In her 90s, Phyllis Lambert has become a devoted user of Instagram. Every few days, a new image pops up on her account, often of daylight playing across the terrace of her greystone house in old Montreal.
In a sense this is not surprising. For 70 years, the founder of the Canadian Centre for Architecture has been a student of both photography and the built environment. This keen interest comes through in her newly released book, Observation Is A Constant That Underlies All Approaches. The photo book is an assemblage of images that Lambert has taken in various formats since 1954, starting with 35mm black-and-white film.
The book displays her evolving interest in visual culture, from student work at Yale to a smorgasbord of London signs. But there are two through lines: architecture and an unquenchable curiosity.
To discuss the book, Lambert welcomes me in a meeting room at the CCA. The building, a postmodern riff by architect Peter Rose on Montreal’s greystone architecture, is aging well; so is Lambert, 96. Her spine straight, she sits in a striped Oxford shirt and grey bomber jacket, nibbling on thin biscuits. Her gaze, literally and metaphorically, is as clear as ever.
Her iPhone, her latest photographic device, is close at hand. Does she enjoy the power it gives her to express herself? “I don’t know what that idea of expressing yourself is,” she says, a bit of steel in her tone. Then she smiles. “It was just that I get so much pleasure out of doing it.”
This is evident in some of the images: playful self-portraits, glimpses of her clowning with friends and colleagues. But while there is an autobiographical undertone to the book, it also charts the coming of age of a serious intellect committed to the history and practice of architecture.
In the early 1970s, Lambert began collaborating with the photographer Richard Pare on images of Montreal, an extended opus that documented the city’s particular 19th-century greystone architecture at a time when it was under threat.
“The photographs become evidence of the place,” she says. “You observe and you observe again. You see how it works in the neighbourhood and you try to find out more about it.”
For her, that effort was personal. Montreal was “in my gut, in my bones,” she recalls. As a girl she walked to school from her family’s house in Westmount, and observed the neoclassical greystone buildings she saw along the way. “I lived in a very Victorian house, with fine brick and towers, and all that sort of thing. There was flecked wallpaper, oak furniture, everything was red. My nightmares were dark red.”
She grew to love a look that was very different.
Her taste in architecture helped her find independence from her formidable family. She was the second of four children of Saidye and Sam Bronfman, the man who built the Seagram Company into a world-leading liquor business. Lambert’s mother encouraged her interest in the arts, starting with piano and sculpture lessons and then an art history degree at Vassar College in New York.
But her future was unclear. “I wasn’t trained as anything. What was the next step for me? So I got married.” Her husband was a young French banker called Jean Lambert, “a very nice-looking man,” but of whom her family strongly disapproved. (“My brothers used to think that he was a gold digger, and my father as well. In a family of some means, at that time, that was the worry.”)
Life as a society wife did not suit her. “We would play canasta or bridge, and it was fine. But it was not for me. And so I got myself free.”
Studies in art, history and architecture took her into a long and complex career as a collector, curator, philanthropist and practising architect. She worked for the great German-American architect Mies van der Rohe.
Famously, she played a central role in hiring Mies to design the Seagram Building in New York, one of the most significant structures of the 20th century. Mies’s formula of precisely proportioned, detailed buildings with a skin of glass and steel – informed by neoclassicism and the latest technology – was deeply convincing to the young Lambert.
In the book, snapshots capture the beauty of a Mies tower under construction, the guts of the building revealed.
In the 1970s, Lambert found herself in the middle of the growing heritage preservation movement in North America. At the same time, she began, initially on her own account, building two collections: of historic architectural drawings and of historic photographs. These would become the nucleus of the CCA collection. Along the way she became a leader in the study of architectural photography.
Decades later, the institution, led by Giovanna Borasi, continues to move forward. A current show, The Lives of Documents: Photography as Project, unpacks the side and personal projects of noted architectural photographers. It is a typical show for CCA: erudite, beautifully presented, slightly arcane, but fascinating to the committed viewer.
We discuss the “wonderful” exhibition and the impact technology has had on photographic technique, including Lambert’s own. Then we trade phones for a moment, scanning through each other’s pictures. For me: buildings and my children. For her: architectural details, flower arrangements, a dance performance and lots of her dog, Max.
Lambert’s discerning eye continues to take it all in. “I find it fascinating to capture the moment,” she says, “and then the next moment.”