Phyllis Lambert, the daughter of the Seagram beverage company owner Samuel Bronfman, played an integral role in selecting Mies van der Rohe and Phillip Johnson to design the definitive International Style skyscraper, the 1956 Seagram Building in New York. Her career of advocacy for better urban design continued into her later life, when she mounted numerous protests against ill-advised construction projects in her hometown of Montreal, Canada. She later founded the Canadian Center for Architecture, which holds one of the world’s most significant collections of architectural drawings. Lambert’s experience has been highlighted in new detail in her chronicle of the Seagram project: Building Seagram.
An abridged version of this interview ran in the CTBUH Journal, Issue III. This is the unabridged version.
Daniel Safarik: Given your advocacy for one of the most important skyscrapers of all time, I was surprised to learn that you actually participated in a struggle against an earlier design for a tall building, the Place Montreal Trust, which was eventually built, though differently than what was planned. What was it that you objected to?
Phyllis Lambert: Well, it was a double thing, as you know, that was blocked from Mies van der Rohe, and there’s some codes in the city that guard against that, but of course they always break that if they think they’re going to get more money because somebody’s going to put up a building that brings them taxes. Also, they privatized the public street and so part of it was a shopping center sort of thing. So they privatized the public street. So those were heinous things. And I didn’t care who was doing it, they didn’t ask me if they could do that and I said No you couldn’t do it! So there you are.
The public realm is hugely important and I think developers are becoming a lot more sensitive to the public realm and to the social aspects of architecture. But they used to think that they were doing everybody a favor by doing what they thought was right without any discussion with people or any kind of investigation of what people felt was important or not. And that’s being changed.
DS: And obviously the Seagram was pretty important in that discussion, and it was one of the first to have a plaza cleared around it.
PL: That’s a private company building with a great architect. See, that’s rare.
DS: But it does seem to the something that wasn’t historically well considered.
PL: Well actually, what happened with the Seagram Building, and also with the Lever House across the street, the zoning changes were made in New York and the city gave 10 square feet of bulk to the building per 1 square foot of open plaza on the street level. So it was taken up by everybody. New York actually changed, very much because of the zoning. It was very advantageous to all builders, and they did it.
DS: It seems the International Style, or the style that was championed by van der Rohe, was a boon for developers, but when it was copied, it was copied badly. I’m interested in finding out what are the essential characteristics which made that architecture great and made all the copies different, even if to the lay person they probably look very similar.
PL: When I walk down the street and I look at the Seagram Building, and I look at all the other buildings, I wonder why they can’t do it. It’s so simple! The proportions are so elegant and so wonderful. But all of this is because it’s not a commercial building stuck up by some architect who’s trying to make a buck for a developer. It really was a great architect, whose question was is this civilization we live in? So there’s a philosophic basis of the whole attitude towards the building. And when that’s pulled out of the equation, and it’s just a bad copy, then it loses all the qualities.
DS: I understand that conceptually, I guess I’m wondering how that manifests itself in the small details. God is in the details, right? These are the things that the copiers tend to throw aside. Is it just because they lack the philosophy that you described?
PL: Yes of course! There’s no question about it! They’re not artists. They’re copyists. You’ve seen it all though history.
DS: Do you think it’s the simplicity of the design that makes it essentially “easy” to copy?
PL: There is a wonderful edition of L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui at the time of the Seagram Building. Well it was on Mies anyway, that was called, « L’art difficile d’être simple, » “The Difficult Art of Being Simple.” How can you say the difference between somebody who’s creating something according to a deeply understood idea of what society versus somebody who’s doing something commercially?
DS: Well, to take the devil’s advocate position, the ideal design and architecture project would do both. Achieve commercial objective and artistic objective.
PL: Well yeah. But if you leave out the second, the artistic thing…how could I? There’s such a big difference between cheap, run-off copies and things like that. It’s not the idea that cheap, run-off copies are bad, but it’s the fact that there’s no thought given to what are you doing? Why are you doing this? Why are you putting up a building? If it’s just to house some occupational people, okay, but that’s not going to make anything, especially when it’s a large building that has a kind of effect on the city.
But you even see that, well, I just got back from Italy, and I’ve been there a couple of times, you see these great cities, little cities with a historical center. Then you see the new buildings that are put up outside the historical center, they’re just dreadful. And so you wonder why people can’t learn, why they can’t think differently, and it’s a question of how you think! It’s not a question of anything else. It’s not! And when you think in a way that you are concerned about the public realm and what happens to people, then you do something quite different.
DS: Well that’s really key, isn’t it? And it seems that it’s very very quickly forgotten. Your mention of Italy makes me think of Palladio and all the classic architects.
