Years ago, Barbara Walters famously asked Johnny Carson, to much derision afterward, what kind of tree the TV legend would be if he were in fact a tree. I don’t do that with Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, who is sitting across from me in New York City. But I do ask her what her favourite specimen is. One of the most important landscape architects of the 20th century and a pioneer in the fields of green design and rooftop landscapes, she has spoken and written often about the “solace” of trees.
“It’s the ginkgo biloba!” she responds, without hesitation, in a delighted voice. “Oh, I just love it,” she goes on, taking out her business card, which features a delicate line drawing of the tree’s distinctive leaf. “It’s the oldest tree alive – 250 billion years old. And the amazing thing is that, when Hiroshima was bombed, the first tree to bud was the ginkgo.”
“Yes,” she asserts plainly, placing her hands, palms down, on her lap, as though the tree were a child whose persistence she admires. “And it had red leaves because it mutated,” she concludes, smiling broadly.
Hahn Oberlander is not only a highly respected landscape architect responsible for some of Canada’s most iconic public spaces, from Robson Square in Vancouver to the gardens of the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, she is also one of the most beloved.
“I’m 93,” she offers when I ask if she minds telling me her age. “Can you believe it?” she says, leaning across a small table and placing one hand on top of mine. We are in a Manhattan hotel’s café, where I met her following a book launch for Cornelia Hahn Oberlander: Making the Modern Landscape, both a biography and a history of her work, written by Susan Herrington, professor of architecture and landscape architecture at the University of British Columbia.
One of Hahn Oberlander’s key messages is that the ecology of a location be respected by planting native rather than exotic species. “Don’t reinvent the wheel,” she says, referring to the example of her landscape design at the VanDusen Botanical Gardens Visitor Centre in Vancouver, completed in 2011 and certified under the Living Building Challenge, the most advanced measurement of sustainability possible in the built environment. The surrounding areas of the landmark facility, which also has a living roof, range from a rainwater garden to woodland and meadow, each zone carefully designed and planted with native species that flourished when Captain George Vancouver’s botanist first began cataloguing the diverse region in 1792.
The recipient of numerous honorary degrees from universities in Canada, Hahn Oberlander exudes the “Five-P” principles that she has identified as integral to her 65-year career: patience, persistence, politeness, passion and professionalism.
Several times, when I ask her a question, she responds first by saying “thank you,” as it has reminded her of something she wanted to express.
Born into a Jewish family in Berlin, Hahn Oberlander left Nazi Germany for the United States with her mother and sister in 1939. Her father had died in an avalanche while skiing six years earlier, leaving her mother, Beate Hahn, a formidable woman who was a professional horticulturalist and author, to look after her children on her own. Under her mother’s guidance, Hahn Oberlander learned to plant and care for vegetables and flowers from an early age.
By 1940, she went off to Smith College in western Massachusetts – the campus of which was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted – and then onto Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, where she was one of the first female alumni. Her future husband, the late Peter Oberlander, was a student there as well, having completed his undergraduate degree at McGill University in Montreal.
“If I had stayed in Boston or here in New York, I could never have done what I did in Canada in the fifties,” she says when asked how this country has shaped her career. “The freedom to create, the freedom to think differently, was unlimited.” In 1953, she and Peter, a prominent architect and Canada’s first professor of urban planning, had moved to Vancouver, where she still lives. “It was a younger country and very open to new ideas. Just imagine working with [the late architect] Arthur Erickson, who thought up what Vancouver would be. There’s nothing like that on the market today. There are not people who are thinking big.”
Working at a time when the field was male-dominated, Hahn Oberlander never considered herself a feminist and juggled the demands of being a wife and mother with her ambition. “Peter had a fantastic career. Of course, he came first and I wanted him to shine,” she says, noting the time when he was called to Ottawa in 1970 to initiate the federal government’s Ministry of State for Urban Affairs, becoming its deputy minister. “He was very strict. He wanted me to cook every meal and be cognizant of what the family should eat,” she says without rancour of her “terrific” 56-year marriage, in which they often collaborated on projects. “In three and a half years, I had three children. What could I do? I did playgrounds or housing projects because I didn’t work full-time.” (One of her early projects in Canada was the Children’s Creative Centre at Expo 67 in Montreal.)
In her own unique way, Hahn Oberlander exemplifies the truth about many women’s lives – that the combination of work and family simply gives a different arc to the trajectory of success. When Hahn Oberlander was asked in the early eighties to work with architect Moshe Safdie on the gardens of the National Gallery, one of her daughters told her, “Mummy, you have really crawled out from under,” meaning her husband, she tells me with a giggle. Her landscape design for the National Gallery was inspired by Group of Seven paintings, which is appropriate: As one critic noted at the time, it’s “as much a work of art as any in the building next to it,” giving visitors a glimpse of “the country’s soul.”
In 1975, Hahn Oberlander opened a public speech on the subject of women and leisure with a quote from George Bernard Shaw’s Misalliance: “A perpetual holiday is a good working definition of hell.” Does she still work daily? “Every day,” she responds emphatically.
Why? “It tickles me to do another project that’s better than the last one.” Hahn Oberlander is currently designing a green roof for a house near the sea in Vancouver. “There is the wave of the sea, the shininess of the sea, that I would like to echo on that roof,” she explains, adding: “We have to use every piece of ground, whether it’s on the roof or on the ground, to make people feel good.”
At the end of our exchange, we walk out onto Park Avenue, where she stands, at the photographer’s instruction, on a leafy treed median that bisects the street. Hahn Oberlander takes a moment to straighten her posture. She gave up downhill skiing only two years ago after a snowboarder knocked her over, but she goes cross-country skiing, walks, swims and eats healthily. “You lose a lot of friends,” she says of the aging process. “I look upon this as a life cycle. And I am grateful for what I can do every day.”