Phyllis Lambert Awarded Scully Prize
Saturday, January 21, 2006
In the death and life of great cities, there's nothing like the roar of the crowd to effect change.
"Citizen power," says Phyllis Lambert, 78, architecture's grande dame and newly proclaimed winner of the Vincent J. Scully Prize.
Lambert, a self-described "street guerrilla" who founded the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, believes that we the people can get the livable cities we deserve if we engage. And in a burst of optimism this week, she suggested, "The populace is becoming more and more aware."
Lambert's best argument for action is her own career of fifty-plus years as an architect, scholar, philanthropist, preservation activist and advocate for lively public space.
Lambert flew in from Montreal on Thursday for the Scully award ceremony at the National Building Museum. The award honors those who make cities more humane through architecture, preservation and urban design. (Previous winners include Prince Charles, the Aga Khan, Jane Jacobs, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, and Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk).
Recipients are required to deliver a public lecture. Lambert chose to explain how the Seagram Building in New York, the iconic 1954 skyscraper designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, broke new ground on Park Avenue by creating a plaza with reflecting pools and sculpture. Lambert chose the architect and, as director of planning for the distillery business run by her father, Samuel Bronfman, oversaw completion of what is acknowledged as one of the greatest of 20th-century buildings. New Yorkers adopted the plaza as their own. City officials crafted incentives to encourage public space in future projects.
On Thursday afternoon, in a conversation in the Building Museum's Great Hall, Lambert turned her attention to contemporary issues.
"It's very important to have wonderful buildings," she says, acknowledging the current renaissance in architecture. "But there are other issues."
Infrastructure is crumbling. Environmental degradation is unchecked. Transportation systems are under threat of terrorism. Water systems are failing. Air is polluted. Developers are still inflicting too many undistinguished structures on too many cityscapes.
"We can name 10 wonderful buildings and five wonderful architects," she said. "But look at how much else gets built.
She blames her own profession for a leadership vacuum not filled since Frank Lloyd Wright.
"The real serious problem is, we don't have proper groups of people who are really looking at cities," she says. "There is no spokesperson for the built world."