City Dreamers: How Four Women Architects Took on the World

Sandra Bertrand


For decades, Howard Roark, the architect superhero of Ayn Rand’s iconic 1943 novel, Fountainhead, personified the male-dominated profession.  Arrogant, individualistic, even ruthless, he possessed an ego as towering and granite-like as the skyscrapers he created. 

Joseph Hillel’s documentary City Dreamers (First Run Features) finally lays waste to that age-old misconception.  He presents us with four trailblazing women architects: Denise Scott Brown, Phyllis Lambert, Blanche Lemco van Ginkel, and Cornelia Hahn Oberlander,  who have been transforming our urban landscape for more than 70 years.

For 83 of her 85 years, Denise Scott Brown thought architecture was “a woman’s profession.” As a toddler in South Africa, she watched her designer mother pull architectural blueprints up to the light.  This feisty youngster had a “wayward eye”—a strong mind as she put it—arriving in the U.S. from blitz-torn London with an American can-do spirit intact. She eventually married Robert Venturi, one of the most influential architects of the 20th century, and their combined genius revolutionized the way the post-WWII mobility of trains, planes, and automobiles could coexist with their own urban visions of the future.

Based in Philadelphia, their projects have included campuses and museums here and abroad, such as the University of Pennsylvania, the Seattle Arts Museum, as well as the Sainsbury Wing of London’s National Gallery and the Nikko Hotel in Japan.  Revered as a teacher, her students and notables such as Frank Gehry and Rem Koolhaas petitioned to give her the prestigious Pritzker prize retroactively after Venturi unfairly became the sole recipient. The effort was denied. (She has said the petition is her prize, a better reward.)



In one sequence, Scott Brown is seen traveling the Las Vegas Strip, assessing the value of the casino signage in that singular desert sprawl. That trip resulted in one of the most referenced texts on architectural theory.

It is this peripatetic approach that drives much of the film’s transitions between these four remarkable women and their stories.  Director Hillel leapfrogs through time, often moving us from one locale, one construction or demolition site to another at warp speed, blurring the boundaries between cities and forcing the viewer to keep his subjects straight.

It’s a big challenge, covering such figures in their twilight years, as each comes with a truckload of accolades and monuments worthy of our attention.

Take Phyllis Lambert, for instance.  Born in Montreal to Samuel Bronfman, she became an heiress to a distilling empire.  No lady-in-waiting, she put up a fearless battle to make   her architect mentor Mies van der Rohe in charge of the construction of Manhattan’s Seagrams Building.  And that was just the beginning. She became the founder of the Canadian Centre for Architecture and Heritage Montreal, an intrepid champion of her beloved birthplace. One of her greatest gifts to the city was her development of a low- income housing cooperative known as Milton-Parc.



Blanche Lemco van Ginkel deserves knighthood for saving Old Montreal from being destroyed by the wrecking ball.  The use of aerial photography to map out ways to save treasured parts of the city and still make way for an expressway is one example. In a true modernist spirit, her vertical neighborhoods changed the face of Vancouver, allowing structures with 700 families to enjoy views of the sea on one side and the mountains on the other. She is adamant that city dreams should not be thin as air but “realizable.” 

A leader in the field of landscape architecture, Cornelia Hahn Oberlander’s urban solutions remain the perfect complement to the sky-high ambitions of her female contemporaries.  Her mother wrote gardening books, and the young Cornelia felt an early calling studying the pictures.  “I want to make parks,” she announced. She was perhaps one of the first genies in her field to develop urban green spaces, introducing the concept of green roofs in several major cities.  Wandering through a former lot she designed, she still remembers the trees she seeded. 

These four women architects all possess an indomitable spirit, as determined as their male counterparts to realize their visions.  But in making their dreams real, they never left the communities they served behind. Hillel has managed to treat them, above all else, as the great humanitarians they are.


Author Bio:

Sandra Bertrand is Highbrow Magazine’s chief art critic.


For Highbrow Magazine


Image Sources:

--Noroton (Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

--First Run Features

not popular
Bottom Slider: 
Out Slider

Add new comment

Filtered HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Replaces [VIDEO::] tags with embedded videos.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd><div><img><h2><h3><h4><span>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.