The Canadian Centre for Architecture: Phyllis Lambert’s magnum opus: expanding categories, moving boundaries (1989)

© Lars Lerup, Interior perspective for the Nofamily House showing “Traps”, January 3, 1980. Canadian Centre for Architecture.
Graham, Robert. (1989). The Canadian Centre for Architecture: Phyllis Lambert's magnum opus: expanding categories, moving boundaries. Parachute, 54, pp. 38-42. Retrieved from

…the collector’s passion, which, in truth, is one of the most deeply seated of all passions, rivaling the very vanity of the author…
Honoré de Balzac 1

As a character in the modern era, the collector is a mostly abused type. Widely dismissed psychologi­cally as anal retentive, in terms of political economy portrayed as a hoarder and perhaps a manipulator of values, and in the circuit of creative production seen as the parasitic terminal figure who swallows all and returns no more than a belch. 2

Yet there is precedence for considering the collec­tor of art or art historical material as providing a positive contribution to re-understandings of the past. Literary critic Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) and art historian Aby Warburg (1866-1929) were both scholars whose collecting interests shaped their writings and directed their historical pursuits. There is enough similarity and overlap in their positions on collecting, and in the effect the interest had on their scholarship, that we can conjoin them as representing one approach in describing how collections can con­ struct. And this conjunction is not entirely arbitrary : “It is the Aby Warburg group, first in Germany and later at the Warburg Institute in London, which would have afforded Benjamin a genuine intellectual, psy­chological home … an invitation to London might have averted his early death.”3

The Canadian Centre for Architecture, founded by the architect, historian and preservational activist Phyllis Lambert in 1979, is a collection bound enter­prise which displays a pattern of formation that can be read in terms of the kind of interpretation that Benjamin and Warburg suggest. The issues ofWestern thought have not changed so very much since their day, as to make their work irrelevant in guiding us through a contemporary institution.

Both men were born under conditions which of­fered the option of becoming collectors. When he was thirteen years old, Warburg traded his patrimony in the family banking firm with his brother, in ex­change for a promise that he would always be able to buy all the books he wanted. Benjamin’s father was a wealthy art dealer and antiquarian, and Benjamin experienced his home as both a treasure trove and a mausoleum. For him, the plenty of accumulation always held out the threat to bury him; his famous phrase concerning “the burden of history” can be understood as marking a force he felt almost physi­cally. As an adult he became a collector of books — first editions, children’s stories, baroque emblem books — and his essay, Unpacking My Library (1931), is a memoir of his life as a collector. His essay on the nineteenth century writer and editor, Eduard Fuchs: Collector and Historian (1937), is the pri­mary statement of his thoughts on collecting.

Warburg’s library of art and culture and the history of ideas developed through several stages : from per­sonal passion, to “indispensable tool of my trade,” to finally becoming an Institute of lasting value and public interest. His writings, so often incomplete, are a less successful legacy of his life than his library and what it has engendered.

While Benjamin and Warburg were the successors of the great nineteenth century historians of civiliza­tion and cultural history, their, respectively, historical and psychological “epistemologies of images” 4 sought to counter-effect the taxonomic positivism and extreme inductivism of those earlier efforts. The mass of data gathered by a figure such as Karl Lamprecht, who was a teacher ofWarburg’s, is refuted by Benjamin for missing, if you wish, its instructions for use. “For cultural history lacks the destructive ele­ment which authenticates both dialectical thought and the experience of the dialectical thinker. Cultural history, to be sure, enlarges the weight of the treasure which accumulates on the back of humanity. Yet cul­tural history does not provide the strength to shake off this burden in order to be able to take control of it.” 5 Warburg would not have considered the problem to be one of mastery, yet he would still have insisted on the necessity of marrying historical facts to theory. While theory at this time needs no defense, what is instructive in Benjamin and Warburg is the traffic they maintained between the two domains of information and ideas. Benjamin: “Fuchs the collector taught Fuchs the theoretician to comprehend much that was barred to him by his time.”6 And as was said of Warburg, “In his work the scholar always directed the librarian and the librarian paid back to the scholar what he had received.”7

