Dancing to the Music of our Time - Residential and Public Projects by Cornelia Hahn Oberlander

Friedman Residence (Fred Lasserre Architect), c.1955. Landscape Architect: Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, Collection of West Vancouver Art Museum. Photo: Selwyn Pullan. Résidence Friedman (Frederic Lasserre, architecte), vers 1955. Architecte paysagiste : Cornelia Hahn Oberlander. Collection du West Vancouver Art Museum. Photo: Selwyn Pullan.

Dancing to the Music of our Time Residential and Public Projects by Cornelia Hahn Oberlander

Hilary Letwin

“Treat all landscape as part of an educational learning experience.”

– Cornelia Hahn Oberlander

A number of Cornelia Hahn Oberlander’s lifelong tenets have been tested over the course of the last year, while the C-19 pandemic stilled much of the world. At the beginning, public institutions, such as libraries and museums shuttered their doors. Schools closed, their students sent home and playgrounds secured to prevent the spread of the virus. Conversely, outdoor spaces and landscapes, including many gardens designed by Oberlander across Canada, remained accessible. While confined close to home, nature was a singular source of comfort for many.

An early proponent of non-manufactured playgrounds, Oberlander knew long before pandemic parents that children do not necessarily need slides and swings, climbing frames and teeter-totters to play outside. With playgrounds closed, my own children gleefully climbed the giant boulders on the beach and dug in the sand daily, enjoying themselves thoroughly, begging regularly to go “rock climbing”. My wobbly 4-year-old became increasingly more balanced and brave, coaxed by my older daughter, who asked myriad questions about the environment around us. Our landscape was a vital source of enjoyment and a learning experience; a powerful antidote to virtual classrooms and video playdates.

A mother of three children herself, Oberlander has long been an advocate of the functional and understated. However, “understated” here can be deceptive. It is important to highlight that every one of Oberlander’s designs has been informed by vast amounts of research. Unlike many other artistic disciplines, landscape design is perhaps more prone and vulnerable to change not originally intended by its creator. While one may not dare adjust an artist’s painting or sculpture, a landscape design can be altered easily over time. Many of Oberlander’s understated and well-researched designs secure their longevity, as they are less faddish and tied to a particular period style, and are more likely to blend many different design traditions and histories together.

It could be argued that this timeless quality that characterizes her work is a direct result of her own life experiences and, to a large degree, her education. While reflecting on her life, she frequently says that she “always looked forward and never back”. In 1938, at the age of 17, Oberlander fled Nazi Germany to America with her mother and sister. They moved to New Hampshire where her mother, a professional horticulturalist, bought and ran a 200-acre farm. Oberlander attended Smith College in Massachusetts, one of the Seven Sister colleges dedicated to a rigorous liberal arts education for women. At Smith, she studied with Kate Ries Koch, learning about Frederick Law Olmsted, and the gardens of the Renaissance and the ancient world. Following Smith, she was among the first women accepted to study at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University. She graduated in 1947 with a special focus on Modernism, already cognizant of the need for architects and landscape architects to work in tandem.

It was at Harvard where she met her husband of 55 years, Peter Oberlander, an urban planner originally from Austria: they were introduced, fittingly, on a weekend outing to Thoreau’s Walden Pond.1 After Harvard, Cornelia and Peter maintained their relationship at a distance. She worked in Philadelphia, doing landscape designs for the Philadelphia Housing Authority, more about which Amery Calvelli, co-curator, writes in her essay. In 1953, over the winter holidays, Cornelia and Peter married in New York and she moved with him to Vancouver, where he had been selected to spearhead the University of British Columbia’s new Community and Regional planning program. Their work, ostensibly independent from each other, was also indelibly intertwined: Cornelia and Peter shared many of the same design tenets, common goals and colleagues in Vancouver and around the world. Additionally, both were significantly influenced by their professors and classmates at Harvard, and in particular, by Walter Gropius, founder of the German Bauhaus school, and originally an acquaintance of Cornelia’s father.

The ties to Modernism visible in Oberlander’s work encompass not only her affinity for the understated, the functional and the socially responsive, but also the small details that may get lost at first glance. She was trained at Harvard to approach the planning of a garden using abstraction and guided by “modern theories of perception by linking colour, form, and the configuration of objects.”3 The way in which she planned a project was informed by these modern theories: in 1953, following her arrival in Vancouver, she was tasked with designing and establishing a garden for a modern house that was being designed by Frederic Lasserre, the Director of the University of British Columbia’s newly formed School of Architecture.

