For the occasion of her 90th birthday on January 24, architect Phyllis Lambert sent the following text about her life and career—from her early days as a sculptor to her work as a photographer, preservationist, and patron. It is taken from the exhibition Phyllis Lambert: 75 Years At Work, on view until April 9 at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal.
1 / Beginnings
Art has always been for me the essence of existence.
A sculptor from the age of nine, at eleven I began exhibiting in annual juried exhibitions at the Royal Academy of Arts and the Société des Sculpteurs du Canada. My sculpture teacher instilled in me objective self-criticism, and I learned manual skills and close observation. I have always drawn. As an undergraduate at Vassar College, in addition to studying art history, in the studio I focused on painting, intrigued by technique, especially that of Rubens (although this is not evident in the self-portrait). However, I was not interested in making small works for private collections. I dreamed of creating monumental sculpture in the public realm: Architecture would be the answer, but I did not know this yet.
2 / Seagram Building
With extraordinary good fortune five years out of college, and while studying the history of architecture at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, I became involved in my father’s decision to erect an office building for Joseph E. Seagram & Sons in New York City. In 1954, living and painting on my own in Paris, I received a proposal from him to which I responded in an eight-page, closely spaced typed letter beginning with one word repeated very emphatically: No No No No No. I concluded, “You must put up a building which expresses the best of the society in which you live… You have a great responsibility.” For me the new building had to be a wonderful place to be, to work, for people passing by on the street, for buildings around it, for the neighborhood, for the city, for the world.
With a mandate to select the architect, after six weeks visiting architects in their offices everyone was talking in terms of Mies. There was the aura and generosity of the man, the gentle power of his architecture. I chose Mies.
With the title of director of planning, my job, as I saw it, was to assure that Mies could build the project he envisioned. His beautifully proportioned bronze-clad building rose straight, set back from the street on its half-acre plaza. Seagram changed New York. After 1961, the New York City zoning code introduced incentive zoning to encourage open plazas at ground level by permitting developers extra floor space. Plazas appeared everywhere.
At the turn of the century, in The New York Times Magazine, Herbert Muschamp declared Seagram to be his choice for the millennium’s most important building, bringing the fusion of gothic and classical elements “in a supremely elegant whole.” “The business of civilization is to hold opposites together,” he wrote. “That goal, often reached through conflict, has been rendered here by Mies with a serenity unsurpassed in modern times.”
Contemporary artworks and those we commissioned were publicly accessible in the great spaces of the Four Seasons restaurant designed by Philip Johnson, and strategies were established for changing installations of sculpture on the plaza. It is also essential to note that high standards of documented maintenance have conserved the Seagram building’s exceptional value.
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Mme. Lambert has been an SAH member since 1988 and a Benefactor since 1993.