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Phyllis Lambert still dreams of a better city

T'Cha Dunlevy
First Published:
May 16th, 2019. Montreal Gazette
Photos Courtesy of:
Monteal Gazette Files, City Dreamers Film
“I think the more you dream, and really want that dream, it happens,” said Phyllis Lambert.

She would know.

Montreal’s architecture maven is one of four subjects — alongside Denise Scott Brown, in Philadelphia; Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, in Vancouver; and Blanche Lemco van Ginkel, in Toronto — of Joseph Hillel’s stimulating documentary City Dreamers. The women, all of whom are between the age of 87 and 97, have left their mark on cities with unique, broadminded visions of what the urban environment can be.

“They’re of the same generation,” Hillel said. “They demonstrate that same kind of power. They had so many obstacles in front of them, but their motivation was to bring the city to a human scale. It’s so upfront in their priorities, it’s obvious that it was a woman thing for me. I don’t hear that kind of sensibility way upfront from many male architects.”

Lambert, who is friendly with Oberlander and Lemco van Ginkel, agrees that gender may be a factor.

“If you think of the people who have been working this way, men are much more interested in big, heavy urban-planning projects,” she said. “Women are more involved in the social aspect, not so much on the basis of large projects but on ideas of what is necessary.”

As the founder of Heritage Montreal and the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA), which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, Lambert has spent her life imparting ideas of the city as an ongoing conversation between past, present and future.

Architecture is not just about buildings, she insists, but about streets and parks and the people that inhabit and move through these spaces.

“You want to have a place to live that feels wonderful,” she said. “When you walk down a beautiful street, you feel wonderful. When you walk down a horrible street, you feel crummy, terrible.”

“There are commercial architects who really don’t care about these things, and then there are architects who fully understand them. If you’re going to build a new building or renovate an old building, you have to understand the role of that building in the neighbourhood, and how it affects the neighbourhood. It’s not just an isolated building — it’s a piece of the ground, and the whole community.”

Lambert, who is friendly with Oberlander and Lemco van Ginkel, agrees that gender may be a factor.

“If you think of the people who have been working this way, men are much more interested in big, heavy urban-planning projects,” she said. “Women are more involved in the social aspect, not so much on the basis of large projects but on ideas of what is necessary.”

As the founder of Heritage Montreal and the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA), which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, Lambert has spent her life imparting ideas of the city as an ongoing conversation between past, present and future.

Architecture is not just about buildings, she insists, but about streets and parks and the people that inhabit and move through these spaces.

“You want to have a place to live that feels wonderful,” she said. “When you walk down a beautiful street, you feel wonderful. When you walk down a horrible street, you feel crummy, terrible.”

“There are commercial architects who really don’t care about these things, and then there are architects who fully understand them. If you’re going to build a new building or renovate an old building, you have to understand the role of that building in the neighbourhood, and how it affects the neighbourhood. It’s not just an isolated building — it’s a piece of the ground, and the whole community.”

Lambert found her calling in the mid-1950s while working with famed architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, whom she hired to design the Seagram’s Building in New York, after convincing her father Samuel Bronfman that the firm he had chosen just wouldn’t do.

She went on to design the Saidye Bronfman Centre, and became something of an activist in terms of preserving monuments of Montreal’s past, and creating human-scale environments for people to live.

Lambert gives high marks to Mayor Valérie Plante, whom she says is bringing about progress on that front.

“The present mayor is doing a very good job,” she said. “The concept of making a city greener has all sorts of consequences in terms of what happens to community life. I think the current mayor is doing things. It’s happening, but we have to fight for it.”

The CCA was created “to make architecture a public concern,” Lambert explained.



The museum’s latest exhibit, Our Happy Life: Architecture and Well-Being in the Age of Emotional Capitalism, curated by Francesco Garutti, looks at changing notions of well-being gleaned through happiness indexes and urban quality-of-life rankings.

Walking through the various rooms, visitors are prodded with questions and findings about what constitutes a happy life in and around today’s modern world.

“The exhibition shows we no longer consider quality of life in terms of GNP — gross national product, or money — but on a much more emotional level,” Lambert said, “and that’s pretty much (a consideration in) every city and country.

“The question is, how do you build for this? How do you build for questions of cost, environmental issues, communities? How are those things defined? It’s a real eye-opener about how people feel about their cities and where they live. Before people didn’t care whether buildings were knocked down or not. It’s a different issue now. Things change; but in a way it’s always the same issue: what are you living in, why and how?”

AT A GLANCE: Joseph Hillel’s film City Dreamers is in theatres now, including Cinéma du Musée. For more information, visit cinemadumusee.com



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