Among the most prominent figures of architecture in Canada is that of Phyllis Lambert. Sometimes referred to as the “Joan of Architecture”, she is known as both a proponent of modern architecture and the preservation of historically significant structures. An architect in her own right, Lambert trained with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, collaborated with him on the Toronto-Dominion Centre and designed notably the very Miesian Saidye-Bronfman Centre (now Segal Centre) in Montreal. She is credited with persuading her father, financier and founder of the Seagram distillery Samuel Bronfman, to select Mies for designing the Seagram Building in Chicago. Appalled by the demolition of the historic Van Horne mansion by then Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau, who argued it wasn’t part of French Canadian heritage and thus not worth preserving, she was instrumental in establishing the Héritage Montreal conservancy. But arguably her biggest contribution to the field of architecture in Canada was the foundation of the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) in 1979.
Established as one of the world’s most renowned museums and research centres dedicated to architecture, the CCA’s very building highlights Lambert’s conviction that architecture should both innovate while preserving its history. Designed by the architect Peter Rose with Lambert’s input, the CCA is built around the 1874 mansion of Canadian Pacific president Thomas Shaughnessy. By the 1970s, the house found itself the sole survivor of a once desirable neighbourhood, blighted by the proximity of the new Ville-Marie highway and its access roads. Lambert succeeded in salvaging the house by purchasing it under a promoter keen on razing it, and donating it and the surrounding land for the establishment of the CCA, which she directed from its foundation in 1979 until her retirement in 1999.
Inaugurated in 1989, the building designed by Peter Rose is inspired by the Second Empire Shaughnessy villa, respecting its proportions and reinterpreting its decorative elements. The resulting unusual combination of classical elements and modernism eludes its classification into a strict architectural style, a clever nod to the ambition of the CCA, which aims to document all historical and current architecture practices equally. Two subterranean levels provide climate-controlled storage space for the Centre’s vast archives. A half-buried ground floor serves all service and administrative functions, while the double-height space above it, matching the height and proportions of the villa, welcomes the museum and the library.
The CCA’s classical references surface in the organization of the library, around a reading room surrounded by a mezzanine. Blocks of shelves pierced by narrow corridors delineate the other areas of the library, as well as a series of small cubicles for individual work, each equipped with a lockable cabinet in which researchers can store their materials during long study sessions. The rooms are well lit by generous windows, complemented in the main reading room by a series of light wells. The combination of maple, sandstone and aluminum elements provide a warm and comfortable atmosphere.
Started from Phillys Lambert’s own private collection, the CCA now holds a large corpus of plans, drawings, photographs, architectural models, the archives (print and digital) of architects, urbanists, engineers and artists, and a library collection. The latter includes over 250,000 publications, including 5,000 periodicals, of which 500 are active subscriptions. Again reflecting the CCA’s universal ambitions, the library collection includes both foundational texts from the Renaissance, including a rare 17th century copy of a treaty by Sebastiano Serlio annotated by Inigo Jones, an unprecedented collection of technical catalogues from the 19th and 20th century, eastern European Constructivist and avant-garde journals and essays, and the personal libraries of major Canadian and international architects.
I try to fit in a visit to the CCA whenever I find myself in Montreal, both to visit its rotating exhibitions and to consult documents from their impressive collection. The museum is of course open to the public (for a fee). The library is also publicly accessible, although advance reservation is required.
The images shown here date from my visit in April 2022. I am grateful to the library staff for their welcome.
Library detail pages are primarily a place for me to collect information I gather on the libraries I visit, and are frequently updated. None of this should be considered authoritative, I am not an architect, nor a historian. If you notice something incorrect, please let me know!