PL: What about the Romanesque? That’s beautiful stone buildings, of course, wouldn’t those be easier to do? I mean look at photography. The great photographs of the early period, when you really had to think about what you were doing. Whereas now it’s very easy to just snap a picture. It’s fine, it’s fun to snap pictures, but the thing is you’re not creating something vital.
DS: The mid-century period is currently enjoying a resurgence of interest. We have so much nostalgia now for the mid-century furniture and the clothes from the period, and it extends to architecture. Why do you think that is, and do you think it’s healthy?
PL: Well I don’t know that it is nostalgia. I think that it’s just lack of inventivity. Everything in art and literature, and architecture, everything is looking back. And there’s very little. What is really moving ahead, is people who are working born in the digital work. But everybody else is just doing—I think things have improved since the post-modernism, and lots of very good research on materials. On concrete, all the very interesting things you can do with concrete and glass now. And I think that there’s a lot of good buildings built with the impulse that created the International Style, that industrial architecture, okay? But then also we’ve added to that, the concern for the environment, which is great because we can get back to not having everything artificialized.
I mean even Mies said once, when we were talking about glass in buildings like 860 Lakeshore Drive, he said, “Well it’s really not up to the architect, it’s up to the engineers to find some way to stop the heat from coming in.” Well that becomes politically incorrect. People are beginning to reason that you just can’t throw the book at it and there is a kind of containment one has to have about what one’s doing.
DS: It’s interesting, because our fascination with the “Mad Men” era has a lot to do with fetishizing social behaviors that we now think of as irresponsible. Yet the certainty and solidity of the principles that informed the International Style seem to remain valid.
PL: Oh no, they’re very strong, absolutely, absolutely.
DS: We couldn’t have anticipated what we were doing to the planet at the time.
PL: Well, I guess what post-modernism was doing was trying to relate to the traditional city, really, basically. Not very successfully. Because they didn’t know where to stand. And somehow, people who are experimenting with materiality, and also the whole entire environmental movement thing, made people think differently.
DS: We would like to think that we have found the harmony, but we’ve got all these runaway economies that are building all kinds of awfulness.
PL: I don’t know if we’ve found harmony, but we’ve found a way of thinking about it I think.
DS: Speaking of movements, at one point, you actually picketed the offices of a developer, Cadillac Fairview, on whose board you sat.
PL: Yeah. It was my own family. I did it because money was not the most important thing to me.The most important thing is living on Earth. So when something was wrong, I have no choice but to say, “You can’t do this.”
DS: Well it’s obviously something that’s gone down in history and has been commended. But it sparks a thought. I was recently looking at the work Apple Computer’s planning in Cupertino. They hired Norman Foster to design a giant doughnut-shaped thing. It basically looks like one of their computers. It’s very closed off from the town. It seems like a squandered opportunity to do something urbanistic. It made me think of your work in protesting and getting people to change their minds about design. Do you think a shareholder revolt would be possible?
PL: Yeah, sure, that’d be great. But there’s more than shareholder revolt. There have been through the history of companies, shareholders who come always against the company. I suppose you could get environmentalists, and people concerned with architecture, to do that. But I think it’s much deeper than that. You have to have a society that’s a public realm. I wrote a lot about that in Mies in America in one chapter. Ultimately the person who’s responsible for what happens to the building is the person who’s paying for it, the client de facto.
But at the same time what that person can do is really affected by the laws of the city. The laws of the city and rules like that. And all those rules are subject to public opinion. So eventually it’s the attitude of the client himself who’s doing the building. So it’s a view of society rather than shareholders saying this that and the other thing.
DS: The reason I’ve thought of that is that some things that we’ve seen change about the financial climate has been the people have pulled together efforts to stop sweatshops and things like that by voting with their shares. So that’s an outgrowth of view of how a society should be.
PL: That’s all very good, but I tried as a shareholder and I didn’t get anywhere, but as a public figure I did!
DS: What do you think of the title “Joan of Architecture”?
PL: Well I’ll tell you. It’s very Québécois. In Québec, you don’t use swear words like, “Oh fuck,” or things like that to do with the body. You use words that relate to religion. You say words to do with Catholic religion. So “Joan of Architecture,” I think it’s very much a Québec thing.
DS: Do you think it’s affectionate or critical?
PL: Oh I think it’s supposed to be flattering. She led the way, she held up her flame and said, “This is the way.” I wasn’t alone, but I was able to work with a lot of people. There’s a great story about Michelangelo and the dome. How do you make a dome like that stand up? And Michelangelo said, “Oh it’s very simple, how do you make an egg stand up?” And so it’s that sort of thing. Somebody sees a simple way of doing things, a direct way of doing things, and people see the point, and that’s why it’s important to have debate, I think that’s hugely important.
