“What are all these men doing here? What do they think they are doing in architecture?” Addressing the camera, Denise Scott Brown recalls starting architecture school with steely bravado, certain in the knowledge of entering a “women’s profession.” It’s an invigorating perspective, and one that carries through the entirety of Joseph Hillel’s City Dreamers, a new Canadian documentary – premiering in Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto – that chronicles the groundbreaking achievements of Scott Brown, Phyllis Lambert, Cornelia Hahn Oberlander and Blanche Lemco van Ginkel.
Intimate conversations with the four women at their homes in Philadelphia, Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal form the heart of the film. Hillel’s interviews trace decades of history, reaching back to take in the impressive and varied scope of each woman’s career. City Dreamers celebrates their achievements, which become even more impressive as the film lays bare the adversity they all faced.
Lemco van Ginkel became one of McGill University’s first female architecture students in 1940 – the first year women were admitted to the program. Similarly, Hahn Oberlander was in the first class of women to graduate from Harvard’s landscape architecture program in 1947.
Working in partnership with her husband, Robert Venturi, Scott Brown rarely received an equal share of acclaim; most notably, she was not co-awarded the 1991 Pritzker Architecture Prize with her spouse. For Lambert, leading the preservation movement for Montreal’s Milton Parc neighbourhood in the 1970s meant challenging the city’s male power structure – and overcoming it.
But the four women outlasted their adversaries. Today, Hahn Oberlander is 97, Lemco van Ginkel is 95, Lambert is 92, and Scott Brown is 87. Catching up with its subjects in advanced age, the film is also a paean to the grace of aging. But this is no mere retrospective. Hillel’s chronicle of the past is certainly inspiring, and so is seeing these four giants of architecture still designing, writing, curating, challenging the status quo – and still dreaming of the future.
City Dreamers premiers in Montreal on May 9, in Vancouver on May 11, and in Toronto on May 17. A full list of screenings is available via the film’s official website.