Cornelia Hahn Oberlander in New York on May 29, 2014.
Eric Thayer/The Globe and Mail
When the spring of 2021 came, Cornelia Hahn Oberlander was in her 100th year. She was eager, as always, to go to the park. From her home on the west side of Vancouver, the landscape architect often headed for walks with her daughter Judy to nearby Jim Everett Memorial Park. Twenty years ago, Ms. Oberlander had designed it. “She wanted to check on how the plants were doing, how the trees were doing, and also to see how people were using this place,” Judy recalls. “It was very clear that she wanted to see the spring. And to keep an eye on the landscapes she designed.”
There were too many of those to visit, from the Northwest Territories to the National Gallery in Ottawa and beyond. Ms. Oberlander worked widely during a 70-year career, in which she was a pioneer in the ecological, social and aesthetic aspects of her profession. But this spring would be her last; she died May 22 after a battle with COVID-19. She was 99.
A resident of Vancouver since 1953, Ms. Oberlander had a significant impact on that city. It was her idea to use logs for seating on Vancouver beaches. She also designed the landscapes at the Museum of Anthropology at UBC and at Robson Square, collaborating closely with architect Arthur Erickson; and more recently a garden atop the city’s central library.
Story continues below advertisement
But her legacy extends across North America and the world, as a mentor and an intellectual leader in a field that she helped define. She was “the world’s most significant landscape architect,” said Phyllis Lambert, founder of the Canadian Centre for Architecture.
She was drawn to plant life from a young age. Cornelia Hahn was born June 20, 1921, in the Ruhr area of Germany. Her mother Beate Hahn (née Jastrow) was a horticulturalist with an interest in children’s education. Her father, Franz Hahn, an engineer, worked in the family steel business, which brought them to Germany’s industrial heartland.
Ms. Oberlander, seen here on July 2, 1988, had a significant impact on the city of Vancouver.
Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail
“My mother thought [it] was very awful,” Ms. Hahn Oberlander recalled in a 2008 oral history. “The coal dust hung everywhere, so she asked my father if we could live someplace else. We moved near Düsseldorf to a village, and we had a beautiful garden.” Young Cornelia was drawn to plants; when the family moved to Berlin, she helped grow peas and corn in the garden of their city house.
But 1930s Berlin was not a safe ground for a Jewish family, and the Hahns’ deep roots in academia, politics and industry provided no protection from Nazism. Cornelia’s parents decided in late 1932 to emigrate. However, Franz was killed by an avalanche in January, 1933.
Beate and her daughters were repeatedly stopped from leaving Germany, and they could not get out until the fall of 1938. Just weeks later, in the event remembered as Kristallnacht, widespread attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions marked a new escalation of Nazi Germany’s antisemitic policies.
It was a narrow escape. But Cornelia, resolutely positive and energetic, “did not dwell on that experience,” Judy recalls. “She was always looking forward.”
Landing in New York, the Hahns found a home in the suburbs. Soon her mother decided that New York was “too materialistic,” as Cornelia recalled, and moved the girls to a farm in New Hampshire, where they used organic farming methods. Cornelia soon left for Smith College in Massachusetts, to study architecture, landscape architecture and art; she took a strong interest in modern art, particularly Picasso.
Story continues below advertisement
In 1943, she moved to Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and found herself among just a handful of women; the school had only recently allowed women to apply at all. But she landed “at the forefront of modern landscape architecture,” said Susan Herrington, a friend and Ms. Oberlander’s biographer. The school was run by Walter Gropius, a leading Modernist and an exiled Berliner. Here Cornelia received rigorous technical training and, as she would recall in 2008, learned that “abstract art could also be applied to the ground.”
Modernist ideas had already transformed architecture; in the 1940s this was just beginning in landscape, thanks to a few pioneers including James Rose and Dan Kiley. Cornelia sought them out; as a young graduate she went to work with both Mr. Rose and Mr. Kiley. Early jobs in New York and Philadelphia connected her with contemporary currents in planning and architecture. She worked in Philadelphia on public housing, including with the modernist architect Louis Kahn, who is remembered as one of the great designers of the 20th century. He was one in a string of distinguished architects with whom she would collaborate.
While at Harvard she had been introduced – on a trip to Walden Pond – to a classmate, the architect Peter Oberlander, whose family had fled Vienna in the 1930s. It was not until 1953 that they got married, and she followed Mr. Oberlander to Vancouver, where he became the first professor of planning at the University of British Columbia. They would be married for 55 years.
In Vancouver, they had worked on parallel tracks, Mr. Oberlander driving the creation of modern planning in B.C. while Ms. Oberlander worked on social-housing projects, parks and houses. An active community of architects pursued modern design in B.C. in this period, and Ms. Oberlander frequently collaborated on the landscapes for their house projects. The prominent architect Barry Downs, together with Mr. Oberlander, designed the Oberlanders’ own house.