As an instrument of retrieval, the collection organ­izes material into categorical fields. The innovative collector both expands the categories and moves the boundaries. For Benjamin, when Fuchs encompassed the alien genres of caricature and pornography into the domain of his collection he was breaking with a classicist conception of art and beauty which could not contain such disharmonious work. “The great collectors distinguish themselves mostly by the ori­ginality of their choice of subject matter.” 8 Warburg, for instance, “systematically extended the range of the Library as a research instrument to include the history of cosmology — a field not then represented in the ordinary academic curriculum.”9 And these expansions do not simply add more divisions, but require that established areas of relevancy and cate­gorical fields be re-examined. The tools employed in such work are the catalogue and the bibliography and it was an aspect of Warburg’s lifetime activity to be constantly re-composing his bibliographies, just as he shaped and re-shaped his library, into ever richer and more suggestive combinations. In her essay on Benja­min, Susan Sontag quotes a description of his library by his friend Gershom Scholem, “The great works which meant so much to him were placed in bizarre patterns next to the most out-of-the-way writings and oddities.” She continues, “The odd arrangement of the library is like the strategy of Benjamin’s work, in which a Surrealist-inspired eye for the treasures of meaning in the ephemeral, discredited, and neglected worked in tandem with his loyalty to the traditional canon of learned taste.”10The rehabilitation of“scorn­ ed, apocryphal matters” 11 and the churning up of “individual facts which had been unknown before,”12 bring fresh vigour to even the most exhausted of canons.

The critical function of private collections is that they attend to what the public institutions cannot or will not. “The collector’s passion is his divining rod and turns him into a finder of new sources.”13 War­burg spoke of the historian as a “seismograph” and the library as a “receiving station” for monitoring cultural change.14 What particularly strengthens the opposi­tion of private collectors is their stubborn resistance to the professionalization of their activity. “Fuchs … was not meant to be a scholar… His efforts constantly projected beyond the limits which confine the hori­zon of the researcher.”15 “While in Florence [War­burg’s] reputation grew to such an extent that he was offered professorships at several universities. He invariably refused them … Always he shunned official posts and all that officialdom implied.”16

For the person who is concernerd with works of art in a histori­cally dialectical mode, these works integrate their pre- as well as post-history; and it is their post-history which illuminates their pre­ history as a continuous process of change. Works of art teach that person how their function outlives their creator and how his inten­tions are left behind. They demonstrate how the reception of the work by its contemporaries becomes a component of the effect which a work has upon us today. They further show that this effect does not rest in an encounter with the work of art alone but in an encounter with the history which has allowed the work to come down to our own age. 17

For both Benjamin and Warburg the past was made complex by their understanding of the dynamic and shifting nature of meaning. Correspondences and compatibilities brought together apparently dissimi­lar phenomena as being equivalent or linked in inter­pretation. Symbols and tokens, meanwhile, demon­strated a bi-polar quality in which their meanings at different times were quite capable of reversal. “In times of decadence erotic caricature becomes ‘tick­ling piquanterie’ or ‘filth’ while in times of ascen­dency it ‘expresses super-abundant pleasure and exuberant strength.’”18 “The fact that every image seemed charged with conflicting and contradictory forces, that the same ‘pathos formula’ spelt ‘liberation’ in one respect and ‘degradation’ in another, made it most difficult for Warburg to present the complexity of his historical view in discursive language.”19

Faced with this difficulty in common, they both responded by coming to rely on fragments and mon­tage. As part of his Arcades Project, Benjamin left some methodological notes:

This work must raise to the very highest level the art of quoting without quotation marks … Method of this work: literary montage. I need say nothing. Only show. I won’t steal anything valuable or appropriate any witty turns of phrase. But the trivia, the trash : this, I don’t want to take stock of, but to let it come into its own in the only way possible : use it. 20

Readers of Benjamin’s Charles Baudelaire: a Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism might recognize in this statement of intention the figure of the ragpicker, but more than that, the hodge-podge of quotes and references which Benjamin collected and wove together in his montage tapestry.

