“Architects make architecture; Phyllis Lambert made architects”, said Rem Koolhaas as he handed her the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale. It all started very early on, when as director of planning at only 27 years of age, she moved from Paris to New York to oversee the construction of Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building – a cornerstone of Modern architecture, or, as Koolhaas puts it, ”one of the few realisations in the 20th century that is perfection on earth” – although she had first to convince her father, Samuel Bronfman (head of the Seagram company), to hire Mies.

This was just the beginning (and what a beginning!) of a life devoted to architecture, which by definition encompasses conservation and preservation. “Architecture is not just a building”, Lambert says, lamenting its objectification. After her training in Mies van der Rohe’s studio, she worked as an architect and developer in Chicago and LA before moving back to Montréal to build the Saidye Bronfman Centre (now the Segal Centre for Performing Arts), in honour of her mother. But when she arrived back home after living abroad since high school, she didn’t like what she saw happening to the city.

Saidye Bronfman Centre, 1968 / Phyllis Lambert, Architect. Exterior at night / Richard Nickel / Gelatin silver print. Phyllis Lambert, CCA / Courtesy of the Richard Nickel Committee, Chicago / © Richard Nickel
During the economic boom of the 1960s, every other Western city saw whole neighbourhoods disappear and shorelines destroyed by ignorant politicians and corporate developers who completely misunderstood modernism (poor Mies!) and ultimately what a city really is.

Lambert, who experienced this first-hand in Chicago, realised she could not let the same thing happen to her city. Ever since then she has been fighting to preserve, educate, and awaken public awareness to the importance of the built environment and the urban fabric, at many levels – from picketing in the streets to weekly appearances at hearings in City Hall, to founding the preservation group Heritage Montreal, to presiding over IPAM – L’Institut de politiques alternatives de Montréal, et al, to ultimately creating the Canadian Centre for Architecture.

The CCA’s chief curator, Giovanna Borasi trained as an architect. She initiated her career as an editor and writer for different architecture magazines, and joined the CCA in 2005. Her exhibitions and related books shape contemporary discussions on architecture, with particular attention to alternative methods of practicing and evaluating it, as well as how environmental, political, and social issues are influencing urbanism and the built environment today.

DAMN°: So how did it all start?

When Is the Digital in Architecture? Published by the CCA and Sternberg Press, June 2017
Sketch in Architectures in Love sketchbook, 1994 / John Hejduk Ink, gouache, and collage on paper / 23.6 x 16.5 cm / © CCA
Phyllis Lambert: Well, I already had a collection of architectural drawings and had also begun collecting photographs of the city for Seagram in New York, because I wanted people to see how many ways one could look at the city.

DAMN°: And how did this idea of the collection and of the CCA building evolve?

PL: Sort of separately. I was doing both things at the same time. I was accumulating some architecture books – and you know, you cannot put them in a closet – and I’d formed a little team at my house. There was a big room that used to be the courtyard, and so we started there and then grew further into the house.

DAMN°: The CCA was founded in 1979, but the building – a metaphor of its content – is a marriage between the old Shaughnessy House mansion and the building Peter Rose designed in 1989. How did you acquire the old house?

PL: I purchased that building very early on, as part of Heritage Montreal – not for the CCA, initially. It wasn’t possible to save it from demolition unless somebody took it in hand. But I didn’t know what to do with it! In the meantime, we were working at my house on the CCA and on a huge series of photographs I had taken of Montréal’s grey stone buildings. When we started to plan the new CCA building, Peter Rose [the architect] came back from Yale. The two of us used to walk round the city together, looking at things. He also organised a series of lectures and invited people like Rem Koolhaas and Frank Gehry, before they were known, and afterwards we would all go out to dinner. I wanted it to be a stone building, because, first of all, there shouldn’t be a lot of light in order to protect the drawings, and secondly, I wanted to make people understand that Montréal is a stone city.

DAMN°: Mirko Zardini is the current director of the CCA. Ms Borasi, what did you find when you arrived here in 2005 to join him?

Giovanna Borasi: What I knew of the CCA when I was in Europe was that it was this amazing place, unique in that the focus was not only on architecture but on the idea that architecture – as Phyllis says – is not just about buildings and technical knowledge, but also about the city, about the landscape, about all kinds of values, social and political matters, and so on. And the fact that it’s in Montréal, which is not an obvious location, actually allows for the world to be viewed from a vantage point. Also, maybe due to Phyllis being an architect, and Mirko too, the CCA has always been thought of as a project and has therefore had this evolving quality. As with a city, when the context changes, we have to keep up, to be relevant and interesting and in dialogue with the environment.

The challenge lies in the concept of a Centre rather than a Museum, as the CCA is also a research centre, welcoming scholars from all over the world, and it houses a huge and diverse collection. So it’s like looking at an object with many different facets that have to work together, and each of those is very important – the exhibition, the research, the archives, and the publications. So I think the main pursuit, over all these years, has been to figure out how these things can work together intelligently and can feed each other.

DAMN°: A kind of multidisciplinarity.

GB: Right. When I first arrived, I felt that these divisions were really distinct, but with time this has greatly changed. You might have a scholar that is interested in French architecture from the XVII century, who might want to look at drawings, photographs, books, etc. And so the notion is that, increasingly, the collection – even if the organisation of the database still respects those distinctions – is one body. And that is an intellectual shift which transforms the way of looking at things, which is also reflected in how the exhibitions are executed.

