Film review: City Dreamers

Phyllis Lambert trained as an architect and played a pivotal role in securing Mies van der Rohe’s commission for the Seagram Building in New York City. Photo by Ron Milewski 1971, courtesy CCA – Fonds Phyllis Lambert

A young Phyllis Lambert sits at the centre of a room filled from wall to wall with older men. Lambert has forcefully convinced her father to choose Ludwig Mies van der Rohe as architect for the Seagram Building. She gazes directly at the camera—professional, poised, and in control.

This remarkable still from City Dreamers captures the intense drive that characterizes four of the most decorated women in architecture and landscape architecture in North America: Phyllis Lambert, Denise Scott Brown, Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, and Blanche Lemco van Ginkel.

The film is an exploration of the nature of cities through these women’s eyes. It unfolds as a series of conversations with them, punctuated by rich visual meditations on the life of a city and imagery from their homes in Montreal, Vancouver, Philadelphia and Toronto. The filmmaker Joseph Hillel lets them tell their own stories, supporting their narration with architectural drawings and models. Archival footage stitches together time periods; stills, interviews, and film clips give depth to their long careers and lives.

Lambert, founder of the Canadian Centre for Architecture, recalls breaking free of a stifling Montreal childhood in which “tout était pour les garçons”—everything was for the boys. In contrast, Scott Brown asks, “What are all these men doing here?” when she starts architecture school in South Africa. Her own mother was an architect, so she expected the profession to be dominated by women.

Both Scott Brown and Lambert have been prolific photographers, and extensive use of their photography underscores the importance of observation as a cornerstone of their work. Most notably, a philosophy of examining the overlooked with “wayward eyes” guided Scott Brown and partner Robert Venturi to develop the critical study Learning from Las Vegas.

We trace Lemco van Ginkel’s participation in the discourse of cities from her involvement with Team 10 and CIAM through to her appointment as dean of the faculty of architecture at the University of Toronto; she was the first woman in Canada to hold such a position.

She muses on the mixed success of her efforts to save Old Montreal from a new expressway. While these actions preserved the historical city, she disdains the “fashionable” era of historic preservation which followed: “one has to know what is really valuable… and what ought to change.”

Hahn Oberlander’s work is shown through her vivid drawings and illuminating tours through Robson Square and the Museum of Anthropology. Adapting the visual tools of architecture to film, Hillel shows the Vancouver skyline growing in the 50 years from 1969 to today, underscoring the value of Oberlander’s lifelong advocacy for green space in planning.

In the end, what is a city? We are left with nuanced ideas about heritage, the complexities of empowering the under-represented, the tension between public benefit and money. Context, community, and observation are powerful themes which resonate throughout each practitioner’s work.

We are shown hints of missed opportunities—Lemco van Ginkel was barred from a scholarship at Harvard only open to men, and Scott Brown did not share in the Pritzker Prize that went to her partner—but the film is, at its heart, a celebration of these women’s tremendous accomplishments. It is a film about listening. Carefully researched, deep with archival imagery, it deftly uses the language of architecture to tell a story about the cities that surround us and the women who wrought them.

Researcher, writer and editor Jocelyn Lambert Squires manages communications and marketing at Brook McIlroy.

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