That’s the problem with the stockholder thing. You’re getting up and you’re just saying something in a meeting. But you’re not writing in the paper, you know, generating debate.
DS: Yeah, some of these companies have managed to weather press criticism pretty well—
PL: Sure, sure, but it’s more than just the companies, it’s public attitude, it’s an ethic. People get hysterical about that.
DS: Speaking of ethics and the ethos that people hold, that air of mystery, the hagiography, if you will, surrounding Mies. Have you had a chance to see any of the conversions of modernist skyscrapers?
PL: Well, I’m involved in one here.
DS: Tell me about it.
PL: Westmount Square. Two residential skyscrapers, and one office skyscraper. They want to convert the office skyscraper into a residential one. They’ve asked me to consult with them, which was great.
DS: How far along is that project?
PL: Well, the architects came up with a very very good study, the kind of study that would be done in Mies’ office, really, of all the possibilities. One of the problems is that the spandrel on the office building is deeper than the spandrel on the residential building. And so if you use a hopper, then you get to almost the same size. And so they studied all the possibilities. And there’s also the possibility of opening the whole window, which I don’t think they’ll do because it’s too expensive and too difficult. And then they came up with the idea of making the hopper proportional in size to the office building window as the hopper is proportional in size to the residential building. They haven’t finalized the thing, but this is what they’re looking at.
DS: So you don’t really believe in the idea that all these buildings should be kept pristine, as they were originally intended.
PL: Well you can’t say, “No you can’t do that.” I mean that’s the economics of the time. You know this is happening a lot, as you know in Chicago, all those office buildings on Michigan Avenue being turned into residential condominiums. In this case the office building is probably not in an area that’s very good for that kind of office building. It’s much more of a residential area, though the whole design is quite brilliant in the way the buildings are connected. So you try and do the best. I mean, that’s what Mies would do.
DS: I was pleasantly surprised at how the intervention at the IBM Building in Chicago, which now has a Langham Hotel in the lower half. It’s radically different to what it was on the inside, but it doesn’t feel like the building has been diminished. And it’s virtually unchanged on the outside.
PL: I’ll tell you the reason it doesn’t make any difference. When Seagram was built, I thought, “Oh, I’ll go and visit all of the offices and see the people in this wonderful building and what kind of marvelous offices they did.” And after about three of them, I thought, “Oh God, I’m not going to visit any more of them.” They brought in all their old furniture to make it look like an old building or something. You can’t control what people do inside. Mies always tried to mitigate that by doing things like choosing a uniform lighting system for the Seagram. Otherwise people are going to do what they do.
I’ve seen here, Moshe Safide did a very good, the only good thing he ever did, a very good Expo ‘67 building.
DS: Yes, you mean The Habitat?
PL: You know people have taken very decent, very good actually, 1960s kind of architecture and turned it into sumptuous marble on the floor and it’s just such crap, you know, it’s unbelievable. So you can’t really control that.
DS: So you don’t really believe in the museum concept?
PL: Yes of course, keep them as well as you can! But there’s always a point at which you don’t know if it’s going to be stronger than anything else. And then you have to see how you can make it work.
DS: Yeah, obviously it’s a better alternative than demolition. A lot of buildings from that period have gone under the axe, have been demolished, rather than refurbished.
PL: Well some of them aren’t very interesting either. But one of the things I regret in New York is the area around where the Seagram Building is, it’s really a very special area because it was after the second world war, the area had been re-zoned earlier, from 50th Street to 57th Street, has been re-zoned as commercial rather than residential. And that didn’t happen until after the war. And there were all those ziggurat buildings, you know, those—
DS: Wedding-cake style?
PL: Yeah, right, and was definitely a very interesting style that happened. They’re not great buildings and they never will be with the eight-foot ceilings that they had. But anyway it’s very interesting slowly they get converted too because nobody’s standing up for it.
DS: Do you think that we need an advocate for the Modern buildings of that period?
PL: Yeah I think that we ignore – for example here in Montreal we have one building which I like a lot it’s based on the kind of idea that International style. It will never compare to 860 Lake Shore Drive or the Seagram Building and all those buildings but it’s a fine building and in the lobby they have a wonderful mosaic made by a local artist and they have a canopy like Seagram and so they want take that canopy off so you can see the mosaic better. So I always argue against it because all the problems you get into. People don’t understand, the minute you take that off what do you do with the maintaining the columns that go up and everything else. Huge lots of problems. And I said everybody knew that was going to happen when they were doing it so why all of a sudden you have to show your jewels? Do it some other way. There are always these kinds of things.
