17 May 2020 • Work
'I am an activist, but that’s part of being an architect': legacy and preservation in Phyllis Lambert's eyes
Phyllis Lambert is widely considered to be among the most influential female figures in architecture. In our 2018 publication Legacy: Generations of Creatives in Dialogue, Canadian curator and writer Carson Chan talks to the enigmatic founder of the Canadian Centre of Architecture (CCA) shortly after her 90th birthday about her view on legacy and preservation. This is a condensed version of that conversation, which you can read in full by purchasing the Lukas Feireiss-edited book here.
CARSON CHAN: As a child you had wanted to be an artist, a sculptor. Today, you are a leader in architectural preservation and restoration. Is this how you see your legacy?
PHYLLIS LAMBERT: Yes, I was an artist when I was younger, but I don’t think that I’m a leader in conservation and preservation: I’m an architect. My concern is architecture, while conservation and preservation are a means to an end, not an end in itself. After the Second World War, many European cities were so heavily destroyed that they had to be torn down. I guess Americans thought they had to do the same thing. It was terrible. Working in conservation and preservation helps create a decent city. It’s working against the idea that people and the places they live in are expendable.
CC: The opposite of expendable is essential. When did you discover the constitutive relationship between people and place?
PL: I was at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chicago learning to be an architect from 1960-63. Well, I was first learning to be an architect from building the Seagram Building (1958) with Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, and then I became a student at the IIT. At the time, perfectly good buildings in downtowns were being torn down for no reason. There was a terrible destructive, self-serving sense in people. Thomas Edison said that babies in America are born looking at their cradles and twisting their heads around to see how they can make a better one. I really cannot be called a conservation and preservation architect. I’m an architect: I’m concerned with the city and how the city grows and what is needed to make that grow. What’s needed is input from the citizens, there’s no reason why a couple of bureaucrats should decide on how an area should be developed. People who live there know a lot more. Expertise, knowledge, and the city, these should all be brought together to form the architecture of the city.
Expertise, knowledge, and the city, these should all be brought together to form the architecture of the city
CC: You’ve picketed at protests to save historical buildings. If you’re not a preservationist or a conservationist, can we call your work through groups like Heritage Montreal and Save Montreal activism? You mentioned the tearing down of America’s downtown fabric to make way for high-rises, many of which didn’t materialize because of the oil crisis. Is this the fate you wanted to save your hometown Montreal from?
PL: I am an activist, but that’s part of being an architect. There are times when you have to do different things in different ways. Firstly, I must say that we began building the Seagram in New York, a major building, by tearing many others down. Architecturally, the Seagram Building was absolutely necessary at the time. There was Skidmore Owings Merrill’s Lever House (1952), and of course the United Nations Headquarters that Le Corbusier had sort of conceived (1952). At the time, to build was to make something new and modern to the very best of one’s ability. But then I went to architecture school in Chicago and saw the wanton destruction there, in American, Canada and the rest of the world. This was the moment when I knew that we had to stop this kind of architectural destruction.
CC: You saved many of Montreal’s iconic greystone buildings. The city has retained much of its late 19th and early 20th century architecture in no small part due to your efforts. What do you make of the fact that your personal objective has such a defining presence in Montreal today?
PL: Well, neighborhoods of greystone buildings correspond to the history of Montreal. Again, it was about stopping the reckless demolition of the city’s past. I was photographing the greystone building’s when I realized this. If you want to build a new building, it has to be in an appropriate place. Part of the Canadian Center for Architecture, which I founded in 1979, is in the historic Shaughnessy House, so you can say that the CCA was part of an act to stop this kind of thoughtless destruction.
CC: The CCA both a lesson in the value of historical preservation, and, as an archive and exhibition space, a place where architectural knowledge is stored and produced.
It became clear to me that the public needed to know more about architecture. They know something about sculpture, music, painting, but they don’t know a thing about architecture
PL: Through the wanton destruction, it became clear to me that the public needed to know more about architecture. They know something about sculpture, music, painting, but they don’t know a thing about architecture. To most, it is a commercial venture. In fact, it is a medium that creates the cities and environments we live in. It effects how we think – and that’s important. Founding the CCA was my way of taking an active stance in what I see happening around me. Does that make me an activist? I’m a historian. I’m an architect.
CC: Traditionally, we think of architects as authors of building-sized objects. You’ve been talking about cities and environments. When you walk around Montreal do feel a sense of authorship in areas you saved from demolition?
PL: What difference does it make? I did what I did because I thought it was important. Now when I visit these places and see it thriving, I think it’s wonderful. I guess, being an author is part of the whole process.
This interview has been condensed for length.