Institutions are shaped by the people who run them but as Phyllis Lambert says, “If a thing disappears after you are gone then it’s no good what you’ve done.” 2019 has marked the 40th anniversary of the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) in Montreal, founded by architect, scholar, activist and philanthropist Lambert in 1979 and directed for nearly 15 years by Mirko Zardini, who will step down from his position at the end of this year. The role will then be transferred to Giovanna Borasi, current chief curator at the Centre and long-time collaborator of Zardini well before their Canadian years, ensuring the continuation of its programme and mission (see DAMN° 63).

The CCA is one of the most advanced and relevant architecture institutions in the world.  It is an exhibition and research centre, a publication machine and online museum, which has the most amazing collection (from Cedric Price to Álvaro Siza to Gordon Matta-Clark) and is always furthering architectural discourse, inside and outside the profession. Its publication department is especially important  – run by the CCA’s associate director Albert Ferré (former editorial director of ACTAR publishers) – but equally important is its digital platform where a lot of the archival and additional content and programmes can be found.

Photographic archive vault
To celebrate Mirko’s tenure and this year’s anniversary we’ve put together these two interviews, one with Phyllis and the other with Mirko, tracing the history of the CCA from its beginnings. Both, together with an amazing team, have brought the institution to where it is today, with the mission in Matta-Clark’s words of “confusion guided by a clear sense of purpose”. And I would add to that, with the most generous, inquisitive, open-minded, accepting and non-judgmental approach to what defines architecture.

Let’s start at the beginning, and that is with Phyllis, who received the Centre for Architecture Award in New York City in late October, just before the premiere of City Dreamers, a documentary by Joseph Hillel in which she features as one of four ‘trailblazing’ women architects. To really figure out the CCA and how it came about, it’s best to understand her activities in those early years. The CCA was far from being her only endeavour, but a natural development of her activist activities in architecture and urbanism.

Shaughnessy House
Cristina Guadalupe Galván: So I want to stress in the first question, your other roles, besides the CCA, that will help understand where the CCA comes from. I think the Centre is a distillation on how you see architecture and preservation. I know you were part of the Le Fonds d’Investissement de Montréal – for low-income houses – and president of Institut de politiques alternatives. I’ve seen videos of you protesting in the City Council. Where they [seem to] fear you a little… I would like for people to understand all these complex layers in which you operate, trying to protect the architectural patrimony and urban fabric of your city and advance and bring architectural awareness into society, and how the CCA is a branch of those initiatives.

Phyllis Lambert: Well, [first of all] architecture includes conservation and preservation. But it became all different routes, like in the 1820s, when architecture and engineering got separated. So all of that has to come together. I mean, landscape! Architecture became object, and that’s a great pity. My work was always about the importance of the urban fabric. A building is part of an environment. Each building next to each other creates a whole street and creates an environment. When you start to work you realise the social injustice.

Research Centre and library

CGG: So how have you worked politically?

PL: I started off as an urban demonstrator. We were walking down the streets with banners to stop buildings from being destroyed. I had already done the Seagram building in New York [Lambert is the daughter of the Seagram Company’s founder Samuel Bronfman. Her title in the project was director of planning but her role went way beyond that. From the choice of architect to the artwork, she visited the site daily and it’s no stretch to say the building was her baby]. I had already started forming a collection and things like that. So I am not just an activist…

CGG: I know very well.

PL: The importance of the neighbourhoods was enormous. I was lucky enough to have been asked if I wanted to do something called Heritage Montreal. And so I became president.

CGG: The CCA, I feel, is part of the same endeavours, like another branch. It’s very smart actually. It’s like you have created a cosmology of forces that influence the city. I was so impressed – when they gave me this in-depth tour – on the commitment of the Centre to permeate this closed and cryptic architecture culture to the general public.

PL: That’s our idea... You have to do something so people can understand the meaning of what a city could be, because finally the legislation comes from people. If people don’t ask for better legislation they don’t get it. You want to get people to think about what the problems are today, what they relate to in the past or the present.

CGG: And ultimately influence policy I guess, no?

PL: Well, I hope so. We certainly influence education here. In Montreal, when we started, maybe someone could get a Ph.D at McGill [university], but there wasn’t a programme in architecture history.

CGG: The 60s was a period for a big economical boom in cities worldwide. With that came a lot of destruction of neighbourhoods and old buildings. I think that coincides a bit with when you came back to Montreal from Chicago. Can you tell me how you started thinking about the Centre?

Photographic archive vault

PL: I already had a collection of architectural drawings and I had started a collection for Seagram in New York of photographs of the city, because I wanted people to see in how many ways you could look at the city. I was living in Chicago and I didn’t want Montreal to suffer the same way. I saw there all these buildings being demolished – so much of it. So I came back to Montreal.

When I arrived there was already a movement to do something. There was this plan to demolish the Van Horne and a group of people got together to try to stop it. There was Save Montreal and after that Heritage Montreal. So I went to many meetings, sat on my hands and listened. And because I was a powerful architect from Chicago…

CGG: Trained by Mies van der Rohe!

