Book List of the Week

Phyllis Lambert’s Book List: 10 Books on Buildings, Cities, and Landscapes

By Steve Kroeter September 16, 2013
Phyllis Lambert: Founding Director Emeritus, Canadian Centre for Architecture (Montreal)
View Phyllis Lambert’s Book List

Phyllis Lambert, Founding Director Emeritus of the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA), one of the world’s preeminent museums and research institutions focused on architecture, has some advice for designers: “Young architects, architects tout court, must be deeply and widely engaged in reading—asking essential questions.” Lambert follows her own counsel. Her list for Designers & Books connects a variety of books that made a lasting impression when she was starting out as an architect and urbanist—books that have influenced what, and how, she reads today.

Concerned “with the interaction between building and landscape, and the social context writ large,” Lambert compares two books on her list: James Ackerman’s Palladio and Joseph Rykwert’s The Idea of a Town: the Anthropology of Urban Form in Rome, Italy and the Ancient World. They “were revolutionary when written and exciting for me, in their consideration of the contexts of buildings and city,” says Lambert. “Ackerman looks beyond buildings to the larger environment of history, society, landscape, and the city; Rykwert looks beyond the instrumental to myth and ritual that shape and even create the man-made environment.”

Phyllis Lambert, Building Seagram, 2013 (Yale University Press)

Lambert also embraces poetry and novels, “for which the quality of language also weighs strongly, as does the quality of form in the built world.” So, Moby Dick, with its “vast range of spaces and ideas” is included. And she finds that the postmodern thought in T. S. Eliot’s Collected Poems 1909-1962, “resurgent in the discourse of the art and discipline of architecture, continues in books I am currently reading, such as the work of Anne Carson—Grief Lessons, Eros the Bittersweet, Antigonick, and Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse. This, in turn, connects to my readings in Greek literature—I have been studying and photographing ancient Greek sites and landscape for over 20 years in the Aegean and Mediterranean.”

Connecting buildings with their settings has marked Lambert’s achievements as an author and editor as well. Her recently published Building Seagram (2013, Yale University Press) gives the inside story of the design and construction of one of New York’s iconic modern buildings—with which she was intimately involved as Director of Planning. Named a Designers & Books Notable Design Book of 2013, the book—our reviewer, Mark Lamster, comments—is “a unique hybrid, at once a scholarly history, a memoir of her own experience as daughter of Seagram chief Sam Bronfman, and a manifesto for civic responsibility in architecture in urban planning.”

Phyllis Lambert graciously agreed to answer a few questions about Building Seagram.

D&B: In 1954 you wrote a letter to your father urging him to consider a modernist design for the to-be-constructed Seagram Building. This was an incredible accomplishment—visionary—especially for a 27-year-old. Did you know at the time how significant this might be for architectural history?
PL: Of course not!

Phyllis Lambert, letter to her father, Samuel Bronfman, June 28, 1954, page 1. Fonds Phyllis Lambert, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal. Reproduced in full in From Building Seagram (Yale University Press)

Phyllis Lambert, letter to her father, Samuel Bronfman, June 28, 1954, page 8. Fonds Phyllis Lambert, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal. Reproduced in full in From Building Seagram (Yale University Press)

Designers & Books: Do you have a favorite Mies anecdote?
Phyllis Lambert: Mies would tell stories and laugh riotously at his own stories. One example is cat-sitting for philosopher Mortimer Adler. Adler, who with Robert Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago, founded the Great Books of the Western World publications, asked Mies to look after his cat one summer. Making a cat face, Mies recounted how they would sit across the room staring at each other, and in the morning the cat would jump up and down on Mies’s bed to make him get up. Then he would roar with laughter.

Philip Johnson, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Phyllis Lambert in front of an image of the model for the Seagram Building, New York, 1955. Fonds Phyllis Lambert, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal. © United Press International. From Building Seagram (Yale University Press)

D&B: Given the many conversations you had with Mies, what books or authors do you think were significant in the evolution of his work?
PL: In addition to numerous books on philosophy and history, Mies had books that showed his concern for the urban condition. Among the volumes Mies brought with him from Europe were books by Camillo Sitte, Raymond Unwin, Ebenezer Howard, Werner Hegemann, Walter Curt Behrendt, and Hans Sierks on block structures and lot divisions, as well as books by Mies’s contemporaries including Bruno Taut, Le Corbusier and Adolph Behne. Also among his books were those of economists Rudolf Eberstadt and Peter Kropotkin, and writings on urban sociology by Georg Simmel and Max Weber. Additions to his library in America included Lewis Mumford, Martin Wagner, Eliel Saarinen, Victor Gruen, Steen Eiler Rasmussen, and, very importantly, the architect Rudolf Schwarz.

D&B: What other writing about the Seagram Building do you admire?
PL: Lewis Mumford’s article “The Lesson of the Master,” in The New Yorker (September 13, 1958).

D&B: What similarities, if any, are there in your experiences working on building projects and working on book projects—specifically this book project?
PL: The circuitous route of coming to understand the essence of the project, and also the research required.

Seagram Building, plaza panorama, looking south from the first setback of 399 Park Avenue, April 15, 2010. Chromogenic laser print, 24 × 22 3/4 in. Photograph: Richard Pare. Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal. © Richard Pare. From Building Seagram (Yale University Press)

View Phyllis Lambert’s book list and all architecture commentators’ book lists on Designers & Books.

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