Education and Early Projects
The daughter of distilling industrialist Samuel Bronfman, Phyllis Lambert was educated at Vassar College, New York, graduating with a BA in 1948. Knowing that she was not slated to run the family business — which was entrusted to her two brothers, Edgar and Charles Bronfman (see also Bronfman Family) — Lambert embarked on an architectural career.
One of her first projects was convincing her father to reject the original designs for the Seagram Building in New York, which she found appalling, and seek out a significant modernist architect. After considering the work of major figures like Le Corbusier and Eero Saarinen, she implored her father to hire Bauhaus master Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, one of the most influential modern architects of the 20th century. Lambert served as director of planning for this project (1954–58) and then enrolled in the program Mies had established at the Illinois Institute of Technology, where she studied under Myron Goldsmith. She received her master’s degree in Architecture in 1963.
During the 1960s, Lambert designed the Saidye-Bronfman Centre in Montreal, an International Style glass and steel pavilion in the manner of Mies. She also served as a consultant on the Toronto-Dominion Centre in Toronto, the last great project on which Mies participated before his death. With its dark bronze cladding and tinted glass, the Toronto-Dominion Centre is considered one of Toronto’s few architectural masterpieces.
In the mid-1970s, Lambert was architect-developer with Gene Summers on the Biltmore Hotel renovation in downtown Los Angeles. For handsomely restoring this derelict landmark to vital use, she won the National Honor Award of the American Institute of Architects.
In 1975, Lambert founded Heritage Montreal, which worked to preserve heritage buildings in the Old Port and Golden Square Mile areas of the city. Another important initiative of Lambert’s was the Société d’amélioration Milton-Parc (SAMP), a non-profit cooperative housing renovation project in Montreal.
Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA)
One of Phyllis Lambert’s most important accomplishments has been as the director of the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA), a world-class museum and research centre in Montreal. Founded by Lambert in 1979, the CCA aims to preserve architectural heritage and holds extensive collections of architectural drawings, books, photographs and archival materials. The CCA building, designed by Peter Rose with Lambert as consulting architect and completed in 1989, preserved and incorporated Shaugnessy House, a historic Montreal mansion rescued by Lambert. Together with its gardens, the largest of which was designed by Melvin Charney, the CCA helped revive a decaying urban area.
On 1 March 1999, Lambert retired as director of the Canadian Centre for Architecture but continued as chair of the board of trustees and as an active member of the acquisitions committee.
Advocacy and Publications
Over the course of her career, Phyllis Lambert has initiated a number of architecture/preservation-related projects and publications, including Court House: A Photographic Document; Photography and Architecture: 1839–1939; Opening the Gates of Eighteenth-Century Montréal; and Fortifications and the Synagogue: The Fortress of Babylon and the Ben Ezra Synagogue, Cairo (completed in 1991).
A significant architectural publication that Lambert authored, Mies in America (2001), came out of an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. The text brings to light the leadership required to create contextual and relevant architecture. In 1998, Lambert announced the International Federation for the CCA Prize, a $100,000 international prize to encourage new contributions in urban design.
Lambert held a series of academic appointments at: the Illinois Institute of Technology; Princeton University’s School of Architecture; Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design; the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Architecture; McGill University’s School of Architecture; the Université de Montréal’s Faculté de l’aménagement; the Institue for Advanced Study at Princeton University (1986); Edinburgh University’s Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (1991); and New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. Lambert also served as chair of Columbia University’s Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture.
Phyllis Lambert was made a Member of the Order of Canada in 1985, an Officer in 1990 and a Companion in 2001. She is an Officer of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres de France, a Grand Officer of the Ordre national du Québec, and a recipient of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada Gold Medal.
Lambert was granted the Vincent Scully Prize by the National Building Museum in 2006. A film about her life and work, Citizen Lambert: Joan of Architecture, directed by Teri Wehn-Damisch, was released in 2007. She was awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Biennale for Architecture (2014), the Arnold W. Brunner Memorial Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Wolf Prize in Arts (2016) from the Wolf Foundation in Israel.
Legacy and Significance
Phyllis Lambert has been an advocate for urban renewal, urban conservation, conscious city building and the cultural importance of architecture. By promoting architecture as art, Lambert changed the way architects are seen and the way that they work. By engaging architects and the public in conversations about the value of architecture, Lambert has helped make the subject of architecture an important civic concern.
- Member, Order of Canada (1985)
- Member, Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (1985)
- Knight, Ordre national du Québec (1985)
- Officer, Order of Canada (1990)
- Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts, Architecture, Pratt Institute (1990)
- Gold Medal, Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (1991)
- Officer, Ordre des Arts et des Lettres de France (1992)
- Hadrian Award, World Monuments Fund (1997)
- Companion, Order of Canada (2001)
- Companion, Royal society of Canada (2002)
- Grand Officer, Ordre national du Québec (2005)
- Vincent Scully Prize, National Building Museum (2006)
- Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement, Venice Biennale of Architecture (2014)
- Wolf Prize in Arts, Wolf Foundation (Israel) (2016)
- Arnold W. Brunner Memorial Prize, American Academy of Arts and Letters (2016)