Buildings about people

Realizing that architecture impacts on all aspects of people’s lives, Phyllis Lambert has dedicated herself to increasing public awareness of its role in contemporary society.

CANADIAN ARCHITECT Phyllis Lambert receiving the 2016 Wolf Prize from President Reuven Rivlin at the Knesset (photo credit: ODED ANTMAN)
CANADIAN ARCHITECT Phyllis Lambert receiving the 2016 Wolf Prize from President Reuven Rivlin at the Knesset
(photo credit: ODED ANTMAN)
Phyllis Lambert says she is in good company. Indeed she is. The renowned 89-year-old Canadian architect was here a couple of weeks ago to receive the 2016 Wolf Prize in the arts category, at a glittering event held at the Knesset. In so doing, Lambert notes that she has joined an illustrious roster of past laureates.
“It was special to me because such a great group of people have got it,” she said in an interview last week. “I think of all the people in the arts [who have received the Wolf Prize] like my great friend [fellow architect and 2010 winner] Peter Eisenman and [1992 recipient, architect] Frank Gehry and [1991 joint winner together with iconic violinist Yehudi Menuhin, Italian composer] Luciano Berio. All sorts of wonderful people.”
Lambert could have added anyone from the list of titans from the classical music field, such as long-standing IPO conductor Zubin Mehta, pianist-composer Vladimir Horowitz and feted violinist Isaac Stern, as well as painter Marc Chagall, some of whose tapestries grace the Knesset’s Chagall State Hall. Meanwhile, stellar opera singer Jessye Norman, who won the music prize last year along with pianist-conductor Murray Perahia, was also at the June 2 ceremony, to receive her prize in person, after being unable to attend the 2015 event.
Lambert has been over in this neck of the woods on several occasions in the past – she is the daughter of Samuel Bronfman, of Seagram’s distilling fame, revered for his many philanthropic contributions to Israel.
In the 1950s, a twentysomething Lambert persuaded her father to make her director of planning for their Seagram Co. Ltd company headquarters in New York City. Lambert brought in Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to design the company’s flagship offices.
Over half a century on, she is still enthralled with the steel and glass skyscraper which was considered a landmark avant garde departure betwixt its largely ornate stone neighbors.
The new Wolf Prize laureate harks back to the musical analogy for this one.
“That is a wonderful building. That building is a most beautiful Bach piece, isn’t it, with its rigor and gentleness and toughness and colors.”
Given that Lambert was fresh out of school when the Seagram Building project materialized, she could have been forgiven for adopting a youthful rebellious attitude to the work. She might have looked around downtown New York, seen an abundance of outdated salutes to neoclassicism and gone for Mies van der Rohe on the back of his envelope-pushing creations, such as his Lake Shore Drive apartment buildings in Chicago, based on his “skin and bones” architectural concept.
In honoring Lambert, the Wolf Prize jurors noted that the Canadian has been doing her bit, to excellent effect, and for many years, in numerous areas.
“Playing all possible roles of designer, planner, artist, writer, photographer, curator, museum director, patron and philanthropist, [she] ultimately stands for professional rigor and aesthetic elegance, but also for intellectual doubt and political critique.”
Indeed, Lambert has been not only furthering the cause of attractive architecture but also championing design and town planning, which take the end users’ needs very much into account. To that end, she established the Canadian Center for Architecture (CCA) in 1979. As the Montreal- based organization’s website states, it is “an international research institution based on the fundamental premise that architecture is a public concern.”
Lambert lived in New York for over two decades, and when she returned north of the border, she felt the time was ripe to get in on the planning action and to convey a more humanist approach to building and environmental design.
“I came back in the Seventies and, by that time, there had been all these problems of demolition in the United States, and it had started here in Montreal. I didn’t want that to happen here.”
Lambert was not of the opinion that newer is necessarily better.
“I did a study of the graystone buildings here, which is a sort of a history of the city, which is fascinating. It seemed to me that bad buildings were going up because people didn’t value the quality of the medium in which they lived. That was why the CCA was needed. It was needed to get people to start thinking about architecture and the city.”
To that end, with Lambert’s hand firmly on the new organization’s tiller, the center began putting on architecturally themed exhibitions.
“We don’t tell people what to do, but we want them to start thinking about things.
We presented things to do with the environment and also things to do with urban renewal.”
Lambert was keen to address the issue of quality of life, and the way a person’s constructed environment affects their well-being on an everyday basis. She realized that architects’ work impacts on all aspects of the lives of the people that encounter their creations.
“We did an exhibition called Sense of the City. We said, okay, people’s visual sense is very strong, but what about the sound, and the smells, too?” Over the years the CCA has also drawn attention to such widely ranging street-level themes as the importance of the domestic lawn, and fuel consumption.
Lambert takes a fundamentally human approach to her craft. Her Wolf Prize award is clearly richly deserved.