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1997 Hadrian Award Recipient

Phyllis Lambert
by Brendan Gill

"The sculpture of architecture does not constitute architecture, even though it expresses structure or symbolizes how a building rises from the ground. What matters is beyond, the combinatory relationships of part to whole, and those of inside to outside, space to space, building to site." ---Phyllis Lambert

Phyllis Lambert is a small, dark-haired, dark-eyed, seventy-year-old woman, and it is to be noted at once that her age is the least important fact about her. One mentions it because her career imposes on us the arithmetic of her accomplishments. She has been making a vivid mark in the world for many decades, and this long passage of time stubbornly insists on being accounted for, though with something of the air of an impertinent social blunder. A quality invincibly youthful and energetic radiates from Lambert, visibly in the quickness of her movements and invisibly in the quickness of her mind, made manifest in the no less remarkable quickness of her speech. (In sheer velocity, Lambert rivals Sir Isaiah Berlin, who famously appears at first hearing to be uttering a single impenetrable cataract of sound, which little by little a listener becomes attuned to and delightedly disentangles into words.)

Lambert is a member of the well-known Bronfman family. She was born in Montreal and makes her chief residence there. With characteristic audacious briskness, she was no sooner out of Vassar and in and out of a marriage to a French banker, Jean Lambert, than she came home from studying art in Paris to persuade her father, head of the Joseph E. Seagram & Sons company, to let Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson design a new Seagram's headquarters building on Park Avenue. Completed in 1958, the building is considered the handsomest of all our postwar skyscrapers. Having thrust herself as an amateur headlong into the heart of the profession, Lambert decided to become an architect herself. Within a few years, her design for the restoration of the Los Angeles Biltmore Hotel won a National Honor Award from the American Institute of Architects.

Lambert's greatest feat has been the establishment in Montreal, in 1979, of the Canadian Centre for Architecture. The only independent institution in the world devoted to the art of architecture and its history, the Centre defines itself as fostering "the understanding of architectural ideas through advanced research, public exhibitions, scholarly publications, and conferences," and as having been "founded on the conviction that architecture, as part of the social and natural environment, is a public concern." These words give off an authentic Lambertian ring. One can be sure that what Lambert perceives to be a public concern will become for her a personal cause, passionately championed. The Centre is a gift, first of all, to her native city and then to the world at large-- a gift increasingly vast in scale as the Centre gathers up into its archives a collection of rare and diverse architectural materials (drawings, photographs, blueprints, account books, diaries, correspondence, and even architectural tools and furniture).

Spunky, hard-driving, impatient, Lambert gives the impression of hastening into a room only in order to leave it-- there is, after all, do we not see, so much to be done? Plainly, her zest for accomplishment remains undiminished. For those of us who are eager to follow her, the difficulty lies in keeping up. Faster, she calls back to us, faster, faster!

We learn that she is about to receive a certain rare and highly valued prize. It is welcome news; the prize is assuredly deserved. Then it occurs to us that Lambert will be obliged to slow down for a moment or two in order to receive it. An opportunity will arise for us to pay homage to her in a way that, though novel, she is sure to understand: as the applause resounds, we will stand idle (idle!) and catch our breath.

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