Warburg’s difficulty in achieving an appropriate means of expression for the full dimension of his vision of the social memory led to a paralysis and a suspension of his writing. In 1927 Fritz Saxl presented Warburg with the first, of what would become many, canvas covered panels for pinning photographs on, so as to help Warburg organize his pictorial material. Warburg grabbed onto this device and began his last project, called Mnemosyne, a “picture atlas” of images mounted on screens. By the time of his death there were forty panels covered with nearly a thou­ sand pictures of not only established art works, but also including images from stamps and currency notes, newsphotos, advertising, medieval ephemera, etc., displaying the pertinacity of certain traditional motifs and concepts. As with his bibliographies, War­

burg could re-arrange the imagery to highlight in his lectures new comparisons, similarities, conflicts and juxtapositions. Warburg was not able to take the lessons he had learned from his collection and trans­mit them in finished narrative form. What he pro­duced in his work were the intiating ideas for others to develop, and it remained for his Institute and its library to provide the conditions for them to do so.

© Melvin Charney, South-west View of the Scale Model of the Garden-Sculpture, created for the Canadian Centre for Architecture, 1987


The collector … is, in my opinion, an artist — au carré. He selects paintings and puts them on his wall; in others words, “he paints himself a collection.”
Marcel Duchamp 22

The Canadian Centre for Architecture is sche­duled to open its new Montreal quarters this spring. Initially formed by Phyllis Lambert upon the base of her collection of documents and photographs, it continues to be supported and directed by her and its holdings at recent count have grown to include 20,000 prints and drawings, 45,000 photographs and 125,000 books and periodicals. The sheer weight of this accumulation, its gravitational pull, determines

the course of the Centre as an academic enterprise. Visiting scholars, resident researchers and its own curatorial staff will moil this resource to produce exhibitions and publications.

The purpose of the Centre is to “help establish architecture as a public concern,” by promoting architectural literacy so as to enable “us to under­ stand, enjoy and cherish the built environment.”23 In the face of heedless development, destructive of the past, it was considered necessary to arm public dis­ course with appropriate conceptual tools and histori­cal referents. Deep connoisseurship would attach detailed factual knowledge to urban sites and give to their “anonymous history” a familiarity and some names. People tend to be more protective towards buildings which have stories about them.

As the daughter of Seagram distillery founder Sam Bronfman, Lambert is a famously rich woman. The independence with which the wealthy can employ their resources always leaves open the possibility that the very individuality of their authority might be considered self-indulgent. Lambert is too serious a person to want to risk appearing ridiculous. Despite its originating source in one individual and its institu­tional independence (the Board considered affiliat­ing the Centre with an established museum, govern­ mental or university body, but decided against it), the CCA that Lambert has created is a professionally organized, even bureaucratic, entity. The careful deli­beration of its several committees and related boards gives procedural legitimacy and justification to the Centre’s decisions and the determination of its methods and goals.

The organization of Warburg’s collection was pur­posefully designed to orient the user towards cross- disciplinary approaches. The indiscriminate and ency­clopedic public collections of record must try to have a bit of everything. The private collection can afford a focus which guides its selection criteria and delin­eates the borders of what is considered appropriate. Implicit in this process is a theory of knowledge, a set of standards which enforce the value of the items in the collection as evidential facts, as parts to the collec­tion’s whole. The collection’s perspective establishes what should be included, but also what it is content to leave out. 24

In terms of Duchamp’s remark, a true collection draws a picture. The CCA’s collection and program constitute a certain vision of architecture and of how architecture transmits and is transmitted. As a museum of architectural representations, the CCA and its collection compose a representation of those representations. The photographs, like the prints and drawings, serve as data and evidence of the built environment. But the collection also fosters the idea that the documents themselves should be a field of study. “By emphasizing photographic quality in an architectural collection it has established architec­tural representation as a major area in the history of photography.”25 And it has only been recently that architectural prints and drawings have become sought after as collectibles and isolated for scholarly research.

In a similar way, the library serves doubly as a source for a broad record of Western architectural thought, but also, in its variorum editions of certain texts and, in some cases, the identifying inscription of a book’s owners, it provides ways of tracing the paths of transmission, reception and influence of architec­tural concepts.

