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Portrait of Cornelia Oberlander

Visionary. Icon. Genius. Legend. Those within and outside of the architecture and design community shared those one-word descriptors fast and furiously after learning that we lost Cornelia Hahn Oberlander (1921-2021) to COVID-19 last month. Politicians and civic mandarins tweeted fulsome tributes. Newspapers, journals and social media encapsulated the highlights of a remarkable life: refugee from Nazi Germany, student of Walter Gropius, employee of Louis Kahn and Dan Kiley, longtime collaborator of Arthur Erickson, Moshe Safdie and Renzo Piano and Companion of the Order of Canada. Honoured with monographs, biography, every kind of award, and now an exhibition of her work organized by the West Vancouver Museum and the Art Gallery of Alberta.

Praise costs nothing and is easy to dole out. Following her principles in our urban environments, however, is more difficult and expensive. Without her powerfully confident voice, it will just get more difficult. “She did not hesitate to speak her mind, and believed passionately in what she did, advocating fiercely for an idea, even if it meant criticizing her own clients,” says Chris Phillips, partner of PFS Studio and colleague.  “Who do we throw the torch to now? I don’t know,” says landscape architect Joseph Fry. “There is no one like her to take up the charge.” 

Cornelia Oberlander standing on a staircase in front of a yellow wall
A recent photo of Oberlander in front of the bold, Bauhaus-inspired yellow wall in her Vancouver home. PHOTO: Wendy Oberlander

To do true justice to Oberlander’s legacy, we must do more than simply lionize her with a checklist of external recognition. We need to acknowledge the complexity and contradictions of her work and her profession. During two separate interviews in 2012 and 2016, Oberlander shared many of her thoughts and recollections with me in her Bauhaus-style house near the University of British Columbia. Designed by Barry Downs, following the guidelines of her husband Peter Oberlander, it reflects the couple’s grounding in the philosophy of Walter Gropius, who headed Harvard Graduate School of Design during their years as students.

She recalled how, in the early 1950s, when she resettled in Vancouver with Peter, she found the intellectual life of the young city to be “very thin.” Public architectural talks by architects were rare at that time and place, but two landmark events helped galvanize her ambition. In 1953, she attended Richard Neutra’s lecture at the Vancouver Art Gallery, which electrified her along with just about everybody else in the audience. Neutra presented the arguments and images from his seminal book Mystery and Realities of the Site. Here at the podium stood one of the world’s significant architects, deftly arguing the importance of landscape as a primordial element of the built environment rather than a contextual nuisance or an afterthought. The architect, he argued, should harness the bedrock and boulders and plant growth he finds at the building site— and defer to them. “Trees are wonderful — even though they may drop leaves or seeds and give you the chore of tidying up the place,” he argued. “But who would want to forfeit his teeth, just to avoid brushing them? If there are trees granted you by fate, can you conceive a layout to conserve them? Never sacrifice a tree if you can help it.”

Neutra’s lecture impacted its audience in different ways. Architects like Ron Thom took him literally, not deigning to touch any existing trees on a site, while Oberlander thought about the concept of deferring to nature in a much different way. She sought to construct and articulate the landscape, move trees from one part of a site to another where they best thrive according to her botanical research; even putting them in storage if necessary, as she would later do with trees as Robson Square when their site needed relining.

Cornelia Oberlander wearing construction gear at Robson Square in 2011
Oberlander oversees the evolving landscape at Robson Square in 2011.

Around the same time as the Neutra lecture, Oberlander landed her first landscape project: the Sydney and Constance Friedman House near the University of British Columbia, designed by then director of UBC’s architecture school, Fred Lasserre. Sloping bedrock covered much of the property, severely limiting the foliage options. Instead of burying the bedrock in soil for a conventional lawn and delicate flowers, she installed a layer of gravel and specified heather and other plantings conducive to such a well-drained environment. When I spoke to her about that project in 2012, Dr. Friedman was still living in the house and she exultantly told me that, with his support, she planned to restore its landscape to her original 1953 splendour.

Flanked by Hugo Eppich and Arthur Erickson, Oberlander directs the landscaping at Eppich House II in 1987.

Oberlander’s education in architecture under Walter Gropius grounded her in the Bauhaus ethos, a movement crucial for upending the built environment’s postwar colonial paradigm. It makes for landscape design that is as different from the naturalism of Frederick Law Olmsted as a Piet Mondrian grid painting is from a John Constable canvas. Olmsted’s Central Park, like most other renowned 19th-century parks in North America, posited landscape architecture as a close imitation of nature, even if the replication looked nothing like the original pre-colonization site. 

Central Park is gorgeous and functional for its purpose. Oberlander and her modernist peers, however, recognized that new contemporary parks could no longer simply visually mimic the wild environment; they had to logistically improve the urban one. And in the contemporary city, wherein the original nature has been long paved over and now has to be largely woven in or reconstructed from scratch, notes longtime collaborator Eva Matsuzaki, Oberlander excelled.

