ARCHITECTURE

A capital of design

A new centre promotes more livable cities

PAMELA YOUNG May 22 1989
ARCHITECTURE

A capital of design

A new centre promotes more livable cities

PAMELA YOUNG May 22 1989

A capital of design

A new centre promotes more livable cities

ARCHITECTURE

As Montrealers watched the construction of the long, low, quietly imposing edifice in a bleak stretch of downtown Montreal, many of them dismissed it as a rich eccentric’s folly. Some journalists dryly observed that only Phyllis Lambert was sufficiently obsessed—and wealthy—to establish a museum and study centre for architecture. Known for her rightangled crew cut and crusading manner, Lambert, 62, is herself an architect and a passionate advocate for livable cities. She is also one of the richest women in the world: her father, Montreal magnate Samuel Bronfman, founded the Seagram wine and liquor empire. Lambert has spent a considerable part of her wealth on the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA), which opened formally on May 7.

She amassed its $5 0-million collection of books, photographs and drawings and paid more than half of the $45 million in construction costs for the limestone building. Although critics have argued that the CCA will appeal only to scholars and professionals in the field, Lambert has vowed that it will serve the whole community by encouraging the development of

harmonious neighborhoods and more humane cities. The public has access to most of the CCA’s facilities, and enthusiasm already seems high: a crowd of 1,200 lined up at the CCA’s gates on opening day. Said Lambert during the opening ceremonies, “Scholarship without public involvement is arcane; public involvement without scholarship leads nowhere.” Combining exhibition space with a 130,000volume library, 55,000 photographs of buildings and some 20,000 prints and drawings—one of the world’s largest such collections—the CCA establishes Montreal as an architectural capital.

Among the 1,200 official guests on opening day were Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa and federal Communications Minister Marcel Masse—as well as such prominent Canadian architects as Vancouver’s Arthur Erickson and Toronto’s

Eberhard Zeidler. Declared Zeidler, whose building credits include the Toronto Eaton Centre: “It’s a fantastic building to have as an institution because it is by far one of the most outstanding collections of its nature in the world. It exceeds the ones I have seen in Europe.” The CCA complex itself—a U-shaped structure designed by Montreal architect Peter Rose that wraps around three sides of Shaughnessy House, a 19th-century mansion—has captivated a host of critics. The New York Times architecture columnist Paul Goldberger, normally sparing with praise, wrote that the CCA should establish Rose as “a major figure on the international scene.” Located north of the VilleMarie expressway and alongside René Lévesque (formerI ly Dorchester) Boulevard, z the centre goes a long way toward reclaiming a badly scarred piece of the city. In her sparsely decorated white office on the second floor of Shaughnessy House, Lambert told Maclean ’s that she has never been daunted by the forbidding nature of the site. “You can’t shut reality out,” said Lambert, a warm and animated talker. “One is always confronting the tough parts—but isn’t that what art is, to take those hard parts and transform them into something positive?”

With her short hair, severely tailored clothes and gold-rimmed glasses, she projects an image of zealous intelligence. Said Toronto architect Larry Richards, who has known her for more than a decade: “She lives architecture not just 40 hours a week but at least twice that.” Certainly, Lambert—who lives in a converted former dried-fruit warehouse in Old Montreal—is ardently committed to the architectural environment of her native Montreal. In 1975, she founded Heritage Montreal, a foundation devoted to the preservation of the city’s historical landscape. More recently, she spearheaded a coalition to save Montreal’s Victorian, working-class Milton Park neighborhood. The district, which was slated to be razed for a highrise development, instead became a nonprofit co-operative housing project.

Such campaigns are uncommon for people of her background, but Lambert has always been an iconoclast. As one of four children growing up in her family’s Westmount g mansion—she was the sec| ond, younger than her sister, S Minda, now deceased, and older than her brothers, 1 Charles and Edgar—she de2 veloped an early passion for

sculpture. Said Lambert: “I used to walk around the grounds of our house and imagine my first one-person show: I had a strong sense of desire to have my own identity.” But in the late 1940s, when she was an undergraduate at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., she became increasingly fascinated with buildings.

