In Memoriam: Cornelia Hahn Oberlander

Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, 1921-2021.

By Susan Cohen, FASLA

Kiku Hawkes Photography

As a schoolgirl in Germany in the late 1930s, Cornelia Hahn was told to slow down—a Jewish girl must not win the school track meet. In 1938, after a harrowing escape from the Nazis—to England by train with her mother and sister—Cornelia made a point of never, ever slowing down.

Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, who decided at age 11 that she would be a landscape architect, became one of the most renowned and admired practitioners of our time, building a distinguished, influential, and generous-spirited career that lasted almost eight decades. She died in Vancouver, British Columbia, her adopted city, on May 22, 2021, just a few weeks short of her 100th birthday. Until her final week, she spoke by telephone about the progress (and lack of progress) of her most recent project.

Cornelia’s adult life had two orbits: her family and her work. Family—her husband, Peter, the noted urban planner, who died in 2008; her three children; and her four grandchildren—came first. She was always proud of them and eager to relate stories of their accomplishments. For Cornelia, friends counted as family, and she gave the gift of friendship freely.

But her career engaged her intensely, and her strong work ethic was evident even during her student years at Smith College. She often shared the story of being kept awake by noisy late-night discussions of women’s rights in Betty Friedan’s nearby dorm room, and of how she suggested to the group that getting a good night’s sleep and concentrating on their studies might be a better way for women to become successful.

After Smith, Cornelia entered Harvard’s Graduate School of Design as one of the first women in the landscape architecture program. Walter Gropius, then chair of the Department of Architecture, was a strong influence on Cornelia’s lifelong embrace of a modernist aesthetic, and she mentioned him often. One of her favorite ways of announcing her approval of a design—any kind of design—was to state emphatically, “That’s minimalism PLUS, my dear!”

Upon graduating from Harvard in 1947, Cornelia worked for Louis Kahn and Oscar Stonorov in Philadelphia and in Vermont for Dan Kiley, who, she said, told her, “Cornelia, walk lightly in the woods.” She answered, “But Dan, I always wear sneakers.” Then she realized what he really meant. This was one of her favorite stories.

It was at Harvard that Cornelia met Peter Oberlander, who was working on a PhD in urban and regional planning. Together they moved to Vancouver in 1953, and, some years later, built a handsome glass-walled house. Designed by Peter with the architect Barry Downs, it floats above and within a small forest; only at the front entrance does the first floor touch the ground. From the beginning, Cornelia worked at home, and her office there is simple, well-proportioned, and functional, with trees in view and her large library at hand.

Despite her frequent pronouncement, “Cornelia does not do flowers,” she delighted in the pots of annuals—usually in hot colors—that welcomed visitors at her front door every summer. If the flowers went unnoticed, she pointed them out. Up a few rustic steps and out of sight is the simple swimming pool she designed and used daily when the Vancouver weather permitted. Here, too, she allowed a few flowering plants, including a favorite pink climbing rose that was always in bloom on her June 20th birthday.

It is fitting that the first public success of Cornelia’s career was the innovative and highly lauded Children’s Creative Center at Montreal’s Expo 67, as she never lost her playful spirit and her sense of joy—until her disheartening COVID-related confinement at home. Joy was Cornelia’s default mode, and she often insisted that one must put work aside to make time for fun and the pleasures of life. For her, these pleasures included gatherings with friends and family, ceremonial occasions, good food, travel, museums, and music—especially the opera.

Materials mattered to Cornelia, and, just as she sought out the best modular systems for her green roofs and the highest quality plant material for her projects, and even the best small orange juicer for her kitchen, she took great pleasure in buying the perfect outfit for each occasion. Like the materials she chose for her designs, or the furniture by Bertoia, Saarinen, and Le Corbusier in her home, her clothing purchases were meant to last. She wore her orange wool jacket for well over a decade, and she is wearing it in a photograph taken in Thomas Church’s Donnell Garden on a 2006 trip organized by the Cultural Landscape Foundation.

