Ezra Stoller / Esto
The advantage of the autobiographical format is the opportunity to control the narrative, which Lambert does with elegance. Through thoughtful curation, she celebrates the breadth of her many successes while not letting her challenges go unnoticed. Lambert presents herself as equally determined throughout her career, whether as a young woman in a boardroom full of older men reviewing Mies’s plans, or as an activist protesting the demolition of Victorian buildings in Montreal. The 2007 film Citizen Lambert: Joan of Architecture proclaims: “Lambert plans, designs, rejuvenates, battles, rescues, renews, restores, builds.” Likewise, the objects on display elucidate her as a woman of action.
Lambert is often described as a linchpin in the careers of others. On her winning the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement in 2014, head juror Rem Koolhaas said, “Architects make buildings—but Phyllis Lambert makes architects.” Using her trophy from Venice as the gate-keeper for 75 Years at Work, Lambert proposes a more diverse and comprehensive view of her accomplishments, legacy and understanding of architecture. For Lambert, architecture is more than a glossy image. Architecture is an ambition to improve the world around us—and through this process, to improve ourselves.
Tanya Southcott is a Montreal-based writer and Ph.D. student at McGill University’s School of Architecture.