Cornelia Hahn Oberlander’s design with the natural environment for the Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly Building, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. Photo: Etta Gerdes. Design de Cornelia Hahn Oberlander avec l’environnement naturel pour l’Édifice de l’Assemblée législative des Territoires du Nord-Ouest, Yellowknife, Territoires du Nord-Ouest. Photo : Etta Gerdes.
It’s About Time: Cornelia Hahn Oberlander’s Playgrounds and Social Housing
Over a seven decade career, Cornelia Hahn Oberlander has brought urban inhabitants—both city dwellers and rural residents—into closer alignment with their natural environment. Her green roofs, starting in 1978 while working with architect Arthur Erickson on the horizontal high-rise and three-block roof garden of Robson Square Provincial Government Complex, have proven to be innovative technologically, but equally ground-breaking in connecting movement within the spaces between buildings.1 Fifteen years later, Oberlander, working with a women-led team of designers and engineers on the C.K. Choi Building for the Asian Institute of Research at the University of British Columbia, raised the “sustainability bar” with closed loop systems, even removing the need to connect the building to the municipal wastewater system. While the list of remarkable projects that Cornelia Hahn Oberlander has led is extensive, each advancing the practice of landscape architecture while bringing wilderness back into the city, the aspect of her work that is the focus of this exhibition is her unwavering commitment to the human relationship with the built environment, exemplified by her playgrounds and social housing.
“Play,” writes Oberlander, “is an interaction between the child and his environment.”2 Her playgrounds, of which there are over seventy in total, are an invitation to urban youth, teenagers and families to engage socially, to develop creatively and to find deeper connections with the natural environment. Using the language of physical activity, social interaction, and the research of educators, her playgrounds are a study in generating not only physical, but emotional connection.
In a comprehensive review of playgrounds as a movement, Swiss political scientist and urban planner Gabriela Burkhalter identifies four time periods: the social evolution of play and the increase in leisure time at the turn of the twentieth century; the 1930s focus on natural materials in playgrounds; an era of design in the 1960s infused with community engagement; and finally a diminished ambition with the introduction of safety regulations, two decades later, resulting in a bout of playground standardization. This latter period has been critiqued for reducing play to “protection” while obfuscating a child’s capacity to experiment and to take calculated risks.3
“What at first seemed like an insignificant niche,” Burkhalter writes, “turned out to be a realm of public experimentation, a cause of conflict between innovative and established perspectives, and something for both adults and children to project their desires onto—in short, playgrounds are sites of subversive potential.”4
Oberlander’s playgrounds in the early 1950s were at the forefront of a fertile time for playground design where pedagogy and social interaction were formative inputs into design. The potential revealed in Oberlander’s work lies in her persistence in stretching the boundaries of landscape architecture to instead think at the scale of planning and public good. She urged designers to consider a “new client,” one that was inclusive of the community and elected officials.5
As a Community Planner for the Citizens’ Council on City Planning between 1951-1953, Oberlander visited the neighbourhoods of North Philadelphia. The Citizens’ Council was groundbreaking at the time, one of the earliest efforts in the U.S. to integrate citizen engagement within the city planning process.6 Recalling one neighbourhood visit with a drug store owner, she describes how her inquiry about the empty lot adjacent to the store led immediately to a sketch for a park. Her sense of urgency was connected to the people living in the neighbourhood. It would fast track a promise of “the city someday will make a park” with her reply, “…but you need something right away, because it’s so crowded in your area.”7
View of children playing in hollow log from North Shore Neighbourhood House Playground, Vancouver, British Columbia, ca. 1970. ARCH401922.Cornelia Hahn Oberlander fonds, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Gift of Cornelia Hahn Oberlander. Photo: Selwyn Pullan. Enfants jouant dans un tronc d’arbre creux dans le terrain de jeu du North Shore Neighbourhood House, Vancouver, Colombie-Britannique, vers 1970.. ARCH401922. Fonds Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, Centre Canadien d’Architecture, don de Cornelia Hahn Oberlander. Photo: Selwyn Pullan.
