Forging the Way

Van Dusen Roof. Courtesy: Perkins and Will. Photo: Nic Lehoux. Toit VanDusen. Photo : Nic Lehoux, avec l’aimable autorisation de Perkins and Will.

Forging the Way

Cornelia Hahn Oberlander

From my 11th year onward, I had only one goal: to become a landscape architect and to design outdoor spaces for the enjoyment of all in our urban environment. Growing up in a garden with large trees and flowers, I learned to love and tend plants under the guidance of my mother Beate Jastrow Hahn, a horticulturalist and author. In order to prepare for my chosen profession, I went to Smith College in Massachusetts, learning about art, history, nature and landscape architecture. A few years later, I received a professional degree, a Bachelor of Landscape Architecture from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design.

There, Christopher Tunnard, Lester Collins and Walter Gropius opened my eyes to modernism. I learned to design for the needs of the present time, using a minimalist approach. In this milieu, I absorbed the basics of aesthetics: the harmonious use of line, form, colour and texture which is still expressed in my designs today.

Soon after, I discovered the connection between landscape and ecology from Dan Kiley, as we observed nature on early morning walks in the Vermont woods on our way for a quick dip in Lake Champlain. One day, Dan said, “Cornelia, walk lightly in the woods.” I replied, “But Dan, I always wear sneakers.” He looked at me quizzically and commented no further. It only dawned on me later that he meant ‘study the woodland and preserve it’. Thus I learned about the ecology of New England and later of the Pacific Northwest, along the coast of British Columbia in Canada. This created my life-long habit to look and to learn from nature.

Our Common Future, published in 1987 by the Brundtland Commission, recognized that environmental problems were global in nature. The report urged the UN General Assembly to establish policies for sustainable urban development. My late husband, Peter Oberlander, a professor and city planner, pressed this book into my hands, saying “This will change your landscapes.” And so it did.

Today more than ever, landscape architecture can be a leading profession because we are trained to look at the bigger picture of our built and natural environments. We cultivate our eco-systems and our social systems at both a local and a global scale. The challenges of climate change, hyper-urbanized growth in the developed and developing worlds, the loss of open space and agricultural lands, and resource scarcity are expanding the scale, methods and demands on our profession. We can’t solve these problems alone. As designers, we must become leaders of teams to develop site specific solutions in order to alleviate the ills of our environment.

At the 1960 International Federation of Landscape Architects conference in Amsterdam, Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe described a ‘table for eight’ where the eight professions whom he thought would contribute to the landscape of the future were seated. They include:

The architect
The landscape architect
The engineer
The horticulturalist
The town and country planner
The biologist
The artist, painter, sculptor
And the philosopher

Today, the scale of our environmental challenges demand an expanded cohort of professionals for the landscapes of the future. I would therefore reconfigure Jellicoe’s table to include:

The architect
The landscape architect
Structural and mechanical and cost consultants
The environmental consultant
The ecologist
The city planner
The sociologist
The hydrologist
The soil specialist
The politician

We need a new model for landscape architecture that integrates skills from all these professions. Joseph Brown described this succinctly in Topos as ‘art + engagement’. This model also requires ‘The Three Rs’: 1) responsibility, 2) willingness to take risks, and 3) research, which involves both analysis and synthesis. In large projects, which often take many years to complete, I like to infuse the process with VIM: vision, imagination and motivation. We must not be resistant to change how we practice, or be averse to risk taking. Collaboration and engagement with related professions can only expand and improve our profession.

If we want to maintain biodiversity, and keep the world green with healthy cities and healthy people, there is no time to lose. If we want landscape architecture to become the ‘art of the possible’, we must discover aesthetically pleasing solutions that are both ecologically and technically sound. The beauty of our natural world, which we must embrace with passion to understand the challenges confronting us, continues to inspire while reminding us that the planet is finite. There continues to be a global challenge of safe and affordable housing, and a gap between rich and poor around the globe. Land is a resource, not a commodity. We must limit our footprint on each site, while revealing new dimensions and designs for sustainable living.

I dream of Green Cities with Green Buildings where rural and urban activities live in harmony. Achieving a fit between the built form and the land has been my dictum. This can only be achieved if advocates for both the built and natural environments bring forward a collective creativity and dedication to face the enormous developmental challenges facing our increasingly crowded urban regions.