Cornelia also held strong opinions on the best brands to buy for different aspects of her work, from comfortable walking shoes to the hip boots in which she installed plants in her rain garden at the VanDusen Botanical Garden Visitor Centre. (In those boots, “I placed every plant myself,” she said. She was then 90.) She even had the perfect “schlep bag,” as she called it, in which she carried all her necessary papers. She found the right outfits in which to install plants near the Arctic Circle (Yellowknife, in the Northwest Territories), to give lectures (probably more than a hundred), and to accept an honorary degree (of which there were at least a dozen). Also, she only bought things that packed well, and she always traveled with one small carry-on bag, even on long trips. For special events, Cornelia most admired Zonda Nellis, whose garments she treasured as art as much as clothing.

Like most landscape architects, Cornelia loved outdoor activities. Never deterred by rough weather, she once suggested, while visiting friends, that they take a walk together during a frightful blizzard. (They did.) In winter, downhill skiing at Whistler every weekend was a high priority until Cornelia was in her early 80s, when she switched to cross country. Also, for many years she and a childhood friend would meet in Switzerland for weeklong summertime hikes in the Eglantine. And, of course, all who knew her can attest to how fast she walked.

Her children’s playground at Montreal’s Expo 67 led to many others—a total of 70 in Canada. As her work drew more recognition, more commissions followed, including many residential projects that still stand the test of time.

For the landmark rooftop of Vancouver’s downtown Robson Square, Cornelia was interviewed by the architect Arthur Erickson. She told him that she wanted to bring the trees that surrounded Vancouver into the city. She was hired and began work in 1974. The project brought her fame, both as an inventive designer and as a pioneer in green roof construction. In what became her standard practice, her innovative designs were fired by her expansive imagination but, importantly, also informed by extensive research.

A few years later, Cornelia’s iconic landscape for Erickson’s new Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia honored First Nations peoples with a design for a large reflecting pool with a shell beach that evoked the landscape of Haida Gwaii, the archipelago off the coast of British Columbia that is home to the Haida people. Although the museum opened in 1976, the permanent reflecting pond was not realized until 2010, at which time a meadow and an ethnobotanical area planted with maples, hemlocks, barberries, and ferns were added to the landscape. Cornelia was particularly proud of this project, but, with the frustrations of long delays, she most likely relied often on the power of her five guiding “P” words: patience, persistence, politeness, professionalism, and passion.

In addition to her work with Arthur Erickson, Cornelia partnered with several other renowned architects, including Renzo Piano (for the atrium in the New York Times building), Moshe Safdie (for the National Gallery in Ottawa and, more recently, the Vancouver Public Library), and Perkins&Will (for the VanDusen Botanical Garden Visitor Centre). A year or so ago, she was very excited to relate that she had been chosen to work with Shigeru Ban, whom she very much admired. Collaborating with architects, engineers, and other professionals became a signature of Cornelia’s work. She credited Harvard’s GSD for promoting this collaborative approach, and she believed it was essential for the responsible practice of landscape architecture.

Just as she was an early proponent of professional collaborations, Cornelia began decades ago to speak passionately about the importance of sustainable, ecologically sensitive landscape design. She often said, simply, “We must make the world more green.” The award-winning C. K. Choi building on the University of British Columbia campus, which opened in 1996, exemplified this approach, and Dan Kiley would have been pleased with the way the building (a collaboration with the architect Eva Matsuzaki and the engineer Jeanette Frost) sits “lightly in the woods.” For this project, Cornelia placed the proposed building within the boundaries of an existing parking lot, successfully retaining a mature grove of existing trees. As a result of this collaboration of professionals, the building itself exceeded all the sustainability criteria then in effect and remains well-known for its many sustainable features.

At her funeral service, Rabbi Dan Moskovitz discussed the concept, fundamental to Judaism, of tikkun olam, which is usually translated as “repairing the world.” But in reference to Cornelia, he reinterpreted this concept, calling it “repairing the earth,” and credited her, appropriately, with devoting her life to that goal.

Cornelia’s delight in creating each new design was infectious. Yet she was equally enthusiastic about the work of other landscape architects she admired. She had her favorites, and you know who you are because she told you so. During a trip to Japan in 1993, she arranged for a special visit to the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo to view the roof garden designed by the landscape architect and Zen priest Shunmyō Masuno, known for his dramatic use of stone in contemporary landscapes. The stones he chose for this project represent the geological character of Canadian bedrock and the ruggedness of Canadian topography. Cornelia, who was seeing it for the first time, was full of praise.

