Cornelia Hahn Oberlander is a giant in the world of landscape architecture. Now, the B.C. resident will see her stature recognized in a lasting way as a major prize in the field takes her name.
The Cultural Landscape Foundation, an American non-profit advocacy group, announced on Tuesday their award will be named after her. It will be handed out for the first time in 2021 and will come with a US$100,000 purse.
The award itself was announced in August. It represents a bold effort to raise the profile of a profession that is poorly understood, but is arguably more important than ever as societies face the task of mitigating climate change and adapting to its effects.
Oberlander said in a statement that she was “overwhelmed” by the honour. (She is recovering from surgery and unavailable for an interview, her daughter, Judy Oberlander, said Wednesday.) And “landscape architecture,” she said, “is ideally suited to deal with the environmental, social and ecological challenges we face now and the challenges we must plan for in the future.”
Now 98, Oberlander has long been concerned with such issues. Her work has had a strong environmental lens for at least 20 years, a period in which she has designed public spaces and gardens that help achieve biodiversity and contribute to stormwater management. She was among the first landscape architects to design and recommend green roofs.
Born in Germany in 1921 and educated in the United States, Oberlander was associated with innovative public-housing projects in the 1940s and 1950s, collaborating with the important architect Louis Kahn and the modern landscape architect Dan Kiley.
She moved to Vancouver in 1953 with her husband, and established a practice of her own that had a major impact on the city. She worked alongside Arthur Erickson in the design of the Robson Square complex and the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, collaborating as equals with the architect – a rare position for someone in her profession.
That connection between landscape and architecture is central to her thinking, as the critic Paul Goldberger suggested this week. “One of the messages of [her] extraordinary career has been to say that these fields can only benefit by becoming more connected," Goldberger said during the naming announcement at the Canadian Consulate in New York.
Elsewhere, Oberlander designed gardens at the legislature of the Northwest Territories and at the National Gallery in Ottawa. Her Children’s Creative Centre for Expo 67 in Montreal introduced significant ideas in the design of play spaces. She designed about 70 playgrounds herself in the years after 1967.
But today, landscape architecture is now understood as aligned with infrastructure: natural systems can be harnessed to protect cities from extreme weather. Oberlander is at the forefront of this change.
“Landscape architects are a combination of artists, designers, choreographers and scientists,” she said. “Through careful research, innovation, collaboration with allied professionals, and design excellence, landscape architecture can become a global leader in addressing the important issues we all face.”
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