Her work on the Citizens’ Council followed on the heels of a visioning exercise led by planner Edmund Bacon and architect Oscar Stonorov: the Better Philadelphia Exhibition, featured in a department store in 1947. Political will had set in motion a recreational plan for the city. By 1952, one of the earliest designated sites, a park at 18th and Bigler Streets, would become Oberlander’s first solo project.
Approaching the design by collecting data to understand the population, age mix and physical considerations of the site,8 Oberlander worked the tools of play away from an asphalt surface with steel pipe fixtures, to instead integrate sand, water, and loose parts that activate the imagination. Her concrete Goat Mountain, a play structure that reinterprets a staircase with typography, is a stage for unstructured choreography. This abstract structure, along with a biomorphic slide by Danish sculptor Egon Møeller-Nielsen ties to an interest at the time in employing form to inspire children’s creativity. As the park opened in September 1954, Life Magazine recognized the design and its equipment as “exciting”.
Perspective view for Children’s Creative Centre Playground, Canadian Federal Pavilion, Expo 67, Montréal, Québec, ca. 1967. ARCH252723. Cornelia Hahn Oberlander fonds, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Gift of Cornelia Hahn Oberlander. Vue en perspective du Centre d’activités créatrices pour enfants, Pavillon du Canada, Expo 67, Montréal, Québec, vers 1967. ARCH252723. Fonds Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, Centre Canadien d’Architecture, don de Cornelia Hahn Oberlander.
Oberlander’s most well-known playground is the design of the Children’s Creative Play Centre for Expo 67. She was an early adopter of the “active playground,” an idea that British landscape architect Lady Allen of Hurtwood had coined in 19469 upon seeing a Danish housing development playground, Emdrup, designed by Carl Theodore Sørensen with refuse materials and “junk.” Oberlander’s design language expanded upon the concepts of “loose parts” and “spontaneous play” for the Children’s Creative Centre, incorporating loose logs for building, sand with driftwood, and a Nova Scotia dory in a creek. Designed as a “vest-pocket park” it serves as a demonstration for how to transform small vacant spaces in the city into active greenspace. It would attract 30,000 children to play in the park between April and October 1967, testing the mettle of the active playground idea with a much broader audience than a traditional neighbourhood park might attract.10 The playground would continue to be recognized for its contribution to social and development ideas of play, and five years later, Oberlander authored Playgrounds…A Plea for Utopia or the Re-cycled Empty Lot, published by Health and Welfare Canada while continuing to advocate for spontaneous play in the decades following.
Oberlander’s interest in working on social housing projects was seeded early. It may have been due to her grandfather’s interest in public housing, while he was a professor of economics and history at the University of Berlin. Later, her grandfather would go on to oversee the building of public transportation and a school when elected as City Councillor for a town outside of Berlin.11 Influences on Oberlander’s commitment to edible gardens may also tie back to her early childhood: her mother was a horticulturist and author, and at an early age, Oberlander was tending her own small three-foot by three-foot garden of carrots and peas.
Her first public housing projects were in the 1950s in Philadelphia: she was recruited by Oscar Stonorov to work with landscape architect Dan Kiley on Schuylkill Falls Public Housing, as well as collaborating with Kiley for architect Louis Kahn on Mill Creek Redevelopment Public Housing. Oberlander identified a way to equitably distribute access to open space and trees for each ground floor unit. In 1965, she incorporated a vegetable garden, playground and picnic area into the Skeena Terrace Low Rent Housing in Vancouver,12 a landscape project that remains intact today.
In 2000, Oberlander collaborated with Arthur Erickson and Nick Milkovich on non-market housing on Hastings Street in Vancouver’s Lower Eastside, called the Portland Hotel. Designing a courtyard and roof garden for a population affected by mental illness and addiction, Oberlander created an environment that would impart the experience of the backyard of a home, planting blueberry bushes, strawberries and apple trees and furnishing it with materials common to residential homes instead of industrial furnishings that function as indestructible.
