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The woman behind New York’s Seagram Building honoured in Venice

The Canadian philanthropist Phyllis Lambert has been awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Architecture Biennale

Philip Johnson, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Phyllis Lambert in front of a model for the Seagram building, New York, 1955. Photo: Fonds Phyllis Lambert, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal © United Press International

The philanthropist and founder of the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Phyllis Lambert, has been awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the 14th Venice Architecture Biennale.

“Not as an architect, but as a client and custodian, Phyllis Lambert has made a huge contribution to architecture,” says Rem Koolhaas, the curator of this year’s biennale exhibition. “Without her participation, one of the few realisations in the 20th century of perfection on earth—the Seagram Building in New York—would not have happened.” Working with the architect Philip Johnson, Lambert hired Mies van der Rohe in 1954 to design the International style skyscraper that would serve as the Manhattan headquarters for her father’s distilling empire. She also commissioned the painter Mark Rothko to create a series of murals for the building’s Four Seasons Restaurant, although in the end the Abstract Expressionist refused to install the works in the luxury dining rooms and returned his cash advance.

Perhaps as a sign that the biennale board is making an effort to expand the scope of the exhibition, the prize jury is vastly more diverse than in previous editions. It includes the Nigerian architect, Kunlé Adeyemi; Unesco’s assistant director-general for culture, Francesco Bandari; the Dutch documentary film-maker, Bregtje van der Haak; the Chinese curator and artistic director of Rome’s Maxxi Museum, Hou Hanru; and Mitra Khoubrou, the director of the Dubai-based strategic consultancy Pink Tank.

Lambert will be officially awarded the prize on Saturday 7 June at the Giardini in Venice during the Biennale’s opening ceremony.

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