Always two steps ahead

Daniel Roehr, Associate Professor at the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, remembers landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, who died at the age of 99 on 22 May 2021, one month short of her 100th birthday. The author states that Cornelia’s gift to all of us was her love for landscape architecture, and it is our obligation to continue to spread her wisdom to the generations of landscape architects to come.

Those who affectionately called her by her first name, ‘Cornelia’, expressed immense respect for what she had achieved as a global leader in landscape architecture, as well as gratitude for having known her. They also acknowledged her generosity, interest in meeting and connecting people, and her willingness to share her wealth of knowledge with everyone.

Cornelia was a global player in landscape architecture for over 70 years. She was educated at Harvard by some of the 20th century’s most respected thinkers in the world of design, including Walter Gropius. After graduation she trained with two of landscape architecture’s most famous practitioners, James Rose and Dan Kiley. As the 6th woman to study landscape architecture at Harvard, she paved the way for the numerous women leading the way in the field today. She served as a role model, providing confidence and support for woman in a profession which was until then predominantly male.

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Cornelia was a landscape architect who lead by example, and by the highest standards of the design process. She researched each project carefully which can be read about in Susan Herrington’s book, Cornelia Hahn Oberlander: Making the Modern Landscape. She was always two steps ahead of the day’s design discourse, which is evident when one reviews the design topics she began to address as early as the middle of the 20th century, long before others did. These include community engagement when designing outdoor spaces for housing, developing matrices for different play area programs, supporting the design of play areas to be more engaging for children and parents through their design elements and site grading, and, working together with architect Arthur Erickson on the design of the UBC Anthropology Museum in the late 1970s, acknowledging the respectful integration of First Nations’ traditions. This was achieved in the building’s form, by using native and First Nations’ plants, and in expressing the healing of the land with her gently graded integration of the building within the landscape.

Solving both contemporary and future design problems

In recent years she worked in the Northwest Territories, invited by the First Nations to design landscapes for schools and public buildings. Here she incorporated First Nations and native planting palettes and landscape architecture interventions sensitive to the local climate, climate change and the people living there. In conversations with her, she expressed her deep fondness and gratitude for the Northwest Territories and the work she was allowed to engage in there. Cornelia’s design talent, at all scales, of understanding local people, the environment and its context was unmatched anywhere else in the profession. Cornelia led the way in solving both contemporary and future design problems during her 70-year-long career.

Complex and forward-thinking technologies in green roof design

She received all the prestigious local, national and international prizes and awards available to honour landscape architects, as well as many honorary doctorates and the highest civil honours from Canada and British Columbia. Vancouver’s rarely bestowed Freedom of the City Award was also awarded to her. She collaborated with some of the most prominent architects in both this and the last century and was responsible for numerous ground-breaking projects including complex and forward-thinking technologies in green roof design, playground design, public open space design (including the ‘stramp’ at Robson Square), planting design and the use of native plants.

“Cornelia lived landscape architecture”

Apart from her ground-breaking designs, she was very generous with her time when students, professionals and researchers wanted to share their passion for landscape architecture with her. Until quite recently Cornelia would share her wisdom, gladly explaining her projects on site to our UBC students, dropping in on studio reviews, encouraging students with her comments, visiting most of the professional lectures offered at SALA and presenting her projects to our students in her lectures. Cornelia lived landscape architecture. Landscape architecture was her vehicle for connecting, enticing passion, initiating conversation and encouraging political activism to protect nature and the environment, including people in Canada and around the world.

Cornelia fled Germany with her mother and sister in 1938, two weeks after Kristallnacht, when the Nazis burned down the country’s synagogues, an experience which was deeply rooted in her conscious. In numerous conversations we discussed these events, and being both German and Canadian, and sensitized to the subject, I was humbled to hear how much she kept the German culture, language and connection alive despite her family having to flee the country. We enjoyed speaking German on and off and shared the humour of the German language.

“Grading is more important than planting.”

Cornelia radiated positiveness. She made everyone who met her excited about landscape architecture, history and the environment, and was especially interested in how people could engage with the environment. Every time I left her house, or after we had dinner together or she came to one of my parties, or we sat in her garden enjoying the plants and the grading of her garden, (she always said: “Grading is more important than planting.” and I agreed) I felt invigorated and inspired. Just to be with her and listen, watch and learn was a gift that cannot be easily expressed in words. Cornelia’s gift to all of us was her love for landscape architecture, and it is our obligation to continue to spread her wisdom to the generations of landscape architects to come.

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Want to learn more about great women architects who have been working, observing and thinking about the transformations shaping the cities of today and tomorrow for over 70 years? Watch the film City Dreamers by Joseph Hillel. Among others it tells the story of Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, who reinvented how we develop urban green spaces and introduced the concept of green roofs in several major cities.