Cornelia Hahn Oberlander’s Unshakable Confidence
For nearly a century, right up until her death on May 22 last year, landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander tended her garden, greened the concrete of big cities across the world, and sowed seeds that became forests.
Photos—Yoshihiro Makino / Trunk Archive
November 16, 2016. In a voice both sure and tremulous, Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, then 95 years old, addresses the auditorium at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montréal. Behind her, an image of a peat bog is projected onto a screen. In 1992 this landscape artist was commissioned for a colossal project: landscaping the Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly building in Yellowknife, north of the 60th parallel. As soon as she arrived, she noticed the effects of climate change, a phenomenon that was not as often spoken of at the time: in particular, the melting of the permafrost, which affects the growth of plants. The work that was set to begin had a high risk of causing irreparable harm to the already-disturbed environment of the site. During the months it took to construct the building, she fought tooth and nail to protect even the smallest spruce tree. And she managed what had previously seemed impossible: her work restored the site’s biodiversity.
“With her, it was ecology, in the larger sense of the word,” says Phyllis Lambert, architect and philanthropist from Montréal, who met her in the 1970s. “She was a woman who was so convinced of what had to be done, so direct and funny,” she adds.
From the children’s park designed for Expo 67 to the green roofs of Robson Square, and from the Vancouver Public Library to the National Gallery in Ottawa, Cornelia Hahn Oberlander brought an innovative approach at every level, mixing curiosity and technical knowledge.
In her hands, landscape architecture represented the art of the possible: a tool with many applications in the face of a changing climate. Her whole life, she preferred large public projects to residential developments. When asked why, she’d simply shrug: “I’m not a psychologist.”
Oberlander was born in Germany in 1921 into a well-to-do family, and spent her childhood in a large garden. Her mother, Beate Hahn, was the author of a book about the importance of nature for little ones. In the midst of the Second World War, the members of the Hahn family — like many other Jewish people — had to drastically change their lives in order to survive. Beate waited until the last minute before fleeing Nazi Germany with her two daughters and settling in the United States. Cornelia began her career in 1950 in Philadelphia, after finishing her studies at Harvard. Together with her husband, urban planner Peter Oberlander, she moved to Vancouver in 1953 and discovered the West Coast. “She came from the east with ideas about working as a team with architects and engineers, developing concepts, and using the principles of modernism she had learned at Harvard,” says Elisabeth Whitelaw, a retired landscape architect. While also raising three children, she threw herself into the development of large playgrounds. The ones she designed for Expo 67 caused a sensation.
“She saw that children could play with any old thing. All the prefab stuff in parks today is just hideous. Cornelia used natural elements: water, wood, and rocks.”
Oberlander went on to join the team of architect Arthur Erickson and worked with him on several projects — including the 1974 development of Robson Square, a vast, multi-tiered public square with abundant greenery right in the middle of downtown Vancouver. “In North America there had been quite a few developments of green roofs in the 1970s, but in Vancouver it was relatively new. Robson Square was so complex. She was exploring all these technological things, irrigation for example, that allowed the rooftop plants to thrive,” explains Susan Herrington, professor of landscape architecture at the University of British Columbia.
To reach Oberlander’s house in Vancouver, you had to first go through a tunnel: a dark hedge of hemlocks nearly 25 feet tall. “It was really dramatic,” remembers Elisabeth Whitelaw. Whitelaw walked this path hundreds of times, having been Oberlander’s only collaborator for 25 years, from 1988 to 2013. “I never really understood how wonderful a modern house could be until I worked there all those years.”
Of the garden of native plants surrounding the house, Oberlander would say:
“If we want to be successful in this part of the world, in the face of climate change, we should use only the plants that were described by Archibald Menzies when he travelled up the coast with Captain George Vancouver […]. This is our ecology. And this garden, here, with the exception of the fruit trees, this is our ecology. Rhododendrons, ferns, moss . . .”
Oberlander’s desire to be faithful to a site’s original ecology faced a major challenge in the boreal forest in the 1990s: there was no local nursery that offered the native plants she needed to repair the scars left by the work site at the Legislative Assembly in Yellowknife. She had the idea of going to a “seed saver” to find rosehip, bearberry, and edible native plant seeds. Altogether, 2,000 plants were seeded in a greenhouse in Vancouver and then transported to be planted on site. “This set a whole precedent for building in the North, because then other people did that. The nursery we use grows thousands of plants destined for northern ecosystems,” Whitelaw explains.
Oberlander passed away on May 22 last year, having contracted COVID-19 — barely a month before celebrating her 100th birthday. She kept working right up until the end — or almost. The Canadian Centre for Architecture does not intend to let her be forgotten; her decisive work is accessible in a trust.
According to Elisabeth Whitelaw, her greatest legacy lies elsewhere, in the seeds we sow, from childhood onward.
“There’s this photograph of Cornelia walking beside her mother and holding her hand. She must be about four years old; her gaze is bright and full of confidence. Cornelia always said that taking risks was a key element of her work. She wouldn’t have been able to accomplish all these things if she hadn’t had such unshakable confidence in herself and her ideas, which carried through to all areas of her life.”
Eugénie Emond is an independent journalist. She is also finishing her master’s in gerontology at the University of Sherbrooke. This year, her work was awarded two Grand Prizes for independent journalism and a gold medal at the Digital Publishing Awards.