Matsuzaki, who in 1998 became the first female president of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, first met Oberlander while working at Robson Square and other projects at Erickson’s office. Later, after co-founding Matsuzaki Wright Architects, she worked with Oberlander on further commissions, most notably the C.K. Choi building at UBC. Matsuzaki can cite at length Oberlander’s prowess at designing a configuration of gravel and plantings to recycle black and grey water for maximum sustainability. Still, she adds, this isn’t necessarily the most fitting approach for remote rural settings where the nature is already robust and naturally self-regulating. “Cornelia’s approach is more suited to urban solutions,” she says, applauding Oberlander’s brilliance at constructing new landscapes, while allowing that it is less suited to projects built in an existing wilderness.  

Cornelia Oberlander and Arthur Erickson outside the Museum of Anthropology at UBC
Oberlander and Arthur Erickson in the tall grasses fronting Vancouver’s Museum of Anthropology. PHOTO: Etta Gerdes.

Such a project is Pearson College of the Pacific, a magical assemblage of buildings surrounded by the salal and conifers of Vancouver Island’s southern tip. Ron Thom, its main architect, loudly objected to the selection of Oberlander as the project’s landscape architect, but his inelegant communication ended up hurting his own standing with the board of governors far more than hers.

Her very outspokenness, which has served her so well in swaying some clients and public figures, has also discomforted some people and organizations. “I asked the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects, a few years ago, to take a stand on pipelines,” she once recalled. “And they said: ‘That’s too political. They didn’t want to be involved, because they were worried that it would threaten the jobs for their members. But I say:  No. You’ve got to take a stand, and this is what I’ve done all along. I take a stand on pipelines; I take a stand on clearcutting.” That is how she came to the simple yet brilliant idea of repurposing huge washed-up logs into public seating on Vancouver’s beaches — now a defining feature of places like Wreck Beach.

Her best-known projects and ideas — Robson Square, the Vancouver Public Library rooftop, the National Gallery of Canada — all present a public purpose and an environmental ethos. She worked intensely with Erickson on what was known as Block 51-61-71 — the three central blocks of downtown Vancouver which now hold the Law Courts and the Vancouver Art Gallery. Her dramatic landscaping and public-park-on-a-roof were made possible thanks to the cancelled plans for a skyscraper. Now, the city was ready to take a chance on something completely different: a horizontal tower placed on its side along the two southernmost blocks and designed to eventually absorb the inevitable expansion of the Vancouver Art Gallery on the third block.

Cornelia Oberlander raking dirt at National Gallery site in 1988
Oberlander takes a rake to the landscape fronting the National Gallery of Canada in 1988. The garden was modelled after the painting Terre Sauvage by A. Y. Jackson and the landscape of the Canadian Shield that it depicts.

At the existing Gallery, her landscape design continues to evolve — or be whittled away, depending on your perspective. You can see this most visibly at its North Plaza, whose wholesale transformation two years ago required her trees and planters to be removed along with a leaky fountain. All of this transpired with the noble intention of securing the steam ducts and vaults below from impending and additional damage. Oberlander made no secret of her disappointment to the landscape architecture firm involved, Hapa Collaborative, and admonished lead designer Joseph Fry for the removal of significant trees and vegetation in the end. Just the same, Fry holds Oberlander and her legacy in high esteem and takes the criticism much like she took the criticism of her own work, to always look for ways to improve. “That project was woefully underfunded from the beginning, and we all knew it,” says Fry. “There were things we would have done differently if we had more financial resources, but in the end the plaza functions much as we anticipated, even on a shoestring budget.”

Cornelia Oberlander, pictured at Harvard in the 1940s
Oberlander at Harvard in the 1940s. Photo via Oberlander family archives.

Even though she figured among the earliest female graduates of Harvard’s landscape design programme, and one of the few females in that class, Oberlander always declined the moniker of “feminist.” She didn’t believe affirmative action for women was necessary. She would always remember a short, robust exchange with a housemate at Smith College named Betty Goldstein — who would later be renowned as Betty Friedan, one of the most influential feminists of the 20th century. “Every night the girls would gather in her room and chatter,” Oberlander recalled to me. Goldstein/Friedan, the future author of The Feminist Mystique, was already articulating what she would famously call “the problem that has no name” — that women were actively shut out of the high-level workforce in society and doomed to lives of domestic boredom. “One night, I walked into her room and said: ‘If you are worried about working or not working, just get a profession and go to work.’ Then I slammed the door and left.” Cornelia Hahn had confidence that no barrier could stop her, a confidence that if anything grew even stronger when she became Cornelia Oberlander and raised three children. She worked when she could, took large chunks of time away to nurture her children, and returned more fully to the workforce as they came of age. But she had an intensely supportive husband who was able and willing to help her career—an option not widely available to other women of that era. 

Peter Oberlander, by all accounts, didn’t help out with the shopping, cleaning, or any other aspect of conventional home-making. He supported her in other ways. As the inaugural head of UBC’s School of Community and Regional Planning — the first in Canada — he was well-connected in a complementary field to Cornelia’s. Unlike many husbands of the time, he was proud rather than threatened to have a professionally trained and ambitious wife. Cornelia’s famously articulate speeches, which were important to winning jobs and influence, contained her own ideas and Peter’s deft editing, as her progeny attest. And Peter was very happy to share his own connections, skills and resources with his spouse, which helped her re-enter the profession full-time when her children were older.

