City Dreamers: Pioneering Female Architects Recall Smashing (Then Rebuilding) Glass Ceiling

By Kim Hughes

Rating: B+

City Dreamers chronicles four remarkable women who, when not dramatically reimagining 20th century architecture and landscape design, were busy battling entrenched sexism that aggressively excluded women from business and academia.

Cornelia Hahn Oberlander… smarter than you at age 97.

Cornelia Hahn Oberlander… smarter than you at age 97.

At least until these four came along. Each independently tore up the floorboards of the system while overseeing such monuments as Expo 67, NYC’s Seagram Building and the National Gallery of Canada, to name just three, often working alongside (sometimes buoying) masters like Mies van der Rohe and Louis Kahn.

The social, political, scholastic, even economic accomplishments of Phyllis Lambert (now 92), Cornelia Hahn Oberlander (97), Denise Scott Brown (age 87) and Blanche Lemco van Ginkel (age 95) can’t be overstated, except maybe by them which is part of the film’s saucy appeal. As this sentimental documentary shows, all four shared a burning sense of purpose even though each came from very different backgrounds, propelled by very different visions.

The women — still sharp as tacks, by the way and, in the case of Blanche Lemco van Ginkel, cheekily hilarious — are interviewed extensively on camera, with archival footage and lots of still images giving director Joseph Hillel’s film great heft in illustrating how urban environments across the planet were transformed, often with the women’s femaleness bringing a unique sensibility to bear, at least once they got a foot in the door.

Well, sort of. Each were giant brainiacs, formally trained and often championed by key players or spouses working in the field, or in the case of Phyllis Lambert (née Bronfman) lifted by enormous family wealth. It was still a slog. Women, we discover, were not even permitted into the engineering building at McGill University until they entered via the architecture program. Their ideas were questioned endlessly, sometimes mockingly, when they were considered at all.

As a testament to perseverance and tenacity, City Dreamers is unbeatable. As entertainment, it’s solid if not superb. There is a lot of talking-head stuff to follow. And where do the women sit on the spectrum of broader architectural achievements: was Blanche Lemco van Ginkel as vital to Montreal as, say, Antoni Gaudí to Barcelona? The unrelenting female focus comes at the expense of broader context.

Still, small quibbles. With accomplishments this towering, City Dreamers is empowerment on screen.

City Dreamers. Directed by Joseph Hillel. With Phyllis Lambert, Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, Denise Scott Brown, and Blanche Lemco van Ginkel. Opens May 17 at Toronto’s Imagine Carlton Cinemas.