This split-level residence was being built for the Friedmans, both medical doctors, recently transplanted from Montreal. Oberlander’s resulting design was among the first modern gardens in Vancouver. While creating the plan view for this project and many more, she used square construction-paper cut-outs based on the module of the building to represent a range of components, in this case, the plants, heather, juniper and periwinkle. This method allowed her to test different variations.4 Among her most noteworthy alterations to conventional garden design here was the use of gravel, in lieu of lawn in the lower, front garden. This choice went beyond the aesthetic and was made in part because they had encountered hardpan, a dense layer of soil that is usually impervious to water, directly under the surface soil, which “made earthmoving impractical.”5 The unusual triangular lot of the Friedman residence also allowed for more contiguous landscaping than would be typical on a rectangular lot. As has been observed by Susan Herrington,

“Oberlander used the lines from the structure, the property line, and contours to integrate the site with the house. Given the steep slope of the land, the entrance is located at the ground floor, where a line created by a bank of heather leads the eye away from the house to join the invisible lines of the site’s contours.”6

 According to Oberlander, in an interview that she gave in 2008, this garden is “really abstract art applied to the ground.”7 In an early design, Oberlander incorporated paving stones in a grid laid asymmetrically, forming an abstract pattern. A small gesture, the design of these paving stones declare her allegiance early on to Modernism for both practical and aesthetic reasons. Throughout her career, she continued to use the module approach when designing projects, her abstract shapes helping her to find the best combination of colours, profiles and spacing for each site.

In 1964, nearly a decade after their time at Harvard, Gropius wrote in a letter to his students:

“Act as if you were going to live forever and cast your plans way ahead. By this, I mean that you must feel responsible without time limitation, and the consideration whether you may or may not be around to see the results should never enter your thoughts.”8

Oberlander’s adherence to modernist practice and Gropius’s advice did not preclude for her an appreciation of cultural history. From early childhood, she benefited from an artistically-rich home life, surrounded by antique heirlooms, encouraged by her parents to read historical literature. These formative educational strands engendered in her a fully-rounded approach to the contemporary world, granting her a cohesive view that formed her into a visionary.

As has been observed by Rita Elizabeth Risser in an upcoming publication on Oberlander’s garden designs,

“Oberlander typically incorporates historical elements—old growth, mature trees, traditional uses and meanings of the land—into her designs…her landscapes have cognitive strata requiring understanding for full appreciation.”9

This can be seen in many of the projects featured in this exhibition, including in the garden Oberlander designed for the Rotman Residence (1994-1997) in Toronto, where she established a modern garden and drive, with echoes of the past. In consultation with the owners, Oberlander incorporated their historical garden ornaments, such as herms, and other elements that complemented the Georgian-style house.

A favourite exhortation of hers when approaching a new project is the importance of letting “the land dictate a horticultural response.” In order to do this, Oberlander will have considered not only the topography of a site, but also what flora and growing medium will work best. Among the items included in this exhibition is an irrigation plan for the National Gallery of Canada Taiga Garden (1984-8), demonstrating that her work is far more than what is visible above ground. Once the work has been done below ground level, Oberlander seeks out the plants and trees that will flourish, often prioritizing indigenous plants that will do best in their natural environment. While, now, this may seem a sensible and obvious approach, it was far from the norm of landscape design at the time that Oberlander began her work in the early 1950s.

Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, landscape architect, Landscape plan for Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly Building, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, April 1993. Inkjet on paper with ink and transfers, 61 x 91.3 cm. ARCH280743. Cornelia Hahn Oberlander fonds, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Gift of Cornelia Hahn Oberlander. Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, architecte paysagiste, Plan d’aménagement de paysage pour l’Édifice de l’Assemblée législative des Territoires du Nord-Ouest, Yellowknife, Territoires du Nord-Ouest, avril 1993. Jet d’encre sur papier avec encre et transferts, 61 x 91.3 cm. ARCH280743. Fonds Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, Centre Canadien d’Architecture, don de Cornelia Hahn Oberlander.

Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, landscape architect, Landscape plan for Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly Building, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, April 1993. Inkjet on paper with ink and transfers, 61 x 91.3 cm. ARCH280743. Cornelia Hahn Oberlander fonds, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Gift of Cornelia Hahn Oberlander. Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, architecte paysagiste, Plan d’aménagement de paysage pour l’Édifice de l’Assemblée législative des Territoires du Nord-Ouest, Yellowknife, Territoires du Nord-Ouest, avril 1993. Jet d’encre sur papier avec encre et transferts, 61 x 91.3 cm. ARCH280743. Fonds Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, Centre Canadien d’Architecture, don de Cornelia Hahn Oberlander.

This balance of knowledge and practical research grants her a long view and the opportunity to pioneer new methods. The benefits of this balance can be seen in her work for the Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly building in Yellowknife, also featured in this exhibition. Here, she employed a method she calls “invisible mending,” transplanting cultivated material in order to repair areas damaged during construction. Twenty-five years after the site was completed, the disruptions inflicted on the landscape remain completely imperceptible—the natural environment restored.

Oberlander’s dedication to conducting research is a characteristic for which she has been recognized throughout her career, as is attested to by Eva Matsuzaki in her essay within this publication. Her ability to consider and use the materials that would give her designs the most longevity can be seen also in the landscape at Robson Square, Vancouver. About this project, she wrote:

“Today, visitors to Robson Square do not realize the learning curve for greening roofs in 1974. The team had to analyse the loads on the roof, research lightweight growing medium and choose plant material that could withstand pollution.”10

  Montiverdi Estates (Arthur Erickson Architects), c. 1982. Landscape Architect: Cornelia Hahn Oberlander. Collection of West Vancouver Art Museum. Photo: John Fulker.

Montiverdi Estates (Arthur Erickson Architects), c. 1982. Landscape Architect: Cornelia Hahn Oberlander. Collection of West Vancouver Art Museum. Photo: John Fulker.

She recently observed that the selected growing medium at Robson Square aged well and was only replaced with a new medium in 2010. Another early example of her use of green roofs can be seen in her designs and notes related to the Montiverdi Estates (1979-82) in West Vancouver, BC. As part of a team at Arthur Erickson Architects, with Matsuzaki, Oberlander can be seen in her memo urging her colleagues to consider seeding the roofs with moss, which would serve both practical and aesthetic purposes.

The late Bing Thom once noted that Oberlander had “pioneered green roofs for everybody.”11 Along with Matsuzaki and Oberlander’s long-term associate, Elisabeth Whitelaw, Oberlander wrote the essential Introductory Manual for Greening Roofs, published in 2002 by the Public Works and Government Services of Canada.12 Her knowledge and experience developing early green roofs paid off in 1992, when she undertook the design of the roof at the top of the Vancouver Public Library, working with Moshe Safdie & Associates and Downs/Archambault and Partners.13 From the outset, she determined that her design must be pleasing, low-maintenance and employ effective storm water management. Twenty years after her roof was completed in 1995, it was determined that only 28% of the rain water enters the storm sewer as runoff: the rest is subsumed back into the roof ecosystem.14 The technology of green roofs has developed significantly over the last decades, in no small part because of Oberlander’s pioneering use and advocacy of them early on.

Oberlander’s role as an advocate for new and experimental methods, born from her research, has made her an essential member integral to larger teams of architects, designers, engineers and clients. Her long-lasting professional partnership with Erickson is one that she particularly cherishes. On his death in 2009, she wrote:

“How is it possible that we could do all these projects together?…We both roamed the woods, loved the mountains and the sea, and learned to appreciate nature early in life. Instinctively, we both understood ecology and were taught design by those trained in the Bauhaus method.”15

Together within teams of colleagues, Oberlander worked on over 15 projects by Arthur Erickson Architects. Perhaps lesser known are the many projects that she undertook with Barry Downs and his firm Downs/Archambault and Partners. These projects included the roof of the Vancouver Public Library, mentioned above, as well as the Kwantlen College, Langley Campus (1991-3) and, perhaps most tellingly, the garden of the home that the Oberlanders built themselves in 1970 on the University Endowment Lands in Vancouver.16 Downs, also a self-described Modernist, recognizes a deep kinship with Oberlander, observing:

“Her small gardens are minor masterpieces. Their compositions and intended psychological connections seem to be drawn from her substantial knowledge of modern art and the impact of dramatic understatement.”17

