As founding director and chair of the board of trustees, Phyllis Lambert was largely responsible for creating the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal (CCA), said to be the world’s leading architectural museum and study center. A native Montrealer, Lambert was one of four children of Saidye (Rosner) Bronfman and Samuel Bronfman (1891–1971), the man chiefly responsible for creating Seagram’s, once the world’s largest liquor distiller and distributor. Their fabulous wealth combined with a strong commitment to the Jewish community to propel the Bronfmans to preeminence in the worlds of commerce and Jewish affairs. Lambert’s two brothers, Charles (b. 1931) and Edgar (b. 1929), followed their father in both areas of endeavor; her sister, Minda (de Guinsbourg) (1925–1985), took on a traditional woman’s role by marrying into a Jewish family that had entered the ranks of Europe’s aristocracy. Already as a young woman, however, Lambert was determined to strike out on her own path.
Lambert was educated at The Study, a WASP school for girls in Montreal at which she and her sister were two of only four Jewish pupils. She received her B.A. from Vassar College in 1948. Her interest in architecture began early and developed gradually. She earned her M.S. in architecture from the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago only in 1963.
Lambert served her architectural apprenticeship from 1954 to 1958, when she persuaded her father to make her the director of planning for the new Seagram’s headquarters building. Sam Bronfman’s desire to create a significant architectural presence in New York and his almost unlimited budget blended well with Lambert’s strong will and drive for perfection. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886–1969) was retained as architect and Lambert ensured that he would not be hindered in bringing his vision to reality. The result was the Seagram’s Building on Park Avenue, widely regarded as a classic of modern architecture.
Since that time, Lambert has established herself as a leader in social issues of urban conservation and the role of architecture in the public realm. In addition to her work with the CCA, she was the founding president of Heritage Montreal, and she spearheaded the creation of the Société d’amélioration de Milton-Parc, the largest non-profit cooperative housing renovation project in Canada at the time of its establishment in 1979. She has taught at the School of Architecture of McGill University as an adjunct faculty member and at the Faculté de l’amenagement of the Université de Montreal and served as chair of Columbia University’s Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture. She was a director’s visitor at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton in 1986 and a fellow in residence at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at Edinburgh University in 1991. Lambert has served the Institute of Fine Arts of New York University, the College of Architecture and Planning at her alma mater, the Illinois Institute of Technology, the School of Architecture of Princeton University, the Graduate School of Design of Harvard University, and the University of Toronto Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design in a variety of advisory and governing capacities.
Lambert has contributed to a number of publications including Fortifications and the Synagogue: The Fortress of Babylon and the Ben Ezra Synagogue, Cairo (1994). Serving as project director (1987–1990) for the restoration of the Cairo synagogue is one of the few activities she has undertaken which have any connection to Jewish life. Another was designing the Saidye Bronfman Centre, part of the Jewish Community Centre complex in Montreal.
Among the honors and awards Lambert has received are: officer of the Order of Canada; chévalier of the Ordre National de Quebec and of the Ordre des Arts et Lettres de France; twenty-three honorary degrees; the Twenty-Five Year Award and the Award of Honor of the American Institute of Architects; the Massey Medal and the Gold Medal of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada. The last is Canada’s highest architectural award. She has also received the Lescarbot Award of the Governor General of Canada for her contributions to the cultural life of the country and the Prix Gerard-Morisset of the Government of Quebec for museology and conservation.
Lambert was married to Jean Lambert, a Frenchman, in 1949. They divorced in 1954.