Play and the future
While working with Dan Kiley, Oberlander received advice to “tread lightly on the land,”13 and examples of continuing this advice are perhaps most acutely present in the work she has completed in the Northwest Territories. A strong sense of ecology is woven throughout her career and numerous talks and papers that she has authored cite a range of ecological inspirations—from ecologist Aldo Leopold’s design ethics and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. It was the 1987 Bruntland Report, Our Common Future (exploring relationships between social equity, the environment and economic growth) that would alter the course of Oberlander’s focus.14
In an interview about the design of the East Three School in Inuvik, Oberlander reveals the essence of why a connection with the environment is so time sensitive: “In the next 20 or 30 years, for all of us living in cities or up north, food security is the most important thing.”15
Planting plan for East Three School, Inuvik, Northwest Territories, 16 May 2011. ARCH283094. Cornelia Hahn Oberlander fonds, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Gift of Cornelia Hahn Oberlander. Plan de plantation pour l’East Three School d’Inuvik, Inuvik, Territoires du Nord-Ouest, 16 mai 2011. ARCH283094. Fonds Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, Centre Canadien d’Architecture, don de Cornelia Hahn Oberlander.
The new school, located north of Yellowknife, two degrees above the Arctic Circle at the Mackenzie River, was to replace school buildings damaged as a result of melting permafrost, a condition that scientists have observed in the region since the 1960s.16 Working with Pin/Taylor Architects, Oberlander stitched together four separate playgrounds for Kindergarten to Grade 12 children. The school, anchored to the permafrost with thirty-foot pilings, avoids flights of stairs to accommodate the community’s desire to enter the school at ground level. The landscape is defined by a steep berm surrounding the building and innovative use of grading to create access to the building entrance and access for each playground.
Play, local culture, climate change and plants are fused into a body of knowledge that informs the design. Oberlander’s archives reveal an extensive research process: the files include articles about permafrost and the effects of global warming, research on traditional northern games (the One-Foot High Kick, Two-Foot High Kick, Knuckle Hop, etc.), examples of an edible schoolyard, a matrix of cognitive development, play activities, traditional learning actions by age group, and letters by Grade 6 students of their playground wishes.
In a welcome letter to the new students, Oberlander describes how trees, shrubs and groundcover were collected nearby and brought to the site. She outlines her hope that students will continue berrypicking on the grounds, noting that with the exception of willows, roses and bog rosemary, the shrubs and groundcovers are berry-producing. Maintaining her commitment to local plant materials, Oberlander took inspiration from the ethnobotany of the Gwich’in for the school. She researched local edible and medicinal plants, consulting resources such as Inuvialuit Nautchiangit: Relationships Between People and Plants, by Inuvialuit Elders with Robert W. Bandringa,17 among others, before selecting and sourcing plants for the design.
An urgency to protect traditional and medicinal plants aligns with climate change as Oberlander explains in an interview: “Nowhere is climate change more noticed than in the Arctic. This impact on food security changes traditional hunting, food-gathering and storing. Above all, it points to the importance of youth learning to understand local foods.”18
Her innovative approach to protecting biodiversity in the fragile ecology in the Northwest Territories was achieved by cultivating native seeds and cuttings, root-pruning and transplanting nearby trees, and the use of bog sections for mending disturbed areas. Taking inspiration to approach the land more sensitively, she cites Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez who writes:
“What does one do when visiting a new place? he asked a man. His reply was simple. I listen that’s all. I listen to what the land is saying. I walk around in it and strain my senses in appreciation of it for a long time before I, myself, ever speak a word. Entered in this manner the land will open up.”19
Oberlander employed the language of play in a way that allows children to define how they explore and in the process, interact with their environment. A quote by the early botanist Luther Burbank that Oberlander included in a paper in the 1980s seems to sum up this approach:
“Every child should have mud pies, grasshoppers, water bugs, tadpoles, frogs, mud turtles, elderberries, wild strawberries, acorns, chestnuts, trees to climb, brook to wade in, water lilies, woodchucks, bats, bees, butterflies, various animals to pet, hay fields, pine cones, rocks to roll, sand, snakes, huckleberries, and hornets, and any child who has been deprived of these has been deprived of the best parts of his education.”20
View of children absorbed in play in North Shore Neighbourhood House Playground, Vancouver, British Columbia ca. 1970. ARCH401925. Cornelia Hahn Oberlander fonds, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Gift of Cornelia Hahn Oberlander. Photo: Selwyn Pullan. Enfants en plein jeu dans le terrain de jeu du North Shore Neighbourhood House, Vancouver, Colombie-Britannique, vers 1970. ARCH401925. Fonds Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, Centre Canadien d’Architecture, don de Cornelia Hahn Oberlander. Photo: Selwyn Pullan.
