City Dreamers looks at pioneers in architecture

We spoke with Joseph Hillel, whose new documentary focuses on Phyllis Lambert, Blanche Lemco van Ginkel, Cornelia Hahn Overlander and Denise Scott Brown, four architects who have shaped the way we look at North American cities.

“It was once a science and art, and now it is neither. It is a business.”—Phyllis Lambert

There’s a pivotal moment in Joseph Hillel’s documentary, City Dreamers, where the great Canadian architect Phyllis Lambert laments the state of architecture in the contemporary city. Once a city hands its keys to business interests, urban projects no longer prioritize people but their bottom line. In a world where more and more people are living in urban areas than ever before and an impending environmental apocalypse looms on the horizon, this could spell the end of the world as we know it.

In spite of that, City Dreamers abounds with the hope that things can be better if we start to think about the way we live and imagine a sustainable future city with all its citizens in mind. The film focuses on four pivotal architects who have shaped the modern North American city: Phyllis Lambert, Blanche Lemco van Ginkel, Cornelia Hahn Overlander and Denise Scott Brown. They are pioneers who have modeled the way we live together and continue to work towards a better future.

How does the way a city is built reflect our values and shape our ideas? The way we move, live and work within cities is not a random set of events, but the work of planners. Some of them are motivated by money, yes, but many are idealists and scientists working to create a home for all. With a socially conscious edge, City Dreamers connects the various ways architecture is affected by issues of environmentalism, sustainability and inequality.

Sitting down with Joseph Hillel, we discussed the film’s inspirations and the women who helped bring it all together.

Justine Smith: What was the inspiration for this film?

Joseph Hillel: I’ve always been interested in architecture. When I first started, I was coming back from Haiti, where I was born. I spent a lot of time in Port-au-Prince, a very dense city with a few million people living in a very narrow space. There were also events happening in the States, like in Ferguson. I was reading about them and I started to understand how the design of the city could create these tensions and how after a certain moment, a city becomes no longer viable when you start to stash poor people on the margins or in the suburbs. The Ferguson events really triggered something in me.

I heard from a friend that Blanche Lemco [van Ginkel] was going to be in Montreal to accept an honorary degree at McGill. She was this 90-year-old woman who was just sparkling. I really liked her. The next day I brought a camera to shoot the convocation. Phyllis Lambert was there and she offered for me to come to the CCA [Canadian Centre for Architecture]. Then I just started digging. I love that kind of research. It’s a big part of my process.

I went to Toronto to do more interviews with Blanche and realized I needed some other women. She is the only one in the film who is not currently working. I spoke with Phyllis who mentioned Denise Scott Brown and Cornelia Hahn Oberlander.

JS: The movie is about women architects and planners, but it doesn’t necessarily call attention to itself as a movie “about women.” What made you structure it around their voices?

JH: In my mind, it was always a film about the city seen through the eyes of women. I could have done biographical films and each one of them could have had their own feature. I really condensed their stories. The perspective of the city was more interesting to me and the point of view of the woman in particular. Maybe it is my own prejudice, as an afro-descendent from Haiti. I think that once women are allowed through the door — like women being allowed to direct the movie — it sets the course for black people to go next. When they finally let in the women, then the diversity will start to include other people as well. Based on my reflections on cinema in Quebec, which is really white, in the last five years women have been allowed into that boy’s club, and the doors are slowly starting to open up to the rest.

On the other hand, that feminist aspect is not in the identity [of the women in the film] except maybe Denise. I tried to approach that idea but I think they came even before [the feminist movement]. The attitude they have in the face of adversity is like a drive. “So you want to stop me? I’ll show you.” It’s more like that. The arrival of feminism comes a bit later.

Joseph Hillel

JS: The title refers to dreaming. Did you always envision the film as an imagining of what a city could be?

JH: Yes, because it is always in transformation, it isn’t static. The great thing about these women is that they have this perspective on the city for the last 70 years. It’s about how they see the city. I also like the energy they have — it can be very contagious.

JS: Based on working on the film and your own experience living in cities, what do you think we need to do to treat the ecological questions facing all of us in the present?

JH: I tried to nail it at the end of the film. Personally, I’m shocked that so few people react to all the signals that are out there. Maybe the message was too strong in the end, that the city should be for everyone. After Ferguson, that was the big thing for me, that cities are not only for rich people.

The subjects come from that Bauhaus school, which is celebrating its 100 years this year. They had that way of looking at a place and making it for people and not for businesses. If you are going to build something that is going to stand for years, you have a responsibility of doing it right. I like that contract in architecture, that you are doing something for society. You have to do it for everyone and part of that is being more respectful of the environment.

JS: In the film, Phyllis Lambert talks about architecture as a science and an art that too often has become a business.

JH: Yes, when it goes to the business you know the city goes caput! As Phyllis says, it’s over. It’s very scary. A city like Vancouver is very shocking. You have this big forest of buildings — they call it “Hongcouver.” The skyline you see in the film is already outdated. There is tons of money but there are also all these people in the street. Many people, nothing like here, hundreds of people have been cast out. How can this happen in such a rich place? It makes me think of Port-au-Prince in Haiti. You have a super rich city with this third world environment. It’s indecent.

When Cornelia is in the space she designed, [Robson Square] and there are all these homeless people, you think at first she is shocked because they are dirty. No, not at all. She’s upset because there’s no money or action to help these people. It’s shocking and there’s no reason why a city that is so rich should let that happen.

After Vancouver, I went to Seattle for the first time. I think it’s one of the richest cities I’ve seen in America. On the highway, there are Tesla, BMWs, SUVs… all these deluxe cars. Then you have people sleeping on the bridge, there are tents in the city. Last year, the city asked Amazon for a tax to help homeless people and they don’t want to pay. These concerns are attached to the city. Architecture is not only buildings, bricks and stones. It is also being concerned about people living inside.

JS: What about your new project?

JH: It’s about downtown Montreal. I want to talk about the real centre of the city: from Place Ville Marie to Place Bonaventure, which was conceived as the heart of Montreal, where everything comes together. ■

City Dreamers opens in theatres on Friday, May 10. Watch the trailer here: