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Phyllis Lambert Awarded Scully Prize

Phyllis Lambert accepts the Vincent Scully Prize Thursday from David Schwarz, center, and Chase Rynd at the National Building Museum.
Phyllis Lambert accepts the Vincent Scully Prize Thursday from David Schwarz, center, and Chase Rynd at the National Building Museum. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)

In a black pantsuit and campaign-ready flat shoes, Lambert looked ready to run for the office.

Lambert's impact is felt on both sides of the border, but she has devoted most of her career to her native Montreal. As an architect, she designed the Saidye Bronfman Centre for the visual and performing arts, which opened in 1967. A fondness for modernism did not get in the way of founding a preservation group, Heritage Montreal, in 1975. But Lambert is quick to say that she was educated in the United States, at Vassar, Yale and the Illinois Institute of Technology (where she received an architecture degree after working on the Seagram Building with Mies). Her preservation efforts include the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles. Since opening in 1979, the Canadian Centre for Architecture has established a reputation as an international architectural think tank and research center, while providing a stage for exhibitions such as the 2001 "Mies in America" show.

As honorary president of the family foundation named for her parents, Lambert has directed funding to affordable housing, protection of urban spaces, alternative transportation and the preservation of cultural traditions. The Dummies Theatre Company, a Montreal street theater, got its start in abandoned storefront windows, with foundation funding, as did a Vancouver program to restore civility by fixing up front porches in a beleaguered neighborhood.

The foundation's Web site offers insight into her brand of activism. A 1990 conference led to a manifesto on urban issues, which reads in part, "The urban environment -- cities, towns -- is the principal setting for forces which are simultaneously threats and opportunities for society." Two dynamics are on a collision course: the drive for short-term profit and the ecological, social and cultural values required for long-term public well-being.

"The future depends upon which trend wins the race," the manifesto declares.

There is a prescription for livable cities through "citizen power." The global village is reconceived as a "globe of villages," like democratic city-states. Empowered residents need only step forward and organize grass-roots efforts to influence political power and redefine public policy.

Ideas that might give a developer pause include urban land trusts that would hold property for the public good; "innovative ownership options" that would protect some real estate from pure market forces, and regulation to support the notion that development must add to the common good, rather than detract from it.

Less radical, and very much in tune with the philosophy of Scully, the Yale professor emeritus for whom the award is named, are advocacy of human-scaled development and transportation options beyond the private automobile.

The foundation report admits that the goal of democratic action "has not yet been attained." In conversation, Lambert remains optimistic.

"People aren't against good buildings," she says. The key is public hearings "to debate seriously what is needed.''

Her list of necessities includes not only terrific buildings, but also landscaping, lighting, street furniture and the kind of public squares that Mies achieved without zoning requirements or incentives 50 years ago.

"This is what has to be done," she says.

Citizen participation is not without risk. Last May, the Montreal Gazette responded to a plea by Heritage Montreal to save five historic places endangered by development by asking readers to weigh in with ideas for an old grain silo, a bottle-shaped water tower, a convent, a historic mansion and an art deco restaurant in the old Eaton's department store.

One reader suggested the silo be turned into a casino, but most sided with another, who recommended, "Simply and quickly, blow it up!" As for the water tower, cleaned up and repainted, one said, it "would be an ideal addition to the picturesque sculpture garden across from the Canadian Centre for Architecture."

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