Cornelia and Peter Oberlander outside the Einstein Tower in 2005
Cornelia and Peter Oberlander in front of Potsdam’s Einstein Tower in 2005. PHOTO: Judy Oberlander.

It’s hard to imagine a more beautifully synergistic marriage. Cornelia’s brains, talent, education and strong work ethic did allow her to excel despite the many visible and invisible barriers to women in the field back then. (Eva Matsuzaki, for example, recalls that when she studied architecture at Cornell University in the mid-1960s, the women’s dormitory had a curfew, unlike the men’s — which meant that male students could harness the academic advantage of spending all night in the studio preparing for crits.) As for the women that Betty Friedan was thinking about, without the added bonus of such a supportive partner, just getting started in a profession turned out to be much harder. (Let’s not kid ourselves: the profession still has a long way to go before we see gender parity in the field.) 

Oberlander was famous for her scientific mind, diligence and powerful voice that swayed clients and budgets. Her landscape architecture for Acton Ostry Architects’ King David High School was facilitated by a donor in Vancouver’s Jewish community, who offered his financial support on the condition that Oberlander be enlisted on the team. True to form, she constructed an entirely new landscape around the school, repurposing the massive heaps of dirt that had been excavated for underground parking into a hill at the back and planting a pine tree at its peak. She specified an apple orchard for the front of the facility, referencing the honey apples traditionally eaten during Rosh Hashanah. “She thought it would be very educational for the students there to have a landscape that would be a Biblical Garden with references to the Torah,” says principal Mark Ostry. “She insisted that there should be descriptions to explain. Every tree, every plant, had meaning. It was a complete narrative.”

The lobby garden of the New York Times Building, designed with Renzo Piano Building Workshop. PHOTO: HMWhite.

Oberlander exhaustively researched a wide array of materials and methodologies for each project, including the parks she designed for the roofs of the Law Courts and the Vancouver Public Library. The popularity of these projects has strengthened calls for more green roofs by more architects on more buildings. But a green roof doesn’t always make sense, especially in the hands of a designer or contractor who doesn’t have the same diligence as Oberlander. Not every project team has had the expertise, budget and logistical support to build useful green roofs. Those which aren’t constructed properly are worse than conventional roofs, and Vancouver alone boasts many such “greenwashed” features.

Despite the continuing influx of awards and praise, Oberlander has lamented that her work is too often undermined or altered, either before or after construction. She’s hardly alone there; landscape architecture is usually the most underestimated and vulnerable component of a project in design development, and it’s also the most prone aspect to be neglected or altered after construction. “The first thing that gets cut is the budget for landscape,” she told me. “But today, especially with the population growing, you need every bit of nature. Now, when you drive down Seymour Street (in downtown Vancouver), with all those high-rises, where do you see nature? Nowhere!”

Oberlander designed the rolling landscape at Vancouver’s Jim Everett Memorial Park in 2000-2001.

In 2014, Oberlander was brought on to assist in revitalizing the Canada Pavilion site in Venice, a preeminent platform for the country’s leading artists and architects. It was a fitting commission as landscape architecture has a certain affinity with performance art: thought-provoking, subjective, constrained, a leap of faith and more ephemeral than one might think. Her 1953 landscape design for the Friedman House, for instance, has since been effaced (a keen disappointment for Oberlander) and, more recently, the landscape and playgrounds she designed at the 1960s Skeena Terrace social housing complex in East Vancouver have been threatened as the province plots its redevelopment.

About a month before her passing on May 22, Oberlander asked her daughter Judy to take her to see the Friedman House, now undergoing a major renovation by its new owner. Judy knew that the entire property would be engulfed by builders and excavators, and many of its original plantings and gravel sheathing were already ground into the bedrock. “I asked my mother, ‘Are you sure you want to see it now?’ But she insisted,” recalls Judy. Her mother’s insistence was hardly out of character. As a teenager, Oberlander had fled Nazi Germany in 1938 with her family after Kristallnacht, and she had honed a fearless persona that served her well in all aspects of her life and work.

Oberlander sat in the car at the edge of the Friedman House property and noted the new spring buds of the trees towering above the construction hoardings. They drove around the triangular site so that she could view it from different angles. Gazing at the upheaval of construction, Oberlander wondered aloud what might be left of her original garden that she had conceived and nurtured for so many decades while the Friedmans lived there. Then, Judy drove her mother back to her home — that Gropius-inspired house and garden that she and Peter had shared, where the rhododendrons she had planted over 50 years ago were just beginning their annual bloom.

As Oberlander herself has said to colleagues: sometimes you just have to design the landscape, take your photographs, let people enjoy it during its life, and then move on.

Lead image by Kiku Hawkes.

The Many Layers of Cornelia Oberlander’s Landscapes

Colleagues and kin reflect on the life and legacy of a Canadian design legend.

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