Phyllis Lambert clearly recalls growing up lonely during the 1930s in her family’s fabled Belvedere Palace in Montreal’s wealthy Westmount district. It was a time, she said, when she felt “isolated, as though there was no real life there.” Lambert, the second daughter of Seagram Co. Ltd. founder Samuel Bronfman, did not trace the roots of that feeling until many years later. “I realized that many of the houses around us seemed to lack soul, that essential notion of being created with people and the way they live in mind,” she told Maclean ’s. That realization, coupled with a discovery of architecture as an art form in Europe and her subsequent involvement as director of planning for the Seagram Building in Manhattan, led her to return to school at age 30 and become an architect.
Currently, Lambert, 58, is renowned for her expertise in contemporary architecture, urban renewal and architectural preservation projects. As well as being a director of half a dozen national and international architectural associations, she is a photographer, lecturer and writer. A graduate of Vassar College with a master’s degree in architecture from the Illinois Institute of Technology, she studied under famed architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, a master of the Bauhaus school.
As director of the Canadian Centre for Architecture, a study and exhibit centre she founded six years ago, Lambert last month completed the plans to erect a new $23.6-million building to replace the confining quarters on the second floor of an office building on St. Catherine Street West in Montreal. The new centre, a research facility and museum open to the general public, will hold one of the largest collections of architectural photographs in the world, the most complete architectural library in Canada and a collection of prints, fine drawings and archival materials. The project is being financed by $8 million in grants from the federal and Quebec governments, $5 million in private donations and $10.6 million from the centre’s own contribution, which is funded almost entirely by Lambert. She declared: “We are shockingly late in this country in recognizing architecture as an art form. It is what we need to do in order to finally give Canada a niche internationally in the field.”
Lambert is renowned for her singlemindedness, a quality that is evident in both her professional and private life. An eloquent and often impassioned
speaker, Lambert routinely works six 14-hour days a week—and spends the entire seventh day in bed at her home, a three-storey converted peanut factory in Old Montreal. Divorced in 1954 after a five-year marriage to French banker Jean Lambert, she treasures her most constant companion both at home and at her downtown office —her strapping nine -year-old dog, Bogart, a Bouvier des Flandres.
Lambert alternately accepts and rejects the benefits that her wealth makes available to her.
With holdings in CEMP Investments, the huge multibillion-dollar holding company that manages the Bronfman estate, she is one of the world’s richest women. She travels frequently to Europe, New York and Washington for architectural studies and meetings and takes time off every
year to sail in the Aegean Sea or off the coast of New England. Yet she is an indifferent dresser, favoring loose-fitting shirts and baggy pants. With a crop of short black hair and dark, piercing eyes, she shuns what she calls the “donothing cocktail circuit,” preferring instead to focus on her work and long walks in the city. Highly sensitive to allusions to her Bronfman roots, she told Maclean’s, “You have no idea how damned boring it is to be constantly associated with that and nothing else.”
Still, some friends say privately that she has acquired an even more important legacy: with her forceful charm, mercurial temper and strength of personality, she is regarded as the Bronfman most similar to the irascible Sam, who turned a mail-order liquor outlet into one of the world’s largest business empires. Said one friend: “There is the same hunger to have and do it all. That is why she generally gets what she wants.” And that is also why Phyllis Lambert has carved a niche of her own. -ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH
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