In 1954—the same year that her five-year marriage to French banker Jean Lambert ended in divorce—she decided to devote her life to architecture. She was living in Paris when she saw the proposed design for the Seagram Building, the skyscraper that her father planned to build in New York City. To Lambert, the sketch looked more like “a gift decanter,” she said, than a distinguished piece of architecture. After sending a 16-page letter of protest to her father, she flew to New York and convinced him to let her search for another architect. Assisted by Philip Johnson, then director of the architecture department of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, she met with leading architects throughout the United States. In the end, she chose German-born Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who was building revolutionary, austerely elegant metal-andglass towers in Chicago.

Completed in association with Johnson in 1958, Mies’s 38-storey bronze-and-grey glass Seagram Building instantly established itself as one of the greatest achievements of the Modern movement. In the meantime, Mies had also become Lambert’s mentor: she studied under him at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, obtaining her architecture degree in 1963.

Although Lambert occasionally worked on Canadian projects—including the design for Montreal’s Saidye Bronfman Centre, a cultural facility named after her mother—she divided her time as a working architect between Chicago and Los Angeles, until she returned to Montreal in 1973. Soon after, Rose, the architect Lambert would eventually choose to design the CCA, also returned to Montreal after studying with the American architect Charles Moore at Yale University. Lambert and Rose were unlikely collaborators: the cool classicism of Mies and the eclectic Mannerist style of Moore are far apart. Recalled Lambert: “Peter called me up once just after he got back and said, ‘Let’s talk about architecture,’ and I said, ‘Let’s not.’ I simply didn’t see how there could be any meeting of the minds.”

Eventually, it was their shared interest in the traditional architecture of Montreal that

brought them together. During the 1970s, Rose and Lambert were both researching the city’s historical buildings—in 1974, Lambert bought Shaughnessy House, rescuing it from the wrecker’s ball—and would sometimes exchange information. By 1983, when Lambert was planning the CCA headquarters, the two had established a strong rapport—and she chose him as its architect. Although Rose’s structure has eight times the floor space of Shaughnessy House, he has avoided overpowering the mansion. Two of the new building’s five floors—the ones devoted to preservation work and the storage of archival materials— are underground, leaving the old house

slightly taller than the rest of the complex.

Still, the new building has an assured presence of its own. Serene and exquisitely finished, it prompted Goldberger of The New York Times to write that it “resonates with gentle, quiet strength.” Rose told Maclean’s that he intended that calmness as “a critique of buildings that tell you too much too quickly and then don’t have a lot to say after that.” He added: “I was trying to make a place where human beings would become interested in architecture. That’s a process of trying to make things clear, understandable, appealing, lively—and magical to some degree.”

Rose’s design encourages visitors to begin

thinking about the nature of the centre as they approach it. A black granite walkway passes through the main gate on Baile Street and continues across a rectilinear lawn to the entrance. A perforated aluminum cornice relieves the austerity of the new building’s exterior. Inside the inner door, an expansive skylit stairwell leads to the main public level, which houses the gallery space, a bookstore, an auditorium and the library. It also provides access to the gracious interior of Shaughnessy House, which provides informal gathering places.

Exhibits assembled from the CCA’s own collection will be mounted in the airy galleries of the new building. “Montreal will be the only city in North America where there are constantly exhibitions on architecture,” Lambert said. The main one currently on display is Architecture and its Image-. Four Centuries of Architectural Representation. It brings together items ranging from a minutely detailed, 19th-century drawing of a Roman temple detail to a rough, freehand sketch for Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall by Arthur Erickson. The show attempts to demonstrate how architects formulate, depict and refine their creations. Two smaller exhibitions, one on the creation of the CCA itself and another on historic images of Montreal, are also on display. In a park across the street from Shaughnessy House, a sculpture garden is being developed to combine plants and trees indigenous to the Montreal region with architectural sculptures by Montreal artist Melvin Charney.

Lambert and her CCA staff of 100 face some practical problems. The centre has a minuscule parking lot in a district where street parking is scarce. Inside, its collection was accumulated so quickly—Lambert acquired most of it in only 10 years—that it

may take up to two decades

to fully catalogue all of it. But the centre is an extraordinary resource—so extraordinary that Lambert may at last become more famous in Canada for what she has done than for who she is. “People here tend to focus on her personality and family history,” said Rose. In the United States, he said, she is noted for influencing the course of American architecture through her intervention in the Seagram Building project. Now, in her home country, Phyllis Lambert has laid the framework for a new appreciation of the art of building.

PAMELA YOUNG with DAN BURKE in Montreal

PAMELA YOUNG

DAN BURKE