Preparation for the transfer of Cornelia Hahn Oberlander’s archives to the Canadian Centre for Architecture. Photo: Wendy Oberlander. Préparatifs pour le transfert d’archives de Cornelia Hahn Oberlander vers le Centre Canadien d’Architecture. Photo : Wendy Oberlander.

Preparation for the transfer of Cornelia Hahn Oberlander’s archives to the Canadian Centre for Architecture. Photo: Wendy Oberlander. Préparatifs pour le transfert d’archives de Cornelia Hahn Oberlander vers le Centre Canadien d’Architecture. Photo : Wendy Oberlander.

“It is all about grading.”

Martien de Vletter

When I spoke with her in January of 2018, Cornelia Hahn Oberlander kept repeating this sentence, which, in a way, has become her mantra.1 I was visiting her on behalf of the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA), as the last part of her archive was about to be shipped to the CCA. Witnessing an archive and the legacy it holds leaving its original environment is a very delicate moment for its creator and, at the same time, an exciting moment for its destined recipient. For months, Oberlander’s assistant, Amelia Sullivan, meticulously prepared the archive in order for it to be sent to the CCA in an organized manner. My visit allowed for Oberlander and Sullivan to discuss all of the projects in the archive, pointing out notable ones, the important stages in the design process, and the purpose of the different materials, including sketches and working drawings. Alongside her projects, we were able to discuss her library, her pedagogical work, documentation of her lectures, her collaborations with other architects, as well as her personal files. And during all of the casual conversations we had over the course of my visit and in the formal interview I held with her, she kept repeating: “It is all about grading.”2 Her words have stayed with me, and guided my selection of material to digitize from the archive.

The arrival of the first part of Oberlander’s archive at the CCA coincided with the exhibition The New Spirit: Modern Architecture in Vancouver 1938-1963.3 Oberlander donated fifty-five photographs of, and seven drawings for the landscaping project of the Sidney Friedman Residence, which was completed in 1954, and her own residence (designed by Barry Downs in collaboration with Peter Oberlander), as well as her planting plans for MacLean Park and Skeena Terrace, the first two housing projects to be backed by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation and part of Vancouver’s 1957 redevelopment scheme. It was from this donation that AP075 (“Archive Privée,” and the seventy-fifth archival arrival to the CCA) was born. Oberlander made much larger second and third donations of material to the CCA in 2002 (over 1000 drawings) and in 2006 (over 200 tubes of drawings and textual documentation).

Though the donation of her archive may have been instigated by the 1997 exhibition, it was also a logical consequence of the fact that the CCA had already received Arthur Erickson’s archive (AP020), which includes material by Cornelia Hahn Oberlander as part of projects that Oberlander and Erickson had collaborated on. When I asked about her working relationship with Erickson, Oberlander answered that his architecture articulated her landscape designs. While her in-depth knowledge of flowers, plants, trees and grasses is phenomenal, she, in fact, finds this aspect of her work to be the least important part of her designs. Instead, the idea of “sculpting the earth” is the crucial aspect of her work—an aspect that Erickson clearly understood. According to Oberlander, “he had a feeling for the land. I always thought that if he wasn’t an architect, he would have been a landscape architect”.

Over the course of the next ten years, more transfers were made from Vancouver to Montréal, and the archive, now at the CCA in full, documents Oberlander’s over 200 projects that span from 1954 to 2009.4 Her legacy can be read in materials for playground projects, roof gardens, public space landscapes and landscape designs for private residences. Her archive also includes administrative records from her practice and her professional engagements, and research material for her landscaping projects, lectures and publications, including her collection of nursery catalogues. Typically, the CCA would not collect nursery catalogues for its library, but receiving them as part of a private archive provides extremely valuable contextual information.

Oberlander’s attention to detail and precision goes beyond the grading of the land. Throughout all her projects, one clearly sees a concern for those using or inhabiting the spaces. Very early in her career, Oberlander was trained to care for the users of the spaces she designed. She considers her playground project at the intersection of 18th Street and Bigler Street in Philadelphia as formative, as it was her first public commission and required that she work with the local community. It was a complex intervention, stemming from the environment, which was charged with a lot of racial tension (a condition, which, unfortunately, has not changed, according to Oberlander, who has been back to the site many times). Through this project, Oberlander learned to work on the playground with and for the community (just as she did for her Expo 67 project) but also recognized the limitations of her role as a landscape architect.

Studying her drawings, something else stands out: their clarity and seeming simplicity. Oberlander said she learned to draw in this manner when working for Dan Kiley. While at first glance this drawing style can be thought to represent small or easy projects, it does not—she intentionally draws to facilitate communication with the intended users of her projects, and she is proud to have acquired this skill. Her drawings also demonstrate scalable, conceptual thinking and clearly convey her ecological approach, which is based on the planting descriptions Archibald Menzies documented in 1790, when he travelled along Canada’s Western coastline with Captain George Vancouver.

Cornelia Hahn Oberlander is generous, vocal and articulate in sharing her ideas about landscape design. Her archive is no different. If you look carefully at the drawings for the playground at Expo 67 or the private gardens in Vancouver, the landscape designs for Robson Square and the Museum of Anthropology, her lectures and articles you will see her affection for ecology, her ability to clearly share ideas and, of course, her attention to grading.5

End notes

  1. All the quotes used in this text are taken from the interview I conducted with Cornelia Oberlander on 16 January 2018 in Vancouver.
  2. “Grading” in the context of landscape architecture is the work of ensuring or modifying a level base, or in case of an uneven landform or slope, designing for positive drainage. For Oberlander, the understanding of the natural form of the land (and often slope) is the base of her work, as it will allow for natural water drainage, key in her landscape designs.
  3. The exhibition was organized by and presented at the CCA in 1997 and travelled to the Vancouver Art Gallery, where it was presented from 1997 to 1998 and then was on view at the Nickle Arts Museum in Calgary, in 1998.
  4. The CCA’s finding aid provides a full description of the archive and outlines all material that had been digitized: “Cornelia Hahn Oberlander fonds,” CCA,
  5. I wish to thank Ushma Thakrar, editor at the CCA, for editing this text.