Photographing Montreal’s historic greystone buildings

Phyllis Lambert, right, tours the exhibit, Greystone: Tools for Understanding the City, with Francesco Guratti, the Canadian Centre for Architecture’s curator of contemporary architecture. ANTOINE SAITO PHOTO

From 1973 to 1974, Phyllis Lambert and her colleague, Richard Pare, went on an expedition through Montreal neighbourhoods. Their goal was to visually document buildings made of greystone.

Little did they realize that the photography project would be the catalyst for Lambert’s pioneering campaign to preserve the city’s heritage – one that continues more than four decades later.

A rare public exhibition of some of those photos, entitled Greystone: Tools for Understanding the City, is on at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) until March 4.

Lambert’s deep attachment to those buildings all these years later was evident as she described their individual features, which were captured in the black-and-white pictures, during the show’s opening on Oct. 12.

Lambert lived in Chicago for a number of years, where she studied at the Illinois Institute of Technology and established a socially engaged career in architecture. On her trips back home, Lambert began to look with fresh eyes at the ubiquitous limestone extracted from the soil of her native city, and the varying ways it has been used in construction over time.

She had always been especially interested in the construction side of design, how materials were put together and their impact on the urban landscape. Montreal’s remaining greystones, which date from the late 17th to the early 20th century and can be found throughout the city, seemed like an interesting field study. They ranged from humble row houses and utilitarian warehouses, to soaring cathedrals and imposing mansions.


They may be iconic today, but when Lambert and Pare set out, they were pretty much taken for granted, and many were in danger of demolition.

Montreal has the greatest number and concentration of stone buildings in the world and, unlike Paris and Jerusalem, where buildings are only faced with local stone, many of the buildings in Montreal are made of a single material, Lambert pointed out.

The greystone, which was quarried at various sites on the Island of Montreal, was originally a pragmatic choice, as the extremely hard rock provided protection against cold, fire and attack. But by the 19th century, the stone had taken on a more symbolic value, becoming a marker of status and cultural identity.

To Lambert’s keen eye, the way the stone is cut and laid, as well as a building’s location, tells a lot about, not only the growth of the city, but the builders’ and owners’ ethnic, religious, economic and even political characteristics: French and English masonry and tastes are quite distinct.

These are, indeed, les pierres qui parlent (the stones that speak).

The photographic mission gave rise to a groundbreaking research project, which was led by Lambert and intended to give Montrealers a greater appreciation of the treasures in their midst.

The historic greystone Shaughnessy House building, which houses the Canadian Centre for Architecture. STÉPHANE BATIGNE PHOTO

It propelled Lambert to move back to her home town, where she initiated the urban conservation movement and became one of its most outspoken activists.

She founded Héritage Montréal in 1975 and, four years later, the CCA. She saved and restored the historic Shaughnessy House, integrating it into the CCA’s international research centre and museum, which opened in 1989. Since its inception, the CCA has promoted public understanding and debate on the role of architecture in society, as well as nurtured scholarly endeavours.

At 90, Lambert remains its founding director emeritus.

She recalled that she and Pare conducted their expedition in the winter, trudging through the snow throughout the day. They fanned out from Old Montreal, north to the faubourgs – St-Laurent, St-Louis and St-Jacques – and further out into the suburbs.

They had only a map from 1890 at their disposal, as relevant archives were simply not accessible like they are today.

The exhibition, which is in the Octagonal Gallery, is enhanced by maps that illustrate the buildings’ dates, architects, owners and occupants, as well as patterns of settlement.

Lambert and her team sourced primary documents, such as municipal tax rolls, cadastral plans, notarial records and insurance documents to produce this social history.

Pare, who was a young recent graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago when he joined Lambert’s photographic mission, went on to become the curator of Seagram’s photography collection from 1974 to 1984 and then became the founding curator of the photography collection at the CCA.