PL: I actually worked on a neighbourhood project there. And as I said, our basic premise was: if you have the terrible decision to make between a building and an area, you choose the thing that is important to the most people.

CGG: 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 getting some architecture books – and you know you cannot put them in a closet – so I formed a little team in my house. I had a big room that used to be the courtyard, and so we started there and it grew up around the house. There wasn’t even a place in Montreal where you could put the books in storage. When we were doing the CCA gardens, there wasn’t a firm here that was moving earth in relationship to landscaping! And there were no landscape architects.

CGG: When did you get the Shaughnessy House [CCA’s first building]?

PL: I acquired the building very early on. It was not for the CCA but through Heritage Montreal. There were some people from Toronto who wanted to buy it but they had some problems. It was up for sale. There was no way of saving the house, which had been there since the 30s, unless somebody was going to take it in hand. No one was saving anything! So I said to these people, “Look I’ll buy the house and will sell it back to you at cost when you get your act together.” But they never got their act together.

Shaughnessy House bow window

CGG: And then you had this house.

PL: And I didn’t know what to do with it. At the time I was working down in my house. The biggest thing I was doing was both the CCA and a huge study of the photographs that I took when I first came back. I had left the city when I left high school and I came back to do a building here in honour of my mother.

CGG: The Saidye Bronfman Centre.

PL: Yes. It was a Miesian building. So we also started planning the CCA and I asked Peter Rose [architect of the second building adjacent to the Shaughnessy House] who had come back from Yale, to join the discussions. We use to walk around the city and look at things together. He organised these wonderful lectures where he brought all the marvellous people who were important in architecture, like Rem Koolhaas, Frank Ghery, before they were known. This is the late 70s! They all came up for these fantastic events and after we would all go out for dinner.

CGG: And when and how did the idea for the current location come about? Was it first, “Well I have this old building, so I am going to start here?” Or the whole idea of the whole complex came at the same time?

PL: No, actually there was another building in between. I had bought a non-conforming warehouse on St. Catherine Street just off St. Patrick’s Church as a place to start cataloguing and working on the material. I was just getting it as a place to work, because we just couldn’t do it in the other house. Then we started somehow to think about it and it got in the hands of architects who, of course, wanted to make a building out of it. But I realised it was much too small, a 100-ft footprint, so everything was on different floors, and that’s exactly what I didn’t want. I wanted everything to be together, people just knowing what’s going on and not have silos. We did get some silos later on, but it’s different.

Somebody said to me – one of my financial advisers – look you have that building! So returning one day from LA – where I also had an office as a developer (we saved the Biltmore Hotel from demolition in 1976) – I just said to Peter, “Let’s talk about this.”

CCA bookstore

CGG: And so in 1989 the CCA opened its doors in its current location at the old Shaughnessy House and Peter designed the expansion. Why a stone building?

PL: Because first of all you didn’t want to have a lot of light for drawings, and secondly because I wanted to make people understand Montreal was a stone city.

CGG: And what is the goal?

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 and work around them, then something happens I think. And it’s a kind of modesty too.

CGG: And where are we heading?

PL: I think it’s a continuation… Since 2005 – when Mirko came – we just caught those amazing archives at the same time [...] James Stirling, Aldo Rossi and Cedric Price; and before that we got Peter Eisenman, we got John Hejduk at some point as well, and that was really a critical mass.

Let’s continue now with Mirko Zardini, director at the CCA, who we interviewed last December – in a second visit to Montreal to cover its show on Postmodernism curated by Sylvia Lavin – and know more about what that continuation has been and what is the role the CCA is playing as an institution.

Mirko Zardini: There is a big problem with the role of institutions today. Generally they think that a nice exhibition or a nice publication and to have a large public is the objective. In reality, for us these are simply tools in order to build a different kind of discourse. Institutions have to take responsibility and that is in a certain way what we try to do here – to build a critical discourse towards our society and towards our situation. We try to frame the problem in a different way, to ask different questions, to escape the trap of thinking that we live in a difficult situation, so now the architects are coming and they will find the solution.

First of all the question of finding solutions is highly questionable, because I don’t believe there is any solution to anything. There are processes and you are part of these processes and you can make them advance in one-way or another. But to think that whatever you do is the solution of something is a very old modern idea. And architects in general have the tendency to simplify so much the problem that… They have to acknowledge that they are part of the problem. They are not the solution to the problem.

View of the Exhibition “Architecture Itself and Other Postmodern Myths” curated by Sylvia Lavin

CGG: Even Le Corbusier was offering the wrong solutions.

MZ: Yes… What we try to do is look at society from the point of view of architecture but also look at architecture from the point of view of society. That is the reason why we wanted to do this kind of book-magazine issue that is addressing some of the questions that are around institutions. I wanted to call it A Museum Is Not Enough. The title is mainly questioning the mandate – that what institutions are doing today is not enough, or maybe that the questions we ask ourselves, in the different fields, are the wrong questions, or the position is the wrong position. All this is inside this first issue – that could be a magazine or a unique book that could be repeated in different ways, every time dealing with different issues.