DS: And the question of public art is obviously one that you’ve wrestled with quite a bit.
PL: Yes, but also there are lots of very good buildings from that building which people don’t recognize, they’re wonderful buildings from industrial buildings everywhere. Because industrial buildings were a little bit like Chicago you know, warehouses and things like that, nobody had to make lots of gewgaws on them, and there’s some wonderful brickwork here, as there is in Chicago.
DS: Obviously styles have changed, but it seems like there’s an emerging consciousness about demolition and pulling buildings under instead of working and adapting them to the city.
PL: Oh it’s a pity because some of them you can’t do much with but there’s so many very good buildings that everybody has destroyed. Gosh, these buildings make terrific spaces.
DS: Right, I mean I think that’s something about the psychology that’s probably changed a bit since the Seagram was built. The idea of urban renewal was “lay the ground flat, scorched earth, and start anew.”
PL: Yeah, well, that was a period when people wanted to look like war again they wanted the cities to look like they’d been bombed. It was crazy.
DS: Maybe it was an attempt to erase the past in some ways.
PL: Here in Montreal that happened to a good deal of buildings when a number of us got going on Save Montreal and Heritage Patrol and things like that. We were trying to make people understand how these grey stone buildings they were so unique and so marvelous. But people saw them, because the French population which built most of these because they’re mostly religious buildings of some sort or other, some of them said, “We’re poor and these buildings represent our poverty. And so we don’t want them anymore, we want something bright and new and foreign looking.”
By comparison, though it was different and modern, I think the Seagram Building actually was this kind of oasis that he created and a sort of clearing in the urban forest.
DS: You’re arguably one of the most influential women in the 20th century architecture. What has changed for women in architecture, particularly the tall building variety, since the Seagram days? Here we are in 2013, and it’s still considered remarkable that a woman such as Jeanne Gang has designed a tall building.
PL: Well that always happens, because when I went to architectural school, which was in the ‘60s, there were maybe two women in the whole school. Because they were so excluded from the field, it takes them a while to become good architects, and to have enough confidence in themselves that they could do it. So you get Zaha Hadid, you get Jeanne Gang, there’s Liz Diller. There are quite a number of women you can name, but it took ttime before this happened. And early in your career, to do a high-rise building — I mean how long did it take Frank Gehry to do a high-rise building? And Peter Eisenmann has never done one. But it’s changing as more and more women have become educated in the field.
DS: Do you feel that you played a role in this transition?
PL: Oh no, I don’t think so, I didn’t play a role in that transition. Not at all. It was just something that was happening in every sector. In law, in medicine…all were undergoing exactly the same transition.
DS: Right, but your advocacy gets a lot of credit for changing a prevailing attitude in architecture.
PL: It was just something I was just lucky to be able to do what I did when I did it – I mean, I think I was an anomaly, okay? I was anomaly because my father had commissioned the building. But it really just happened to be at a period when change was coming. I don’t see that I had anything to do with it at all. I mean like all young people who are interested they hear about people who look at that but it didn’t change anything, really.
DS: You made an argument in favor of good design. That in itself has to be pretty satisfying to think about.
PL: Well, when you think of it, women have the long had a role in terms of good design. The Museum of Modern Art, for example, and the Frick Collection, actually their program was run by Frick’s daughter. The Whitney was started by a woman.
DS: Perhaps the scope of looking at the number of women in tall buildings in architecture is artificially narrow when trying to formulate an assessment of how equitable the entire profession is.
PL: If you think of a house, and then you think of a tall building, the investment in a tall building is so huge that you can’t really play around too much, you know? So clients want to have people who have, you know, certified. It’s not easy for younger, less experienced people. But I think that’ll change, if women get to be stronger.
If you look at what Liz Diller did in New York, it’s fantastic. Take a look at her book on the Lincoln Center, it’s quite fascinating. They didn’t give her the whole thing, she started off with just a little bit. They gave her more because the owner saw that she understood how to bring people in.
And she was so honest and direct, she said she just wanted to see Lincoln Center as more than it was. And she didn’t have any design criteria that she wanted to impose on it or anything, and just because she’s so persuasive, it turned out just amazing.
And then, as one part of Lincoln Center went ahead, and other people on other parts of Lincoln Center said, “Oh gee, we’re going to look pretty old-fashioned by comparison.” So the whole thing started like a wildfire. It was very interesting because of the persuasiveness of this woman and the client who was intelligent enough to listen occasionally.
DS: And that’s really what it takes in any case, right? A persuasive design advocate and a receptive client.
PL: That’s right.