It is not surprising that Phyllis Lambert has been named recipient of this year’s Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the 14thVenice Architecture Biennale, which opens June 7. She will join a prestigious group of past winners, which include Rem Koolhaas, Richard Rogers and Alvaro Siza, each honoured for enriching the cultural discourse that surrounds contemporary architecture. Lambert is being recognized for her “huge contribution to architecture, not as an architect, but as a client and custodian,” notes Koolhaas, the curator of this year’s biennale, in a press release that went out yesterday.
The international recognition has arrived just as seismic changes are underway at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, a unique museum Lambert founded in 1979 devoted to preserving, studying and exhibiting the most relevant architecture of the past century.
Lambert’s legacy is long as it is rich. Born in 1927 and a daughter of liquor tycoon Samuel Bronfman, she is well known for commissioning the Seagram Building in New York by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and marshalling the project through to completion – a feat that cannot be under-estimated, especially in such a male-dominated environment. The Park Avenue skyscraper is considered one of the greatest architectural structures of the 20th century.
In her hometown of Montreal, she worked alongside architect Peter Rose as a consulting architect to create a new building for the CCA, which she envisioned as a place where the public could see the process behind what goes into the making of architectural masterpieces. Its archive is renowned globally, and comprised of models, blueprints, photographs and those ephemeral napkin sketches that reveal so much about how architects think, work and create.
Bruce Kuwabara, principal at the Toronto firm KPMB and chairman of the board of trustees at the CCA since last December, recalls being shown sketches in the collection that he had drawn for one of his projects, the Kitchener City Hall in Ontario. “It was fascinating to see what I had drawn back then, and had just ripped off a roll of tracing paper, and here it was being kept in acid-free boxes and handled with white gloves,” he says. “I wasn’t even allowed to touch them.” Without Lambert recognizing the inherent value of such ephemera, documents like these would have mostly likely been lost or forgotten.
Lambert’s Golden Lion award is but one of many news items rolling out of the CCA’s press office of late. Kuwabara’s appointment as new chairman of the trustee board, a posting that has until now only been held by Lambert herself, was one of the first. Last week, the institute announced long-time curator Giovanna Borasi’s new title as chief curator.
While mostly working remotely from Toronto, Kuwabara visits Montreal regularly and is in daily talks with CCA director Mirko Zardini. When asked how he envisions the centre evolving in the coming years, he is both generous and open in his answers. “Until now, the institution has been associated with two people,” he says, referring to Lambert and Zardini. “But there is a great staff of experts there and I would like the CCA to have a greater pluralism,” he says. The recent announcement of Borasi’s new title may be the start of that.
The recent changes do not mean Lambert is stepping away from the institution she built. She is a member of the executive committee and is in the building most days. Last year, she was on tour with her semi-autobiographical book Building Seagram (Yale University Press) about the making of the famous tower.
“What makes the CCA so amazing is the capacity to keep an institution of its calibre running for such a long time,” notes Kuwabara. “That level of maturity has been generated by Phyllis herself. I’ve used the phrase before that she is ‘all in’,100 per cent. That really is the hallmark of the CCA.”
Lambert’s whip-smart intelligence always leaves a strong impression. Los Angeles architect Greg Lynn, whose exhibition, Archaeology of the Digital: Media and Machines, is now on view at the CCA until October 27th, marvels at her candour and nonchalance. “In New York she just stays at a regular hotel and walks everywhere,” he said during a recent interview about the exhibition. “It’s remarkable.”
Congratulations Phyllis, for winning this year’s Golden Lion Award. You are a remarkable woman.