We were very interested, for example, in Adbusters and what their mission and motivation was. They were behind the Occupy Wall Street process, so it was very interesting to look at that. From their point of view, clearly, architecture and architects look like a very conservative part of the discourse today. So in the first issue we are launching this year, there is a very nice contribution by Mike Pepi about the idea of the database, which now is becoming like a de facto concept incorporated in the museum culture. While all the medium can be highly criticised in terms of how it is by itself shaping the discourse in a certain way – specially considering it’s coming from the private technology system – there are discussions about mediation from the idea of the public and so on.

CGG: And how the public should or should not interfere…

MZ: That is a very crucial point if you look at today.

CGG: In the United States – the cradle of capitalism – since museums are mainly privately founded, institutions have moved towards this kind of narrative of the corporation in a way, where numbers and profit are dictating the shows.

MZ: When you go to MoMA the problem is to see something without having the crowd in front.

CGG: And what about the big galleries that are now moving into whole buildings built for them in Chelsea (NY), turning into museums almost. Pace, [David] Zwirner, Gagosian, Hauser & Wirth…

View of the Exhibition “Architecture Itself and Other Postmodern Myths” curated by Sylvia Lavin

MZ: For sure, they are doing museum quality shows. Look, New York is an interesting place of distribution and so intertwined with the art market. This component is becoming very relevant, and if you look also at the board of the institutions we are talking about you’ll understand how this idea of the market and museum occurs. We on the contrary are very lucky.

You know, all the institutions have very nice missions – if you look at them on paper they all sound good – but the problem is not what the mission of an institution is, the problem is how we interpret that mission. So we really would like for the CCA in this moment to build this discourse on architecture and I don’t see the museums – most of them – willing to build a discourse on art or on the society through art. And that, I feel is a real problem.

CGG: That’s the art market

MZ: Yes. But for architecture, at least for an institution like the CCA, we have also to acknowledge the big advantage we have and we defend very hard: our independence.

It’s not that we don’t have pressure or interference from donors or the government, but I think that to maintain an independent intellectual political position it is crucial to be honest with your time and also with the public.

You have an ethical and political responsibility as an institution, towards yourself but also towards the society that has produced or is sustaining what you are doing.

So the independence that we have defended is very important, because we can address issues that perhaps do not seem to have immediate resonance, but we invest in them, or we can raise questions that are very uncomfortable and other institutions do not tackle.  For example, we did an exhibition in 2016 on environment [It’s All Happening So Fast: A Counter-History of the Modern Canadian Environment] where we used Canada as a case study. It was a very dark picture of Canada that we did during the 150th anniversary of the Confederation!

View of the Exhibition “Architecture Itself and Other Postmodern Myths” curated by Sylvia Lavin

CGG: Great! (laughs)

MZ: Did we have some problems? Yes. Did we lose some support and sponsorship? Yes. But you know, there are things that you have to be ready to pay for.

CGG: Exactly.

MZ: And I think if an institution is not able to do that, there is no reason for that institution to exist, or that institution is not credible. And you never know what will come out of it – there are donors and political components that really appreciated what we did, and others that perhaps didn’t really like it so much. But honestly, you have to find a place where these things can be said or can be questioned, and these spaces are not so common, so we also feel privileged that we are in a situation that we can still do that – not pretending to please anybody when we have to do something.

[In certain ways these are the efforts that we have been doing since I have been at the CCA, which is almost 15 years.] It took a lot of time! But now we have a kind of platform, piece by piece, a beginning of a discourse, together with other institutions, people, and contributors. And this network is actually very important for us. An institution is not always able to evolve, so it’s crucial to think in ways an institution is not becoming self-referential. Especially in the contemporary world, it’s very important to engage with different perspectives and cultures to try to build connections with different institutions that have different programmes in order to look at those programmes from a different perspective at the same time. That was the idea behind the CCA-CO. We started to create – for two years – temporary units in different places. The first was in Lisbon and now it’s in Tokyo, then Buenos Aires.

Even at the CCA, one of my strategies was to try hire people from different parts of the world all the time. In spite of the Canadian…

CGG: I see a lot of Italians! (laughs)

MZ: Also sharing archives with other institutions like for Siza in Portugal – this idea that the institution is not a point in itself but it’s part of a network.

CGG: And also look for alliances, no? Similar institutions that can further the same type of discourse.

MZ: Yes, exactly. Hopefully J But our idea of network is very different from, let’s say a Guggenheim or even the Studio X of Columbia University.

CGG: I know! What I also see interesting and I don’t know if it’s really true, is this export of not savoir faire but a way of doing things. You guys are pretty special in this aspect, and for someone in Japan having access to discover how you operate can spread and make for building these alliances, with these other not so commercial and market driven institutions.

MZ: Absolutely. I don’t pretend that we have solutions but I want the institution to contribute to a different discourse.

The Museum Is Not Enough (CCA/Sternberg Press, 2019)

The CCA’s current Out of the Box exhibition series is Rough Cuts and Outtakes: Gordon Matta-Clark selected by Hila Peleg, until 19 January 2020

View of the Exhibition “Architecture Itself and Other Postmodern Myths” curated by Sylvia Lavin