In addition to her multiple honorary degrees, including one from Smith College, Cornelia received the International Federation of Landscape Architects’ prestigious Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe Award in 2011 for “outstanding contribution to landscape architecture through her lifelong commitment to her chosen profession.” She was named a Fellow of both the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects (CSLA) and the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA). She also received the ASLA Medal, the society’s highest honor. In 2016, she received the CSLA’s highest honor as well, as the inaugural recipient of the Governor General’s Medal in Landscape Architecture. She received the Order of Canada three times, in ascending levels of honor, including, in 2017, the highest, Companion, and she proudly wore her snowflake pin at professional meetings.

In the 2018 documentary film City Dreamers, Cornelia was featured along with Phyllis Lambert (a lifelong friend), Blanche Lemco van Ginkel, and Denise Scott Brown. In 2019, she was announced as the namesake of the new Cornelia Hahn Oberlander International Landscape Architecture Prize, which was created by the Cultural Landscape Foundation. The first award will be presented this year.

This past January, an exhibition, Cornelia Hahn Oberlander: Genius Loci, opened in Vancouver and then moved on to Alberta.

I first met Cornelia in the spring of 1984 at Smith College’s annual Alumnae College, an event with lectures by faculty and alumnae on a single topic. The topic that year was “The Garden.” I was among the presenters, but the keynote lecture was given by Cornelia, and the auditorium was packed.

I almost missed meeting her, as our talks took place concurrently and in different buildings. I ran to Wright Hall, but I need not have worried. As I was yet to learn, Cornelia never left a lecture hall without spending time with everyone who wanted to talk with her. She invited me to walk with her to visit a campus garden, and, for half an hour or so, we talked about our affection for Smith and about gardens. And we discovered we had a mutual friend in Vancouver. As we parted, she gave me an unexpected hug and said, “Susan Cohen, friends for life.”

I saw her next at the Museum of Modern Art’s 1988 symposium Landscape and Architecture in the Twentieth Century, at which Cornelia was the only woman speaker. (Among the other speakers were Dan Kiley, Vincent Scully, Ian McHarg, John Dixon Hunt, Kenneth Frampton, and Marc Treib, Honorary ASLA.) In the moments before the doors to the lecture hall opened, I saw Cornelia. As I walked toward her, she looked up, smiled, and said, “Susan Cohen, friends for life.” I was astonished. There had been no communication between us in the intervening four years.

As she has done for countless others, Cornelia changed my life. And she did it that morning by insisting I attend the upcoming ASLA Annual Meeting in Portland, Oregon, which is where, for the first time, I could see a place for myself in the profession.

In the following decades, Cornelia and I attended almost every ASLA Annual Meeting together, playing hooky twice: in Chicago to visit the Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in Oak Park, and in Denver to watch the Metropolitan Opera’s “Live in HD” production of The Barber of Seville. She often stayed with us in Connecticut, and we toured parks and gardens throughout the area. (Her favorites included the PepsiCo Headquarters by Russell Page in Purchase, New York, and Teardrop Park by Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, in New York City.) She lectured twice in the series I coordinate at the New York Botanical Garden. We visited Smith in support of the Landscape Studies Program she helped to found there. We traveled together to Japan (for a Smith College symposium, Greening the City, in Tokyo and to visit the gardens of Kyoto), to Italy (to see Pompeii, which decades later inspired her design for the roof garden of the Vancouver Public Library), and to Germany (to tour Landschaftspark Duisburg Nord with her friend, the landscape architect Anneliese Latz).

And we talked regularly by telephone. As is well known, Cornelia was always direct, and she offered advice freely. Among her many words of wisdom to me over the past 40 years, three directives stay in my mind:

Remember, grading is everything.
You must do your research.
Never retire.

Susan Cohen, FASLA, is the principal of Susan Cohen Landscape Architect in Greenwich, Connecticut, and the author of The Inspired Landscape: Twenty-One Leading Landscape Architects Explore the Creative Process (Timber Press, 2015).

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