Age 95, Phyllis Barbara Lambert (formerly Bronfman) was born on January 24, 1927. She is a Canadian architect, philanthropist, and member of the Bronfman family.
Phyllis Lambert was born in Montreal, Quebec and studied at The Study, a premiere independent school for girls, and received further education at the liberal arts Vassar College. At the age of nine, she was already committed to sculpture and her drawing skills were reported to be remarkable early on. At the age of eleven, she began exhibiting in annual juried exhibitions at the Royal Academy of Arts and the Société des Sculpteurs du Canada. While reading architecture history in New York, she became engaged with the connections of art and architecture that would last a lifetime. It’s reported her family is of Jewish background. On May 17, 1949, in Montreal, she married Jean Lambert, a French-German economic consultant and the only son of Adolphe Lambert of Elmhurst, Queens, New York. The couple later divorced in 1954. After the divorce, she decided to remain in Paris, living and working alone in a studio on her art and sculpting. In 1951, Lambert’s father Samuel Bronfman established Cemp Investments, a holding company for his four children, in which Phyllis was given a 22% ownership stake. It controlled the family’s distilling empire, The Seagram Company Ltd., which over time-controlled billions of dollars in liquor, real estate, oil and gas, and chemical companies.
While Lambert was living in Paris, the Seagram Company Ltd. was planning a new headquarters in New York City under her father’s instruction. During her time in Paris, she came into contact with the time’s newest artistic and architectural movements. Lambert was vehemently against the building that had already been designed for the plot by Pereira and Luckman Architects. In an eight-page letter to her father (dated June 28, 1954), the 27-year-old Phyllis managed to convince him to rethink the initial project. She was given the mandate to find a suitable alternative and after an extended research period of six weeks, Mies van der Rohe was brought forward as the new candidate. He received the project and became her mentor, supporting her in her wish to become an architect. From 1954 to 1958, she was immersed in the process of designing and building the Seagram Building on Park Avenue in New York City. Though she enrolled at the Yale School of Architecture in 1958, she changed to the Illinois Institute of Technology. Lambert later became the consultant to the Seagram Building, entrusted with its maintenance, supervision, and curation of all exhibitions and collections until 2000. After earning her master’s degree in 1963, her family commissioned her to design an arts centre in Montreal, known as the Saidye Bronfman Centre, in honour of her mother. Lambert designed a ‘Miesian Structure.’ After the demolition of the Van Horne Mansion on Sherbrooke Street in 1973, twenty-three citizen groups formed Sauvons Montreal. Lambert became one of the advocates in the efforts to revitalize the struggling Shaughnessy Village district.
In 1975, she founded the heritage preservation group Heritage Montreal. She served as its first president until 1983. Heritage Montreal raised funds so that the conservation groups could take action. Their tools to stop demolition included marching in the streets, publishing ads and booklets and working with residents. Lambert also saved Shaughnessy House from demolition by buying it. In 1989, the 19th-century mansion became a part of the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA). She considered investments in renovating low-to-medium-income neighbourhoods as important as the conservation of monuments or building anew. Since 1997, she has held the Fonds d’investissement Montréal (FIM). It succeeded in bringing private sector investment to communitarian housing beyond the limits of government programs.
She served on the board of directors of Cemp’s subsidiary, Cadillac Fairview, for which she later picketed the offices as a project developer. Again, she suggested working with Mies and supported what was known as the Toronto-Dominion Centre. Her work also includes serving as the developer on the restoration of the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles by architect Gene Summers.
In 1990, she received an honorary DFA in Architecture from the Pratt Institute. In 1992, she was made Officier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres de France. She holds honorary degrees from approximately 26 universities in North America and Europe.
Lambert was awarded the Vincent Scully Prize by the National Building Museum in 2006. Executive director Chase Rynd stated. “The museum is honoured to present its 2006 Scully Prize to Phyllis Lambert for a lifetime of outstanding achievements in the design of the built environment. From the Seagram Building to the CCA, to her work as a preservationist and educator, Phyllis Lambert has deeply enhanced the world we build for ourselves.”
In 2007, Citizen Lambert: Joan of architecture, a documentary film about Lambert was directed by Teri When-Damisch.
Lambert was the recipient of the Golden Lion at the 14th Venice Architecture Biennale. In 2016, she also received the Wolf Prize in Arts. Alongside Blanche Lemco van Ginkel, Cornelia Oberlander and Denise Scott Brown, she is one of four prominent female architects profiled in the 2018 documentary film City Dreamers.