The archives department contains the “written and graphic records related to the practice of an individual architect or firm,”26 and provides a way of “looking over the shoulder” of an architect at work. As part of the general rhetorical program of overcoming the perception of architecture as anonymous, this focus of research relies upon and promotes the cult of the architect as creative hero.

One aspect of the Centre’s program is to develop ways of organizing and cataloguing such diverse and dominantly visual material, especially when using newly available computer technology. 27

The CCA’s approach can be illustrated by its asso­ciation with the Getty Art History Information Pro­gram and its Art & Architecture Thesaurus (AAT) program. The purpose of the AAT project is to stan­dardize identificatory and descriptive art termino­logy and to establish conceptual and categorical hier­archies so as to organize the entire realm of visual artifacts for retrieval from a computer database. Be­sides being a test user of the AAT, the CCA has also prepared a preliminary study for translating a section of the architectural material into French for an international version of the AAT, the Thesaurus Artis Universalis.

Applied to the humanities, the employment of computers and database software represents the industrialization of Geist. Computer technology and programs were designed by engineers to solve an engineer’s notion of what a problem is. Computer inspired models of description, like Chaos theory, are based on the banausic claim that given enough accu­rate data computers can explain any situation and increase predictive capability.

If you know what you are looking for, a database is an admirable “finding aid” for locating particular archival material. But compare this to Warburg’s “Law of the good neighbour.” “The book which one knew was in most cases not the book which one needed. The unknown neighbour on the shelf contained this vital information, although from its title one might not have guessed this. The overriding idea was that the books together … assembled and grouped … expressed the thought of mankind in its constant and changing aspects.”28 Creative research requires the same kind of indeterminate browsing and scanning that occurs in imaginative construction. Because its holdings have substantial financial value (which has probably increased because of the CCA’s own pur­chasing activity) and are often frail, the Centre has wrapped its collection in a high-tech cocoon of secur­ity. Whether or not, and to what effect, these protec­tive devices will bar the kind of casual wandering that Warburg would have considered crucial, remains to be seen.

Yet despite the academic and bureaucratic tenor of the organization and the mechanistic model of archival knowledge, there are signs that Lambert is also bringing to the formative scope of the CCA some of that beneficial passion of the collector. Against the explicit orthodoxy of her historical narratives of the site, architects’ career biographies and the traceable lineages of stylistic influences, she has also smuggled in, in a kind of salutary perversity, an opposing episte­mology of the fragment. This undercutting of her own position is implicitly indicated in her long-time cham­pioning of Melvin Charney and the commission given to him to build a sculpture garden for the Centre, as well as in the surprising choice of a book of projects by Lars Lerup called Planned Assaults as one of the Centre’s earliest publications. For both of these artist/ architects are learned subversives who fracture the language of architecture and build “stairs that lead nowhere.”29 In terms of the normative picture of architecture that the CCA draws, these two occupy a contrarian position and their inclusion marks a pos­sible opening for a more fully dialectical understand­ing of architectural activity.

In just a brief period of time, Lambert has con­structed an original and novel collection and a world- class institution. The question is whether the CCA will provide the kind of necessary re-orientation of the historical account that Warburg’s Institute has (especially in its rehabilitation of Medieval thought), or if it will simply reproduce the understandings we already have. Lambert has, on at least two occasions in her writing, quoted, with apparent favour, the nineteenth century French photographer Charles Nègre : “Each generation has left a visible trail of its passage across the face of the earth — such as reli­gious monuments, public or private — and it is through the study of these monuments that, today, we may form an exact idea of the various civilizations.” Besides demonstrating the hubris of nineteenth cen­tury positivism, that the study of monuments can provide “an exact idea of… civilization,” such a pro­ gram as Nègre’s would only confirm, in Benjamin’s terms, the chronicle of the victors. Lambert’s “munici­palism” (a combination of art, activism, architecture, urban studies, history and law) has tremendous po­tential to correct the mass media model of consumer society. Analysing the street corner, neighbourhood and city as physical sites of an historical narrative both symbolic and materialist serves to remedy the disembodiment of electronic communications. Vis­ually oriented studies collapse existence into mere sight. As physical beings we move in passages, bet­ ween walls and under roofs, and in real time. Yes, the other senses must be acknowledged, but they alone are also not enough. To study architecture is to study the grounds of our habitation, to attempt to exper­ience the full tremor of Heidegger’s question, “What is it to dwell ?” For, “Only if we are capable of dwel­ling, only then can we build.” 30


