Phyllis Lambert

Phyllis Lambert

BORN: Montreal, Quebec • 24 January 1927

PHYLLIS CAN BE A VERY DIFFICULT PERSON TO work with,” someone who knows her well once said. “She wants everything to be too perfect and monitors everything with intense care.” Perhaps that explains why her entry in the Canadian Who’s Who is one of the longest in the annual volume, listing every single award she has won.

But because Phyllis Bronfman Lambert is very rich, her co-workers and the public are willing to make allowances. And rightly so.Her money has been used to the great benefit of Montreal and Canada.Lambert, the daughter of Seagram’s founder Sam Bronfman, was educated in Montreal and at Vassar College in New York State.

Surrounded by wealth, her relations with her notoriously difficult father were troubled. She found refuge in sculpture and in a 1949 marriage to a Harvard-educated French banker. But the marriage foundered after five years, and her life and career were made when she saw the architectural design proposed for Seagram’s New York headquar¬ ters on Park Avenue and decided it was terrible.

She persuaded her father she was right, launched a search for an outstanding architect, and settled on Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. “As far as I was concerned,” she said years later, “my father was going to do this or I was never going to speak to him again.”

The resulting thirty-eight-storey bronze-clad tower, while hugely expensive, was instantly hailed as a masterwork, and old Sam was impressed despite himself. Inspired by her triumph, Lambert went off to the Illinois Institute of Technology to study architecture, winning her degree in 1963.

Her career flourished in both Chicago and Los Angeles. One of her few Canadian commissions was the award¬ winning Saidye Bronfman Centre in Montreal, a Jewish community centre named after her mother, and she consulted on Mies’ Toronto-Dominion Centre in Toronto. But her greatest architectural achievement was the renova¬ tion of Los Angeles’ Biltmore Hotel which helped rejuvenate a whole area of that city.

After her father’s death, she returned to Montreal to live in 1973. Quickly, Lambert became interested in the conserva¬ tion and preservation of the city’s architectural heritage. Developer-speculators were knocking down treasured build¬ ings and tossing up undistinguished apartment blocks, she observed, adding that “our cities look like we went to war…It’s human greed, pure and simple.”

In response, she created a charitable foundation, Heritage Montreal, in 1975 and became a “heritage-aholic.” She eats, sleeps, and breathes conservation, a friend says. Her impact was considerable, because her name instantly caught the attention of city coun¬ cillors; her concentration and ability were formidable; and her wealth let her buy buildings to prevent their destruction.

In 1974, for example, she purchased the once grand but then derelict residence of Lord Shaughnessy, one of the Canadian Pacific Railway’s giants. Heritage Montreal undertook some eight projects a year, one of which saved blocks of workers’ homes, turning them into cooperatives.Her crowning achievement, however, was the Canadian Centre for Architecture, which opened in 1989.

It was created to provide an independent study centre and museum to further the understanding of architecture and to help estab¬ lish architecture as a public concern.Using the Shaughnessy House as its core, the superb grey stone building designed by architect Peter Rose surrounds it, enhances it, and provides ample exhibition, library, and research space.

The building, its remarkable collection of 500,000 items gathered and paid for by Lambert, and its library of 130,000 volumes were estimated to have cost more than $100 million; more important than the philanthropy, the centre and its collection constitute a priceless national and world resource. As critical, the centre’s construction instantly sparked the restoration and enhance¬ ment of the surrounding area.

Difficult though she may be, Bronfman obviously enjoys using her wealth for public good. With her close-cropped brush-cut and tight-lipped, severe face, she looks like a member of the French resistance, one writer noted percep¬ tively, though perhaps the “architectural resistance” might have been more apt.

“We are able to build too easily, too fast,” she says. Buildings can be planned quickly and erected with great speed. As a result, when buildings are knocked down in a day, the permanence provided by architecture is lost. To Lambert, architecture should provide a sense of place and community, offering a reflection of the specific past of each area.

Her efforts for Heritage Montreal and the Canadian Centre for Architecture amply fulfil her stated aims. As an observer noted of the CCA: “Nothing on this scale has ever been created by an individual in Canada before. Wouldn’t it be nice if some of our other millionaires treated it as a precedent?”