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'We changed public attitudes about the city': Phyllis Lambert on Jane Jacobs

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On the occasion of Jane Jacobs’ 100th birthday, we republish Phyllis Lambert’s account of how they each forged their own career paths in architecture

Jane Jacobs in 1961

In 1958, Jane Jacobs and I were both young and unknown women living in New York City and about to make a mark in the history of architecture and urbanism. It was in that year that Jane Jacobs received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to write her seminal The Death and Life of Great American Cities; in the same year, I was seeing to the completion of Mies van der Rohe’s seminal Seagram Building and Plaza.

Both the book and the building changed public attitudes about the city. Book and building also characterised our future trajectories.

Receiving the Jane Jacobs Lifetime Achievement Award of the Canadian Urban Institute some years ago led me to reflect on her life’s work, and consequently I recognised an intriguing resonance between my own path and hers. It seems pertinent to this issue of the Architects’ Journal [the Women in Architecture issue of 2013].

By the early 1970s, Jacobs was in Toronto. An outspoken critic of top-down city planning, she helped to lead a campaign to stop a city cut-through highway, as well as other nefast projects. At the same time, after having received my degree in architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), and as architect of the Saidye Bronfman Centre for the Arts in Montreal, I returned to my native city to take up the cause of heightening the quality of a place of distinct neighbourhoods.

I began working with groups to stop demolition, then with residents, transforming threatened neighbourhoods into self-governing not-for-profit co-operative housing organisations, and instituting public hearings (now written into the city charter) as powerful tools of city planning.

Jane and I talked together from time to time. Jacobs continued to study the city, writing exceptional, influential books aimed at broad understanding of its theoretical basis, and always grounding her assertions on observation: The Economy of Cities, locating the city as the state’s primary driver of economic development, was followed by Cities and the Wealth of Nations, which positioned the city as the principal player in macroeconomics.

Phyllis Lambert explaining Milton Park housing battle, Montreal, 1981

Phyllis Lambert explaining Milton Park housing battle, Montreal, 1981

Phyllis Lambert explaining Milton Park housing battle, Montreal, 1981

In these years, the 1970s to the 1990s, I was studying economic, cultural, and social aspects of the city, starting with photographic campaigns that documented its contemporary composition and then working backward to analyse historical records of land ownership, land use, and architectural intent, resulting in exhibitions and publications, for example, Opening the Gates of Eighteenth-Century Montreal in 1992. Two years later it was followed by my publication, Fortifications and the Synagogue, a record of the renovation and history of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in a complex millennial area in Cairo, which I had led.

Through all these years I had been shaping the Canadian Centre for Architecture or CCA, in Montreal, an institution I founded on the conviction that architecture is a public concern. Its extensive collections and research facilities were the source of many exhibitions, publications, conferences and photographic missions. The CCA is intent on addressing crucial themes in the culture of architecture and the city.

Jane Jacobs and I have also shared a deep concern for the environment of the city - Jacobs working from observation and proceeding to theory, and our team of researchers and curators at the CCA focusing on little-studied aspects of the urban environment. In The Nature of Economies, published in 2000, Jacobs advanced the fundamental understanding that ‘human beings exist wholly within nature as part of the natural order in every respect’, arguing that the same principles underlie both ecosystems and economies.

These have also been the concerns of the CCA in a series of recent exhibitions and publications that started in 2006 with Sense of the City, which proposed a rethinking of latent qualities of the city, offering complex analyses of the comforts, communication systems, and sensory dimensions of urban life. The exhibition 1973: Sorry out of Gas looked at architecture’s response to the oil crisis of the 1970s, revealing how the same issues dating back 30 years are still with us - diminishing energy resources and our quest for sustainable modes of living in the city. Imperfect Health: The Medicalization of Architecture examined the complexity of today’s interrelated and emerging health problems juxtaposed with a variety of proposed architectural and urban solutions, asking how architects are seeking a new moral and political agenda within these concerns.

There should be no question of the role of women in architecture now. Studying architecture at the end of the 1950s, I was one of two women at both Yale and IIT. Today more than 40 per cent of all students in the field are women. Many are at the leading edge of design.

The CCA exhibitions, like Jane Jacobs’ publications, aimed at increasing public awareness and encouraging further research and practice, indicate some of the immensely rich and complex roles in architectural practice today.

Phyllis Lambert is an architect and founding director and chair of the board of trustees of the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, an international research centre and museum founded in 1979. She was the director of planning of the Seagram Building (1954-58) in New York City.

Her long and distinguished career includes founding Héritage Montréal in 1975; four years later she was instrumental in establishing the Société d’Amélioration de Milton-Parc, the largest non-profit co-operative housing renovation project in Canada. In 1996, she formed the Fonds d’Investissement de Montréal, the only private investment fund in Canada participating in the revitalisation of housing in low- and medium-income neighbourhoods.

Her writings include major essays and contributions to books such as: Court House: A Photographic Document; Canadian Centre for Architecture: Buildings and Gardens; and Mies in America. She is the recipient of many awards, including the Prix Gérard-Morisset; the World Monuments Fund’s Hadrian Award; and the 2008 Jane Jacobs Lifetime Achievement Award of the Canadian Urban Institute, Toronto. She is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects and of the American Institute of Architects

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