The Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women

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Phyllis Lambert

b. 1927

by Michael Brown

Phyllis Lambert in 1998.
Photograph by Michel Boulet, courtesy of the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal.
In Brief

Phyllis Lambert is a Canadian architect, philanthropist, and member of the Bronfman family. Her mother Saidye was a leading Canadian philanthropist, and her father Samuel was a successful businessman. Lambert earned her M.S. in architecture in 1963. She subsequently established herself as a leader in urban conservation and public architecture. In 1979 Lambert spearheaded the creation of the largest non-profit cooperative housing renovation project in Canada. She took a leadership role in the creation of the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, one of the world’s leading architectural museums. Lambert has served numerous universities in a variety of advisory and governing capacities. She has received many awards and honors, including the Gold Medal from the Royal Architecture Institute of Canada in 1991—Canada’s most prestigious architectural award.

Phyllis Barbara Lambert is a Canadian architect, philanthropist, and member of the Bronfman family. As founding director and chair of the board of trustees, Phyllis Barbara 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. 

Family & Education

Born in Montreal on January 24, 1927, 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 propelled the Bronfmans to preeminence in the worlds of commerce and Jewish affairs. Lambert’s two brothers, Charles (b. 1931) and Edgar (1929-2013), 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 school for girls in Montreal at which she and her sister were two of just 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.

Architectural Career

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.

Honors & Awards

The honors and awards Lambert has received include Member of the Order of Canada (1985), Knight of the National Order of Quebec (1985), Officer of the Order of Canada (1990), a Gold Medal from the Royal Architecture Institute of Canada (1991), Officer of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (1992), Hadrian Award of the World Monuments Fund (1997), Companion of the Order of Canada (2001), Grand Officer of the National Order of Quebec (2005), the Vincent Scully Prize from the National Building Museum (2006), the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement from the Venice Biennale of Architecture (2014), and the Wolf Prize in Arts (2015). Lambert received twenty-three honorary degrees, including an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts in Architecture from the Pratt Institute in 1990. She 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, from 1949 to 1954, when they divorced. In 2017, when she turned 90, she was called Montreal’s “Joan of Architecture” for her contributions in changing a whole city. A film about Lambert and three other female architects called City Dreamers was released in 2020.

Bibliography

Faith, Nicholas. The Bronfmans: The Rise and Fall of the House of Seagram. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2006

Lambert, Phyllis, and Werner Oechslin, eds. Mies in America. Montréal: Canadian Centre for Architecture, 2001.

“Phyllis Lambert: An Interview.” By Thomas Weston Fels. The Print Collector’s Newsletter, Vol. 20, No. 5 (November-December 1989)” 168-173. 

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How to cite this page

Brown, Michael. "Phyllis Lambert." Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women. 31 December 1999. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on August 13, 2022) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/lambert-phyllis>.