By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."
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."