1. Honoré de Balzac, Cousin Pons (New York: The Century Co., 1908), p. 31.

2. Pierre Cabanne’s preface to his The Great Collectors (London: Cassell & Co., 1963) is a strained apology for those afflicted with the “fever,” possessed by the need to possess.

3. George Steiner, Introduction to Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, tr. John Osborne (London: NLB, 1977), p. 19.

4. F. Gary Smith, “The Images of Philosophy : Editor’s Introduc­tion,” The Philosophical Forum, Vol. XV, Nos. 1-2, Fall-Winter 1983-84, p. iii.

5. Walter Benjamin, “Eduard Fuchs : Collector and Historian,” New German Critique, No. 5, Spring 1973, p. 36.

6. Ibid., p. 36.

7. Fritz Saxl, “The History of Warburg’s Library,” in E.H. Gombrich, Aby Warburg: An Intellectual Biography (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2nd ed„ 1986), p. 334.

8. Benjamin, op. cit., p. 56.

9. Gombrich, op. cit., p. 203.

10. Susan Sontag, Under the Sign of Saturn (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1980), p. 121.

11. Benjamin, op. cit., p. 58.

12. In a moment of self-doubt Warburg once said of himself, “Of those general ideas to which I attach such importance, it will perhaps be said or thought one day that there was at least one good thing in these erroneous schematics, that they excited him sufficiently to churn up individual facts which had been unknown before.” Gombrich, op. cit., p. 305.

13. Benjamin, op. cit., p. 55.

14. Gombrich, op. cit., pp. 254 and 281.

15. Benjamin, op. cit., p. 30.

16. David Farrer, The Warburgs: The Story of a Family (New York: Stein and Day, 1975), p. 127.

17. Benjamin, op. cit., p. 28.

18. Ibid., p. 4L

19. Gombrich, op. cit., p. 285.

20. Walter Benjamin, “N [Theoretics of Knowledge; Theory of Pro­gress],” The Philosophical Forum, Vol. XV, Nos. 1-2, Fall – Winter 1983-84, pp. 3 and 5.

21. “Hypertext” is not some postmodernist expression but the name of a type of computer software which helps users rapidly find particular facts from a large store of data. All of the informa­tion is organized as branches in a series of categories, sub­ categories, etc., so that as the searcher responds at each decision point, a path is created from the general to the increasingly specific. Like the parlour game “Twenty Questions,” hypertext can isolate any individual item and cut through a mass of possibi­lities by lopping off all non-pertinent material quickly and easily.

22. Abstract of the Proceedings of the Western Round Table on Modern Art (San Francisco: San Francisco Art Association, 1949), p. 66.

23. Phyllis Lambert, Foreword to Canadian Centre for Architectu­re: the first five years, 1979-1984 (Montréal: Canadian Centre for Architecture, 1988), p. 109.

24. “To observe, then, is to be content with seeing — with seeing a few things systematically. With seeing what, in the rather confu­sed wealth of representation, can be analysed, recognized by all, and thus given a name that everyone will be able to understand.” Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (New York: Vintage Books, 1973), p. 134.

25. Canadian Centre for Architecture: the first five years, 1979- 1984, p. 122.

26. Ibid., p. 120.

27. Question for speculative discussion : what would Benjamin, the author of “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduc­tion” and “The Author as Producer,” have had to say about personal computers?

28. Saxl, op. cit., p. 327.

29. Lars Lerup, Planned Assaults (Montréal: Canadian Centre for Architecture, 1987), p. 55.

30. Martin Heidegger, “Building Dwelling Thinking,” in Basic Wri­tings, ed. D.F. Krell (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), p. 338.

Robert Graham is an art critic living in Montreal.