Early in the preparation of this exhibition, it was announced by the Cultural Landscape Foundation that they were naming their new prize in Landscape Architecture after Oberlander as a gesture of appreciation for all that she has accomplished in the field. Part of the Foundation’s campaign around the $100,000 bi-annual prize incorporated testimonies from the many women impacted by Oberlander professionally and personally. Among them are colleagues and friends, but also people she has met through her significant work as a volunteer with local schools in the establishment of playgrounds and gardens, who have themselves gone on to become architects and landscape architects. Over the course of an afternoon visiting with Oberlander at her home, it is not unusual for her to receive drop-in visits from friends in the industry, who want to show her their newest green roof materials, and phone calls from her many admirers, including directors of international art museums. Her reach in the last century, especially in Canada, is wide and remarkable. She has taken the words of her teacher, Gropius, to heart: “If your contribution has been vital, there will always be somebody to pick up where you left off, and that will be your claim to immortality.18

I am indebted to Susan Herrington in particular for her book, Cornelia Hahn Oberlander: Making the Modern Landscape (London and Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013). Without Herrington’s comprehensive and thoroughly-researched book, this project would have been infinitely more difficult.

End notes

  1. Also a refugee from Nazi Europe, Peter had experienced his own extraordinary flight from his home in Vienna, going first with his family to safety in England, only to be swept up in a group of recent Austrian, German and Italian refugees by Churchill’s government and sent to internment camps across England. Peter was then deported to Canada as a “prisoner of war” to work in labor camps in New Brunswick and Quebec, from which he was released in 1941, going on to attend McGill’s School of Architecture, where he studied with John Bland, Arthur Lismer, who was a member of the Group of Seven, and Frederic Lasserre. In 1945, upon graduation, he worked for the National Research Council, who awarded him a scholarship to attend the Graduate School of Design at Harvard Univ1. ersity. After Harvard, he moved to London to do work on behalf of the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation, where he spent time with Pierre Trudeau, who was studying at the London School of Economics. In 1950, Peter moved to Vancouver, followed by Cornelia 3 years later after their marriage. For details about Peter Oberlander’s life and career, I am indebted to Ken Cameron’s excellent book, Showing the Way: Peter Oberlander and the Imperative of Global Citizenship (Tellwell Talent, 2018).
  2. Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, interviewed by Charles A. Birnbaum, “Pioneers of American Landscape Design Oral History Series: Cornelia Hahn Oberlander Interview Transcript.” The Cultural Landscape Foundation, August 2008, 6. https://tclf.org/pioneer/oral-history/ornelia-hahn-oberlander.
  3. Herrington, 210.
  4. Herrington, 207.
  5. Herrington, 77; “Planned for Leisure Living: the UBC Home of Dr. and Mrs. Sydney M. Friedman,” Western Homes and Gardens, February, 1955, 11-15.
  6. Herrington, 77.
  7. Oberlander (2008), 9.
  8. Cameron, 48-9.
  9. Rita Elizabeth Risser, “Civil Landscapes” [preprint manuscript], 2020.
  10. Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, “The World Through Your Eyes,” Canadian Architect, October 2009, 28.
  11. CBC Ideas, “The Grand Dame of Green Design” produced by Yvonne Gall, aired October 18, 2013, on CBC Radio.
  12. Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, Elisabeth Whitelaw and Eva Matsuzaki, “Introductory Manual for Greening Roofs” (Public Works and Government Services Canada, Dec. 13, 2002).
  13. Components of Oberlander’s roof garden were originally intended to be accessible to the general public, but City Council voted unanimously that the roof garden would be off-limits. The second phase of the garden, also designed by Oberlander, was completed in 2018 and is fully accessible to the public off the 9th floor of the building. The Fraser River design, which tops the building, remains inaccessible except for annual maintenance. For the whole account of the building of the Library Square, see Herrington, 172-179.
  14. Oberlander (2008), 31.
  15. Oberlander (2009), 28.
  16. In fact, the Oberlanders won a design competition for the house hosted by the University Endowment Lands. The purpose of the design competition was to encourage contestants to have the least impact on the land. As their prize, the Oberlanders received the lot and five years later, were able to buy the land for $19,000. Oberlander (2008), 41.
  17. Barry Downs, letter to the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects as part of her nomination for the inaugural Governor General’s Medal on Landscape Architecture, January 15, 2016.
  18. Cameron, 48-9.