CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 41. . . .June 25, 2010.
Citizen Lambert: Joan of Architecture.
Terry Wehn-Damisch (Director). Amélie Blanchard, Paul Cadiuex, Germaine Ying Gee Wong (Producers).
Montreal, PQ: National Film Board of Canada, 2007.
52 min., DVD, $99.95.
Order Number: 153C 9107 111.
Grades 10 and up / Ages 15 and up.
Review by Frank Loreto.
Phyllis Lambert recites the letters of the alphabet and responds with an association. A is for artist, and she is first an artist. B is for Bronfman and Belvedere which, to her, represents her imprisonment. Her father, she states “was poor and would not have that for his children. They must be successes.” Phyllis would have none of that: “none of the privilege—the pomp and ceremony.”
Following this introduction, a faux newsreel explains that Phyllis is Phyllis Barbara Bronfman, second child of Samuel Bronfman. A self-declared artist, she was a sculptor at age nine. She went to Vassar for schooling. She met a “handsome, but boring Frenchman” who “got her away from her family and to Paris.” She left him but kept his name, further distancing herself from the Bronfman name.
She began collecting architectural photographs and books about architectural theory in order “to learn how architects think.” She dreamed of building a museum and archive—“a research centre for architecture, to put Canada on the map.” After 10 years of work, the Canadian Centre for Architecture opened in 1989.
Lambert is clearly a powerhouse in the area of architecture, and the film is filled with testimonies from a number of architects singing her praises. However, this is not a deification of Lambert. In fact, she is presented as rather quirky, and, despite her rejection of her rich upbringing, she has managed to use it to her advantage.
She states that she was “well dressed as a child—always in Chanel, but then went to overalls then blue jeans, then black outfits when in New York.” In 1958, when her father told her of his plans to build the Seagram Building in New York City, she wrote back: “No, no, no, no”. She did not like the plans at all. “If you are going to make a decision to build a building, then you have to decide to do it in the best way you can.” When her father initially disregarded her opinion, she told him, “You no longer have a daughter.” After her mother intervened on her behalf, Samuel agreed to see what she could do. Lambert consulted with the top architects of the day and, as Director of Planning with no expense spared, she oversaw what was to become one of the most innovative buildings of its kind.
Before the Seagram Building was completed, Lambert thought that “architectural school made sense.” She started at Yale but did not like it. Having worked with Mies van der Rohe on the Seagram Building, she went to work in his office in Chicago and became fascinated “by how things went together.” She earned a Master’s Degree from the Illinois Institute of Technology.
At this point, the film returns to the present where Lambert is crawling on the floor reaching under a couch trying to find a toy train; “I love my toys.” Lambert’s first building in Montreal was the Sayde Bronfman Centre for the Arts—a gift from the children to their mother. She states that it was a beautiful building, and older photographs of the building prove her correct. However, over time, the building has been changed, and this angers her: “It was a beautiful building, but it’s been changed. People don’t see buildings as art. They change them radically. They don’t learn to work with what is there.” She is disgusted by the curtains that now cover the windows: “It should be open. It makes you cry.”
Lambert admits that she could not live in the same city as her father. She returned to Montreal only after his death. Back home, she began to study the buildings and realized that “there were those intent on destroying them.” As a result, she began fighting for their preservation. Nicknamed Joan of Architecture, she was able to save a number of buildings and became an advocate for the value of maintaining history: “Without a past, we will become savages.”
Clearly Lambert is held in high regard. She has many honorary doctorates, and the film is filled with people praising her ability and her achievements. One states that “her name will outlive anyone in her family.”
For anyone interested in architecture or heritage preservation, this film is a must. The alphabet letter associations continue throughout the film as the viewer gets to see not only Lambert’s achievements, but who she is. She is truly unique and a little odd. As she sings a love song to her dog (“and no one else”), she admits that she is an outsider—“a self imposed outsider” who “lives in the world of art.” The faux newsreel at the beginning of the film shows that she does not take herself overly seriously. However, she is impatient “with people who don’t do their best.” She is aware of her accomplishments, but she makes it clear that she has worked hard and expects no less from others.
Citizen Lambert would appeal to hard-core architecture students. The quirkiness of the film and of Lambert would not win over a general class. Anyone studying the history of Montreal, would find this film a goldmine.
Frank Loreto is a teacher-librarian at St. Thomas Aquinas Secondary School in Brampton, ON.
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