Pre-christmas get-together with a pioneer in landscape architecture

Daniel Roehr, Associate Professor at the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture of the University of British Columbia, remembers his last years‘ pre-Christmas conversation with landscape architect great Cornelia Hahn Oberlander. Over Lebkuchen (gingerbread) they talked about career starting points, inspiration, design principles and the role of landscape architecture in tackling climate change.

It’s almost a year ago when I met Cornelia Hahn Oberlander during our traditional German Christmas tea with “Nürnberger Lebkuchen”, which we enjoy once a year at Point Grey in Vancouver where she lives. It happened after the news was announced that a prize equivalent to the architects Pritzker Prize will be created in her name and be awarded every two years starting in 2021 to a deserving landscape architect word wide. This prize has a value of 100.000 USD and will be the highest award the international community of landscape architects can bestow upon a person. There is no doubt, that there is no better landscape architecture visionary than Cornelia Hahn Oberlander deserving this honour. Cornelia has been awarded most, if not all, international prizes, awards, honoree doctorates available including the highest category, The Companions of the Order of Canada for the work she did for the field of landscape architecture throughout her career, spanning more than 70 years of practice. She is a pioneer, visionary and passionate about the field of landscape architecture and is still practicing, lecturing and turned 99 in 2020.

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“She is a pioneer, visionary and passionate about the field of landscape architecture and is still practicing, lecturing and turned 99 in 2020.”

The place where she lives, Point Grey in Vancouver, is near The University of British Columbia where I also teach as a professor since 2006, and where she holds an honorary professorship, and where she has been a lifelong supporter of our students and faculty.

Visiting her home always reminds me of a floating slender rectangular two-story wooden box like structure, with more large glazed panels from floor to ceiling then solid walls, and opening up to the surrounding nature. A ravine with a stream runs below her house, experienced in full, once one passes through the entrance door. Everything inside floats, the stairs, the walkway on the second floor, the walls and ceilings. The horizontal elements open up to the sky, welcoming the light in, while the vertical elements guide the views to the garden she designed, and also to spectacular views of nature surrounding the property and small peaks on islands rising above the distant Pacific Ocean.

“Her home is an architectural gem, a building which respects the landscape.”

It is an architectural gem, a building which respects the landscape, floating above, barely touching the ground only with small stilts, creating an atmosphere like a child’s small footsteps walking through a precious planted forest floor. And the buildings front garden is a sensitive ‘Cornelia graded’ undulating landscape which respects the buildings location and its natural context, protecting the existing trees and the grading. This is the way Cornelia always designs with respect to and for nature, be it a garden, a green roof, a park or a public square.

“Landscape architects need to study the plants behavior with climate change and use wildin.”

Asking her about climate change and the role of the landscape architects, she replied: “landscape architects need to study the plants behavior with climate change and use wilding – plants that establish themselves”. It is a timely answer, as to adapt plants and their habitat to the changing climate worldwide is important for designers today and in the future. Cornelia is always informed about current environmental issues, and shows me the newest books she is reading. When asking her about who influenced her she replies: “her mother Beate Hahn”. Beate Hahn wrote gardening books while living in Berlin, was an avid gardener, educator and a good friend of Karl Förster. But her mother was strict and when they immigrated to the US, Cornelia had to find her own path to landscape architecture. My colleague Susan Herrington has written a very detailed book about Cornelia’s life called: Cornelia Hahn Oberlander: Making the Modern Landscape, University Virginia Press 2013 which one should read.

“Already as an 11-year-old child she was inspired by ‘greening the world’”

Asking her ‘why landscape architecture’ she replied: “that already as an 11-year-old child she was inspired by ‘greening the world’”. Also, the experience of being painted with her sister Charlotte, by Sabine Lepsius, a German portrait painter (1864 – 1942) against a forest background had a big impact on her, how she would perceive landscape. This portrait can be seen in the Jewish Museum in Berlin.

When asking about her ‘design principles’ she replied what is important is: “the concept, design development, implementation and site supervision”, and followed up answering to my question on‘obstacles for the profession’ in summarizing: “many obstacles exist for the young professionals with ‘bureaucracy’ and we need to change the attitude for landscapes”. By this she meant, that landscape architecture has a big role to play in design today, it’s not a niche subject anymore.

“Our focus should be on the ‘practice’ of the field, and bureaucratic hurdles should be kept to a minimum.”

Although the conversation was short, her message for the profession is clear, landscape architecture is practiced inside and outside, its medium – the plants and soils are alive, and the landscapes system players, such as climate are changing and we need to adapt. Our focus should be on the ‘practice’ of the field, and bureaucratic hurdles should be kept to a minimum.

Landscape architecture has finally been recognized as an important influential design field worldwide. It is through visionaries, like Cornelia Hahn Oberlander and others, whose work inspires landscape architects to continue to practice and also research ways to improve this practice in this much needed profession. The Cornelia Hahn Oberlander Prize is a ‘giant leap’ for the international landscape architecture profession fifty years after Neil Armstrong said: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”