The four architects in “City Dreamers” — Phyllis Lambert, Denise Scott Brown, Cornelia Hahn Oberlander and Blanche Lemco van Ginkel — have distinct specializations, but they’re connected by their humanitarian aspirations and by their experiences in a male-dominated industry. Having begun their careers after World War II, the four found themselves the rare, if not sole, women in their respective schools. Once they graduated, they were often underestimated and overlooked. Yet, they persevered.
The documentarian Joseph Hillel tells their stories in somewhat formulaic fashion, creating a perfectly pleasant, educational movie that is not as riveting as it should be. In addition to talking-head interviews and archival footage, Hillel uses blocks of onscreen text to communicate their back stories, a rather bland approach for the innovative minds who, among a long list of accomplishments, conserved historic districts and innovated green roofs. What’s disappointing, if inevitable, is how much their work is compared with that of better-renown men or grouped with the accomplishments of their husbands.
Despite the glass ceiling, these women became visionaries in design, preservation, sustainability and urban planning. It’s especially inspiring to see how their maternal and domestic experiences, on the playground and at home, helped make them not just great architects but also activists, enthusiasts for green spaces and inclusive communities — concerns that still resonate. And then there’s this sobering realization: If it weren’t for patriarchal constraints, perhaps Lambert, Brown, Oberlander and van Ginkel would be household names, each worthy of her own movie.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes. Rent or buy on iTunes and Amazon.