March 1, 2021
City Dreamers, a new documentary from Canadian director Joseph Hillel (Regular or Super, 2004), chronicles the lives — and highlights the underappreciated contributions — of four visionary, international urbanists: Denise Scott Brown, the American architect, planner, and principal of Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates in Philadelphia; Phyllis Lambert, the Canadian architect, philanthropist, and founder of the Canadian Centre for Architecture; Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, the German-Canadian landscape architect and planner who worked on a number of high-profile public building and green space projects in Canada and the U.S.; and Blanche Lemco van Ginkel, British-Canadian architect and city planner known for leading Old Montreal preservation efforts.
Although they worked in different places (Berlin, Montreal, New York, South Africa), confronted different urban problems (housing, downtown development, historic preservation, open space), and employed a wide range of different skills and techniques (photography, landscape design, architecture, politics, scholarship), one key thread connects these unique individuals: They were all women working in the mid-20th century in a field dominated, at least publicly, by men.
That said, despite its outward appearance, the film isn't just A League of Their Own for architects and planners.
True, the underlying story has been told many times before. You'll recognize at once the slow pans across grainy graduation photos as you search for that lone woman; you'll share the outrage over a generation's worth of misplaced — or stolen — credit; you'll wince at the recounting of dismissive comments and entire lifetimes spent dealing with daily microagressions, long before we even knew to call them that.
But the tale bears repeating — and repeating. For one thing, despite making movies and sharing hashtags, we still have far to go toward gender equity in the planning and design fields.
But equally important, as the images wash past and you reflect on these four similar but distinct stories, you begin to understand that words like "unique" and "visionary" really mean something in this context. Despite the commonalities of their experiences and the shared qualities of vibrancy and brilliance exhibited by all four women, the film makes clear that each of these individuals charted her own course to deal with adversity: fighting, collaborating, laughing it off, looking for — and finding — inspiration and success in an unconventional, heterodox direction. The resulting tableaux provides a veritable life lesson in resilience: a toolbox full of grit, creativity, courage, humor, and determination.
A documentary on the lives of four different people should not be the same as four short biographies spliced together, and that's where Hillel's skill really shines. Using the light-touch characteristic of a confident director — no clunky juxtapositions or insultingly-obvious "hit-you-over-the-head" parallels — he weaves the narratives elegantly together with just enough care and symmetry to allow us to make our own connections.
Hillel dutifully includes plenty of archival material, including ample cameo appearances for the traditional game of stargazing Where's Waldo. ("With those glasses, it must be Corbu," "Look: the Seagram Building...!" "Is that maybe Louis Kahn...?") By masterfully combining it with more present-day interviews with the four subjects, we are subtly encouraged to reflect on this long arc of over 60 years of change (or lack thereof) in the field.
And marking the passage of time allows the film to make one last point. While the focus of the story may be uncovering the past, equally important is the value of actually seeing the present through a series of deep and thoughtful interviews. Beyond settings in the subjects' stunningly designed offices and homes, these scenes become all the more striking when one notes how rare it is to see elderly women on screen at all. (The ages of the four range from 87 all the way up to 97 years old, remarkable in its own right.)
A lesser filmmaker might have inadvertently rehidden these figures, using the recorded interviews as voiceover for the archival footage, thereby preserving a sense of "youthful vigor" found in the profiles — but to the detriment of the overall message. Hillel avoids this pitfall; indeed, his camera seems to delight in the mundane outward signs of aging: the slow steps, the gray hairs, the memory lapses, the common (and understandable!) frustration with the latest technology. All are important parts of the still-unfolding story.
As with Antony's Cleopatra, "Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety." So, too, do we find these four "grand dames" to be as vibrant, changing, and ready for whatever is to come as they were in the last century.
City Dreamers is available to rent or purchase on Amazon Prime.