Oberlander has continued to experiment with the human connection to the natural environment, realizing a therapeutic roof garden at the Burns and Plastics Unit of Vancouver General Hospital in 2000, as well as developing conceptual work on a healing garden for Alberta Children’s Hospital in 2001. A deeper connection with nature can lead to the health of a city and the well-being of its citizens.
In August 2018, the New York Times Magazine published the story, “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change,”21 revealing countless opportunities to reduce and rethink consumptive ways that had failed to take hold.
Cornelia Hahn Oberlander was not an activist for the climate, but her seven-decade career has left many with an enhanced awareness for the care of the environment: inviting more natural life into our cities, encouraging children to connect with nature, and ensuring that landscape architecture is inclusive and benefits all. Addressing graduating students at the University of British Columbia in 1991, Oberlander’s words included a call:
“Today’s graduating professions all deal with our most precious resource—LAND. Treat it as a finite resource, not as a commodity. Show never ending compassion for this wonderful land and space that we hold in stewardship. Do not exploit this globe. Our wellbeing on this earth depends on the state of health of the environment. But above all, develop and practice an ethical, aesthetic and caring design and building process.”22
It’s about time. Let’s follow Oberlander’s lead.
- Susan Herrington, Cornelia Hahn Oberlander: Making the Modern Landscape (Charlottesville & London: University of Virginia Press, 2013), 139-213.
- Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, “Playground Seminar” (Board of Parks and Public Recreation, City of Vancouver, 19 Jan. 1970).
- Tim Gill, “Playing It Too Safe,” RSA Journal, 154, no. 5528 (2007): 46–51.
- Gabriela Burkhalter, The Playground Project (Zurich: JRP Ringer, 2018), 13.
- Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, “Parks, Playgrounds and Landscape Architecture,” Community Planning Review (March 1956), 6.
- Herrington, 40.
- Cornelia Hanhn 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, https://tclf.org/pioneer/oral-history/ornelia-hahn-oberlander. Accessed May 1, 2020.
- Oberlander (1956), 4-12.
- Lady Allen of Hurtwood, “Why Not Use Our Bomb Sites Like This?”, Picture Post, November 16, 1946, 26-27.
- Polly Hill, “Children’s Creative Centre at Canada’s Expo ’67,” National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) vol. 22, no. 5 (May 1967): 259.
- Oberlander (2008), 5.
- Oberlander worked with Underwood, McKinley, Cameron, Wilson & Smith, Architects on the Skeena Terrace Low Rent Housing project.
- Herrington, 45.
- Herrington, 183.
- Anne Raver, “Permafrost Frontier,” Landscape Architecture Magazine, Nov. 2013, 159.
- Herrington, 193.
- Raver, 159.
- Piper Bernbaum, “Super-School”, Canadian Architect, April 1, 2014, https://www.canadianarchitect.com/super-school/. Accessed July 3, 2020.
- Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, Elisabeth Whitelaw and Nina Antonetti, “Invisible Mending: Nestling Native Plants into a Boreal Site,” Summer 2011, 14.
- Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, “Planning for Play Everywhere. Play in Hospitals”, 1984. (Accessed at the CCA archives, August, 2019.)
- Nathaniel Rich, “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change”, The New York Times Magazine, August 1, 2018.
- Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, “Address to the Graduating Class in Agriculture Sciences, Applied Science, Architecture, Landscape Architecture, Community and Regional Planning, Forestry, Interdisciplinary Studies” (address, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, May 29, 1991).