Once, when Phyllis Lambert was a little girl, a hurdy gurdy man came up to the house. “You probably don’t know what a hurdy-gurdy man is, no one does anymore,” she says with a chuckle. He was a type of busker who went around with a hand cranked music-making machine. He had found his way to her affluent neighbourhood of Montreal, replete with grand houses. “My father said that if this man had worked as hard as he did that he wouldn’t have to ask for money,” she recalls. “I was appalled.”
This early sensitivity to the plight – and deserved dignity – of a less fortunate person is remarkable in many ways. Lambert’s father, of course, was the Seagram founder Samuel Bronfman, one of the wealthiest men in Montreal, and the country. Her memory was elicited in response to one of the many naive questions I posed to her as we sipped tea in the lobby of the Ace Hotel Toronto: How did she develop such a sensibility towards the social aspect of cities when she had been growing up in such a rarified milieu?
The anecdote – and its glimpse into the mind of a perspicacious young girl – symbolizes for me a sensibility already poised to see things differently. From the beginning, she felt like an outsider. “In my family, I was the second child and a girl. My father wanted boys. I had an older sister who was supposed to be very smart. Then two boys came along. So nobody paid too much attention to me, which is great!” It meant Lambert was free to do as she pleased. And what she wanted to do most was make art. “As a child I was a sculptor,” she says. At the age of 11, she was already taking part in juried international exhibitions staged by the Royal Academy of Arts and the Société des Sculpteurs du Canada. “So observing – sculpture is a very good place to start observing. And I had a marvellous teacher who taught me to evaluate and criticize my own work.”
She was developing her lens.
Lambert has been approaching the world with her particular perspective for 75 years now. At 96, she is still at work: In 2023, she received the Ada Louise Huxtable award. When we met up – the Ace Hotel, where she was staying, was designed by her friends, the architects Brigitte Shim and Howard Sutcliffe – she was about to deliver a talk at the Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design at the University of Toronto to launch her new book by Lars Müller Publishers. She credits its entire curation to the multidisciplinary artist David Cyrenne, who sifted through some 80,000 photos – which they had Xeroxed and laid out across a massive table at the Canadian Centre for Architecture –that Lambert has taken since the 1950s.
For Lambert, everything is about framing: When I begin to ask her about when she first started photographing buildings, she instinctively corrects me: “I wasn’t photographing buildings. I was photographing aspects of buildings. What I love, I just love looking through the lens. I like framing.” She makes a gesture with her hands stretched out before her as if she is about to take my picture. “For example, I won’t take you straight on but somehow where the light falls on your face, the round thing behind you. You sort of say, ‘What makes this special?’”
In the book, Cyrenne has arranged photographs in single, diptych and triptych formats, playing them against each other in fascinating combination – a closeup of a couple of arms tattooed with an array of creatures taken in London next to a menagerie of tiny animal models taken in New York; a snow-fronted set of rustic buildings in Norman Wells, Northwest Territories, next to a boisterous mural on a clay-roofed house in Greece; abstract self-portraits from various decades – so that “either they are sympathetic to each other in colour or some other way or else they shock you,” Lambert says.
Featuring glimpses into Lambert’s worldwide travels, candid portraits of famous friends like Mies, Rem Koolhaas and Peter Eisenman, as well as quotidian snaps of her everyday surroundings, the book is titled Observation Is a Constant that Underlies All Approaches. It seems to speak to her entire career, I remark: “If you were to extend that statement, could we say approaches to architecture, curation, to life? What other words can we attribute?” She thinks for a second. “Well, to social relations? Not to economics. It’s interesting you ask that question because it makes you think what it would not refer to. I guess observation, in a way, it’s like anything else: You have to know what the field is, what the problems are.”
She has been a force in many fields, putting her rigorous intellect and curiosity to everything that matters to her deeply. When she just was 27, studying art in Paris, her father was embarking on the Seagram Building in New York and had sent her imagery of the building proposal, a rather stodgy corporate-looking complex. In one of modern architectural history’s most impassioned missives, she famously wrote her father a letter beginning with “NO NO NO NO NO.” It was at her insistence that he eventually hired Mies van der Rohe and the rest, as you know, is history. Yet, at the time, Mies’s work was not universally renowned. In fact, Lambert herself wrote about how one would have to challenge their routine inclination in order to appreciate it for what it really was: “Mies forces you in. You might think this austere strength, this ugly beauty, is terribly severe. It is. And yet, all the more beauty in it.”
After seeing the Seagram Building through to completion in 1958 (a process she documents in Building Seagram), and to its almost-immediate recognition as a modern icon – one that transformed New York – Lambert went to Yale Architecture School. She then attended the Illinois Institute of Technology, where Mies was a teacher. While in Chicago, she lobbied to restore a mostly Black neighbourhood called Bronzeville. And, after her father died, she decided to move back to Montreal. In the midst of all this prodigious activity, she also designed a building: Montreal’s Saiyde Bronfman Centre, in honour of her mother.
Immediately, she started paying close attention – through her photographic lens – to the grey stone buildings, in danger of being redeveloped, that contributed so much to Montreal’s urban fabric. She bought up the stunning if derelict Shaughnessy House, turning it into the internationally revered CCA, but she also championed entire neighbourhoods like Milton Park. This was a time long before the rallying call of “never demolish” was being embraced by prominent architects (including France’s Pritzker laureates Lacaton & Vassal and the Spanish studio Flores y Prats).
How did Lambert see the value in these buildings when it seemed to be invisible to others, when they were being maligned as slums? “You know, I had a trained eye, from sculpture – I knew about texture and form and volume and refinement. The buildings form a neighbourhood and are themselves really interesting – so is the street around them.” At the time, she was enrolled in city planning courses. “When I was taking those photographs, with my 35-millimetre, it was because I wanted to show people how marvellous Montreal was, how the spaces and the buildings were so beautiful.” Her work, of course, extended into activism and development – she got together with members of the community to rally the federal government to fund Milton Park’s renewal – and to the establishment of Heritage Montreal. It also made Lambert a go-to champion of preservation, and she would go on to renovate the Biltmore hotel in Los Angeles, and restore the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo.
What should we be training our lenses on today? What should we champion going forward?
“The understanding of the fabric of the city,” Lambert responds. “Montreal is much more structured than Toronto, it was formed by the French, who were very structured,” she chuckles. “By 1703, there was a huge amount of land already laid out in strips, those later formed villages, and the streets that go north and south. These old buildings, they’re a part of our history and with an interesting quality: the regularity of them, the details. I think the neighbourhood structure is so important.”
What about architectural icons? Why is it so difficult to build exceptional architecture today? “I don’t know what an iconic building is,” she says. The word is used for marketing, by developers – and the press – to sell fantasies. And often to the economic detriment of most of the people living in a city. “I don’t think how people live ought to be something you can make money on. It has to be exclusive of money,” she says.
And yet Seagram, a commercial building, was an icon – and remains so. “Seagram changed New York. But a single building isn’t going to change anything anymore. You need this kind of concept of ‘what is a city?’”
Architect, planner, gallerist, preservationist – and photographer. We sat down with Phyllis Lambert to talk about her new book, “Observation Is a Constant that Underlies All Approaches.”