It’s all about the idea, and determining the right medium to express that idea. To talk about architecture, you tackle a problem using architecture as a lens through which to look at society. So we make an exhibition about health, and it’s about what architecture can do or how it can react to this topic, and somehow it’s never isolated from what is important for architects. Another quality that’s inherent in the CCA is a bit of an activist approach. With 40 years of history now behind us, it also has authority, so the moment we say that an issue is important, even if it is still very new, people are going to listen. The investigation might be handled through an exhibition or might be done through a publication or seminar.

DAMN°: And because of your evergrowing archive, you have lots more material to cross-reference.

PL: Our concept of the archive is really a collection. Archives are usually City or State offices where you deposit the evidence of a building’s construction. And they are never really concerned with the sketches or the ideas that have been developed. Ours is a very different thing. When Mirko arrived, we had just obtained four amazing sets of archive material at once – James Stirling, Aldo Rossi, Cedric Price, and Gordon Matta Clark. We also have that of Peter Eisenman and John Hejduk, and others. So it’s a collection of collections – that is, we specifically choose certain people who push the boundaries and certain movements we think are important. And of course, that evolves. We are constantly finding somebody else...

DAMN°: So it is essentially a living archive. You’re not only oring the memoranda but you are a ually using these documents to influence the present, and possibly the future.

PL: I guess we want people to think... If you try to say: Yeah, we are going to lead the world and tell them what to do, that’s just crazy, but if you work on what you believe are real issues, then something happens. And it’s a kind of modesty too. I guess for me, the greatest thing I inherited from Mies was that in his eyes he wasn’t studying architecture, he was studying civilisation. What is the civilisation we live in? That’s a very big difference.

DAMN°: Another very important aspect of the CCA is its publications.

PL: That was always a concept, since the beginning. We don’t have an exhibition without a publication. Even though the exhibition is great, how many people actually see it?

DAMN°: Somehow it’s an archive of the archives.

PL: That’s right.

DAMN°: Let’s talk about the digital, about the ‘second building’ that’s in the pipeline.

PL: We don’t want to get bigger than this. We have actually reduced our staff and increased our efficiency. But digitalisation, which is such a complex process, is not only about the scanning of documents – that’s the easy part; it’s also about the digital-born material, such as Foreign Office Architects’ Yokohama project, which we have, and the challenges of its conservation, especially the early stuff.

GB: Yes, the digital project at the CCA is highly ambitious. The ‘second building’ shouldn’t be bigger than this one, but it must be able to reach an audience that is everywhere. It’s moving on many different levels. The digital-born material that we started working on with Greg Lynn some seven years ago, is very important. What we did was to select 25 projects that were seminal at the moment architects started to introduce computer software. One thing we will be doing is to make the website much richer. We are obtaining a large scanner, enabling us to go from 2000 images (last year’s production) to 10,000 images per year. This way, access to the visual part of the collection will be stronger. Another thing will be to have a much better editorial programme through a bigger online presence; a lot of the programming we do now is already recorded for an online audience. Like what we did with The Greg Lynn Show. So it’s always about producing content that’s not just for here, but also for an audience that is far away.

PL: And it’s about oral history, as well. Because we have a lot of digital recordings and are conducting more and more of them. For example, Cedric Price giving a lecture or Kenneth Frampton speaking about a specific piece in the collection. The objective is that these are released as primary source material. Referring to earlier, I also wanted to say that it’s a richness you have here. It was very difficult in the beginning, because how do you get the right people on board? And everyone was saying that you couldn’t do all of those things, that you had to choose to be about history or about exhibitions. And I said no, no, no. And it has all become so completely intertwined – which is the only way knowledge can develop. But the world is turning. We are doing this, but we are within an environment, and I think that this is now acceptable and wanted.

This article appeared in DAM63. Order your personal copy.
the village BRAIN, 1971 / Olympia, Munich / Cedric Price. Red pencil over positive photo at print / 30.1 × 21.1 cm / © CCA
Jewels (elevations of structures), 1965 / Sheffield Festival, England / Cedric Price Graphite, felt-tip pen, and ink stamp on tracing paper / 39 × 51 cm / © CCA
CCA collection storage vaults, 2017 / The CCA collection currently consists of approximately 100,000 prints and drawings, 65,000 photographs, 250,000 publications, and 200 archives. / Photo: Cristina Guadalupe Galván
Phyllis Lambert and Giovanna Borasi in the garden at the CCA, June 2017. Photo: Cristina Guadalupe Galván
Art Card, 1970-1978 / Gordon Matta-Clark / Black felt-tip pen on card / 7.6 x 12.7 cm CCA / Gift of the Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark / © Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark (Artists Rights Society, New York)
Lake Ontario, Toronto #6, 2007 / Robert Burley / Chromogenic colour print / 86.4 × 71 cm Courtesy of the CCA / Gift of the artist / © Robert Burley. “The CCA’s collection of contemporary photographs pays particular attention to photographic creation that adopts a discerning attitude towards architecture. Significant corpora have been assembled on the work of Lee Friedlander, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Richard Pare, Geoffrey James, Robert Burley, and Guido Guidi, demon rating their long-term engagement with the built environment.”
CCA, Montréal. Aerial view. Photo © CCA
Le Lustre (Chandelier), 2006 / Gilles Clément / Installation at the CCA (detail) / © CCA
Besides, History: Go Hasegawa, Kersten Geers, David Van Severen Curated by Giovanna Borasi. Exhibition view at the CCA. Photo: Cristina Guadalupe Galván