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Remembering Cornelia Hahn Oberlander
May 25, 2021
The iconic landscape architect passed away on Saturday, May 22 at the age of 99
Cornelia Hahn Oberlander in her Vancouver home in 2018. Image by Yoshihiro Makino.
The SALA community mourns the passing of our dear friend and colleague, Cornelia Hahn Oberlander.
Cornelia Hahn Oberlander was one of the world’s leading landscape architects and Canada’s most famous. Her legacy is extraordinary. She leaves us with landscape architecture that is beautiful, artful, outspoken, and rich with insight about nature, people, civics, and the ties that bind them. She also leaves us with a model of how closely-held values of social integrity, creative collaboration, and ecology-informed landscape design can define and propel a productive seven-decade career. Cornelia was an exceptional, generous friend, an Honorary Professor at SALA, and recipient of an Honorary Law degree from UBC. Our faculty, students, and staff are proud and privileged to have known her and grateful for all that she has shared and inspired within us. Our school, our city, our country, and our professions will be a very different place without her but her teaching, influence, and impact will endure for a very long time.
Like some of our admired athletes, musicians, and artists, so many among us came to know ‘Cornelia’ on a first name basis - a respectful familiarity that always felt authentic and about right. Cornelia liked to say that she knew she wanted to be a landscape architect at age 11; a calling that led her to the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University, the sixth woman to graduate with a Bachelor of Landscape Architecture. Studying with Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius, she developed a deep commitment to social issues and the importance of cross-disciplinary collaborations - ideals she has expanded and refined throughout her career. Later, working with landscape architect Dan Kiley, she studied how ecological systems informed landscape design to, in his words, “walk lightly upon the land”.
In 1953, Cornelia and her late husband, the architect and planner Peter Oberlander, moved to Vancouver, a base from which she has designed over 350 parks, urban plazas, playgrounds, and rooftop gardens. These projects attest to a visionary integration of art, social need, and environment with many undertaken in collaboration with the world’s best-known architects. Among these many exemplary projects are: the celebrated playground design at the Children's Creative Centre for EXPO '67 in Montreal; the landmark urban plaza at Robson Square in Vancouver (with Arthur Erickson, 1973-1984); the native plant gardens at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa (with Moshe Safdie, 1988); the landscape of the Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly Building in Yellowknife (with Matsuzaki / Wright, 1995); the rooftop garden at the Canadian Consulate in Berlin (with Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg, 2005); the landscapes and rear reflection pool of the Museum of Anthropology at UBC (with Arthur Erickson and Stantec Architecture, 1976 and 2003 and following); the courtyard for the New York Times building in New York (with Renzo Piano and HM White Site, 2007); the rainwater garden and green roof at the VanDusen Botanical Garden Visitor Centre in Vancouver (with Peter Busby, Perkins and Will, 2011); and the Philips, Hager and North public garden for the roof of Library Square, the Vancouver Public library (Moshe Safdie, DA Architects + Planners, 2018).
Cornelia Hahn Oberlander at the Van Dusen Gardens in 2011. Image courtesy of Stuart McCall/North Light Images.
Through these and many other distinguished projects, Cornelia earned recognition of her talent and ability to combine art, natural systems, and social agendas through design. These contributions have earned multiple prestigious design honours and rare designation as a Fellow of both the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects (CSLA) and the American Society of Landscape Architects. In 1990 she was the first landscape architect to receive the Order of Canada. She was subsequently promoted as an Officer of the Order in 2009 and a Companion in 2017. In 2011, her work with Arthur Erickson at Robson Square and the UBC Museum of Anthropology received the Architecture Canada | RAIC Prix du XXe siècle. That same year she became the first woman to win landscape architecture’s most coveted prize, the International Federation of Landscape Architects’ Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe Award. In 2017, she won the LAF medal of the Landscape Architecture Foundation. In 2021, the Cultural Landscape Foundation will award the inaugural Cornelia Hahn Oberlander International Landscape Architecture Prize in honour of her accomplishments and effort to address social, environmental, and ecological issues through design.
In 2015, Cornelia received SALA’s Margolese National Design for Living Prize, honouring a Canadian who has made significant contribution to quality of life and living through design. The jury was exactly right in their recommendation: “Her landscapes are breathtaking, poetic, unforgettable, charged with meaning and above all, modernist. Her interests draw upon technical, ecological, symbolic and artistic practices at a range of scales from the entire planet to tiny neighbourhood parks. It is hard to imagine a living architect, planner or landscape architect in Canada whose profile could compare . . . Cornelia Oberlander is as close as we get to a household name in landscape architecture. She is quite frankly, a national treasure.”
SALA will hold a celebration in honour of Cornelia when our community returns to campus in the fall.