Architects, designers, and artists are remembered for the work and craft they have created and perfected over the years. The reason they are seen as epitomes and examples in their field is because of their contributions to the world. Though all of them have earned their titles, many of them are termed visionaries, icons, and legends. One of those greats was Cornelia Oberlander.
Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, a Canadian-born landscape architect died at the age of 99 in Vancouver in May 2021. Her career has always been full of great apprenticeship, impact on the social landscape, and the rising importance of green spaces in landscape architecture. She has worked with fundamental and elemental architects who shaped the profession and art altogether.
Cornelia Oberlander was a student of Walter Gropius, an employee of Louis Kahn and Dan Kiley, a longtime collaborator of Arthur Erickson, Moshe Safdie and Renzo Piano and eventually being the Companion of the Order of Canada. Her contribution towards establishing a future for the value of green spaces and addressing the importance of public open spaces will always be vital and exemplary for all future architects.
Early Life and Education | Cornelia Oberlander
Oberlander was born in a Jewish family in Muelheim-Ruhr, Germany, on 20 June 1921. Being born in Nazi Germany proved too difficult resulting in her escaping the regime with her mother to England after the Kristallnacht or the Night of the Broken Glass. Thereafter, they migrated to the United States of America in 1939. Her love and passion for landscape architecture were deeply rooted and influenced by her mother, who was passionate about horticulture.
From growing peas in her garden to questioning her curiosity of green spaces in art murals, her entire educational lifestyle was directed towards ‘making parks and green spaces’. Oberlander, an alumnus at Smith College, received her BA in 1944 and got her Master’s in Landscape Architecture in 1947 from Harvard and became the first woman to do so. In an interview with Hall, Cornelia Oberlander states:
“When I went to Smith, women who wanted to become landscape architects went to the Cambridge School, a part of Harvard University, because at that time, women could not attend Harvard. But with the war that changed, and in 1943 I was one of the very first women to be admitted to the Harvard Graduate School of Design.” (Hall, Jenny., 2004)
Her early career was mostly about designing landscapes for the low-income group housing projects and playgrounds, the most prominent one being the Canadian Government Pavilion, Children’s Creative Centre & play area for Expo 67 in Montreal. Oberlander designed her first children’s playground in 1951 for a housing project designed by Louis Kahn, which included a vegetable garden and fruit-bearing trees.
She further took commercial projects much more often with many more professionals and sustainability concerned committees to create beautiful, aesthetically appealing, and logical landscapes for numerous projects. She always took great concern and care in designing the landscapes to be sustainable and environmentally friendly.
She mentioned the dream of Green cities in an acceptance speech of an honorary degree at Simon Fraser University:
“I dream of Green Cities with Green Buildings where rural and urban activities live in harmony.[…] “Achieving a fit” between the built form and the land has been my dictum. This can only be done if all our design-related professions collaborate and thereby demonstrate co-operatively their relevance in meeting the enormous developmental challenges facing our increasingly crowded urban regions.” (SFU Convocation Addresses, 2005)
To give proper respect and recognition to her legacy, one needs to understand the complexity and contradictions of her work and her profession. Oberlander has mentioned her thoughts and recollections of her Bauhaus-style house situated near the University of British Columbia.
Designed by Barry Downs, following the requests and requirements of her late husband Peter Oberlander, it reflects the couple’s rooted base in the philosophy of Walter Gropius, who mentored them in Harvard Graduate School of Design during their years as students.
Cornelia Oberlander has designed many iconic and recognised projects all over the world. Her most acknowledged projects and ideas such as the Robson Square, the Vancouver Public Library rooftop, and the National Gallery of Canada all present a singular demographic need and necessity and an environmental ethos. She worked intensely with Arthur Erickson on what was known as Block 51-61-71 — the three core blocks of downtown Vancouver which now encompass the Law Courts and the Vancouver Art Gallery.
Her extravagant landscaping and public-park-on-a-roof were made possible due to the cancelled plans for a skyscraper that was proposed. The city then became welcoming to a unique horizontal solid form placed on the sides along with the southern blocks and was further designed to withstand and enrich itself with the expansion of the Vancouver Art Gallery.
Awards and Recognition | Cornelia Oberlander
For her impeccable contribution to landscape architecture as a whole, Cornelia Oberlander has been awarded and given several awards, degrees, and titles for her priceless knowledge, experience, works and art. Her honours and awards include the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada’s 2011 Prix du XXe siècle, and the 2012 American Society of Landscape Architects Medal along with many others.
She was respected with the Freedom of the City Award by the City of Vancouver – the city’s highest honour. A new International Landscape Architecture gong by The Cultural Landscape Foundation was also made in her honour – the Oberlander Prize.