The couple also had a family, and the experience of motherhood shaped Ms. Oberlander’s work. (“If you have three kids in three and a half years, you have to entertain them,” she said in 2008.) She already had an interest in the design of playgrounds; as early as 1954 in Philadelphia she had created a playground incorporating sculptural elements. But watching her children at play sharpened her understanding of the importance of play and – drawing on her mother’s interest in early childhood education – how children played, including their interest in manipulating objects and interacting with nature.
In 1967 she was invited to create a playground for the Canadian Pavilion at Expo 67. The result was radical: As she recalled, it was “without teeter-totters, without swings. [It] was just hills and dales and tree-houses and water for children.” That wild landscape included a high platform that could only be reached by climbing. “It imprinted itself on the minds of thousands of people,” Ms. Herrington said.
Ms. Oberlander would go on to design more than 70 playgrounds across the country. “The years of raising the children and play were combined,” she recalled later, “because I could take them to the playgrounds while they were under construction.”
But it was her work on public buildings for which she would be best known. Ms. Oberlander prided herself on her relationships with architects. “I realized that unless we collaborate and find … a fit for the building and the site, we would not be able to be successful,” she said in that 2008 oral history interview. Indeed, Judy pointed out, she had “long collaborations with people like Arthur Erickson and Moshe Safdie, over a long, long period of time.”
Her work with Mr. Erickson involved significant private houses and also Robson Square, the provincial government complex in downtown Vancouver which had evolved (after a change of government) from high-rises to a so-called horizontal skyscraper. “It had been decided that it would have gardens on top,” Ms. Herrington said, “and it was her job to figure out how to realize that.”
People enjoy a lunch break in the sun as they sit on steps at Vancouver's scenic Robson Square on May 24, 2000.
CHUCK STOODY/The Canadian Press
Eva Matsuzaki, a longtime friend of Ms. Oberlander, was working in Mr. Erickson’s office and was overseeing the details of the exterior surfaces. Ms. Oberlander, she recalled, was closely involved in the design process. “In other situations, the architect does the building and then the landscape architecture component comes later,” she said. “Here, it was integrated from day one.” Ms. Oberlander developed lightweight, fast-draining soil mixtures and chose plant species to minimize their loads on the building’s structure. “These were innovative solutions that made the architectural solutions easier,” Ms. Matsuzaki said. And at times plant material served to cover up some awkward details. “If nothing else worked, you would cover it with ‘growies,’” she recalled with a laugh.
The two women would be friends and colleagues for decades to come, their work culminating, Ms. Matsuzaki said, in the Choi Building at UBC in the late 1990s. Here, the building’s “greywater” – its sanitary waste water – drains out into trenches in a forest landscape, to be filtered by plants Ms. Oberlander selected. “We were always working to push the boundaries,” Ms. Matsuzaki said. “There was always another building inspector to shock.”
Ms. Oberlander had an abiding interest in ecology, and the links between nature and culture. She always favoured the plant species native to a particular region; her designs often used them to create a sense of place. Her garden at the Museum of Anthropology, for instance, replicates a meadow on Haida Gwaii, with plants of traditional importance to the Haida people. But she also argued that landscape had an important task in managing storm water and adapting to climate change. “The challenges of climate change, hyper-urbanized growth … the loss of open space and agricultural lands, and resource scarcity are expanding the scale, methods and demands on our profession,” she wrote last year.
These are now mainstream concerns in landscape architecture; her profession caught up with her. More generally, her legacy solidified in the past decade. She was named a fellow of the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects and its American counterpart, the ASLA, and won each group’s highest award. An exhibition on her life and work, Genius Loci, began at the West Vancouver Art Museum in January and is now touring the country.
And she received a large and lasting tribute: A new international prize in landscape architecture was established in her name. The biennial lifetime-achievement prize comes with a US$100,000 award, putting it on par with the top prizes in architecture. It was created by the American not-for-profit the Cultural Landscape Foundation.
“Cornelia was a giant in the field of landscape architecture,” said Charles A. Birnbaum, that foundation’s president and CEO. “Her legacy of built work and influence demonstrates how one person can shape a profession that has global impact and importance.” The day before Ms. Oberlander’s death, Vancouver City Council voted unanimously to award her the Freedom of the City Award.
Ms. Oberlander’s funeral service was held May 24 in White Rock, B.C., at the cemetery of Temple Sholom, the Reform Jewish congregation that she and her husband had co-founded in Vancouver. Fittingly, Ms. Oberlander designed the landscape in which she was laid to rest.
Predeceased by her husband in 2008, she leaves her daughters, Judy and Wendy; her son, Tim; four grandchildren; a cousin; and a niece.