Film Reviews

Designed by Women

‘City Dreamers’ pays tribute to unsung women in architecture and urban design


City Dreamers
(Canada, 80 min.)
Dir. Joseph Hillel

Audiences who stood shoulder to shoulder with Jane Jacobs in the rousing documentary Citizen Jane need to see City Dreamers. The film pays tribute to women who shape cities and improve urban environments for their fellow citizens. Director Joseph Hillel gives credit long overdue to urban architects Phyllis Lambert, Blanche Lemco van Ginkel, Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, and Denise Scott Brown in this brisk portrait that offers yet another essay on the unsung women who made significant contributions in a field traditionally dominated by men. It’s depressing how often one has to write these kind of opening paragraphs while reviewing documentaries, but City Dreamers is another welcome reminder of the need to demand parity, diversity, and inclusion in the workplace in order to foster discussions from a variety of perspectives.

Hillel offers new interviews with the four architects and each woman shares her story about defying convention at a time when too few career opportunities were afforded to women. Elements of their tales are practically interchangeable as they speak of being one of three or so women in their class, or of seeing a male colleague of lesser standing land a scholarship because women were ineligible, or of being asked to step outside a group shot because a photographer simply assumed a woman couldn’t be an architect. It’s the same story one hears now in the film industry where women at meetings or parties are still incorrectly assumed to be girlfriends or assistants, rather than directors, programmers, or critics. However, the quartet shares how their hard work and critical thinking skills inspired ideas outside of the box. It’s amazing to watch the film and wonder how differently the cities of North America might look and thrive had they been more inclusive in the design stages.

While the doc itself is conventional by design, it uses a mix of interviews and archival material to show the development of cities over the years. Hillel gives each woman many opportunities to highlight her achievements, which range from devising iconic buildings to preserving Montreal’s heritage and creating sustainable green spaces where residents connect with the land. While the subjects range dramatically in their screen presence, they all have interesting stories.

Like the battles of Jane Jacobs to prioritize people, rather than cars, in urban design, the four women of City Dreamers share a common philosophy that public spaces should be about uniting communities and fostering inclusion and equality. While the landmark buildings from the subjects’ résumés are undeniably impressive, their contributions to city life resonate stronger. The same problems arise in urban design today as cities become a field for developers to grow condominiums while residents find themselves isolated and with fewer and fewer public or green spaces in which to find a sense of community.

As an entry in the growing field of documentaries that pay tribute to unsung women who excelled in their careers while many others were denied access altogether, City Dreamers is a useful essay. There are no #MeToo stories or tales of workplace harassment; rather, Hillel uses the women’s stories to highlight systemic inequity that needs to change. Like the fight for women’s space in the work place, the life of a city is limited and stifled by the ideologies of convention—that post-WWII image of a suburban home where dad goes to work and mom stays at home. The film effectively draws parallels between urban life and the women’s movement to encourage audiences to expand their way of thinking outside of restrictive and outdated definitions. It’s 2019: our ways need to change.

City Dreamers opens in Toronto on May 17.