C.K. Choi Building (Matsuzaki/Wright Architects), 1996. Landscape Architect: Cornelia Hahn Oberlander. Photo provided by the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, University of British Columbia. Édifice C.K. Choi (Matsuzaki/Wright Architects), 1996. Architecte paysagiste : Cornelia Hahn Oberlander. Photo fournie par la School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, Université de la Columbie-Britannique.
Memories of Working with Cornelia
I’ve known Cornelia since 1974. There are hundreds of stories to be told about working with her, but I would like to focus on three aspects that made it a joy to work with her and know her personally.
Pushing The Boundaries
Cornelia was always willing to try new solutions when our design teams faced the challenges of a new project. Each dealt with different requirements – the owner’s needs, the day-to-day users, the budget, the site, the general public and Mother Earth. The usual solution was never assumed. Ideas were cross-pollinated among the architects, landscape architects and engineers for a united effort.
Once the possibility of doing things in a different way came into the picture, then research was required. We had to convince many people that these new solutions were important advancements, not just an okay idea. Cornelia was an enthusiastic researcher, finding answers in well-respected sources and obscure corners.
Flying Like Canada Geese
Six women and one man were the team designing the C.K. Choi Building at the University of British Columbia – architects (Joanne and Eva), landscape architects (Cornelia and Elisabeth), structural engineer (Diana), mechanical engineer (Jeanette), and electrical engineer (Andy). Every Tuesday morning at 10 am we all sat around a large square table in my office. As each discipline shared its issues, alternatives and decisions, we realized that we were like Canada Geese flying in their V-formation, rotating the front position, taking turns in the leadership role. Of course, those flying behind the lead were honking to keep the project going. True teamwork!
Working with Cornelia, landscape architecture and architecture were blended in a way that didn’t delineate where one discipline started or ended. That can be seen in the Arthur Erickson Architects projects like at the Museum of Anthropology, Robson Square/Courthouse and at Montiverdi Estates.
When we worked on Montiverdi Estates, 20 houses were built on a very steep wooded site in West Vancouver. The same principle of blending our disciplines applied here – retain the natural hillside as much as possible, float the houses on pillars, allow trees to interrupt the road and the decks. The tall cedars and firs were “judiciously pruned” to bring in light and some views. Recently, when some of the owners asked how best to manage a common area, Cornelia’s answer was ‘“do nothing”, let nature decide, use the “wilding” principle – that is, work with the naturally occurring flora.
Using The Mantra Of 3 P’s
Cornelia’s favourite mantra was “The 3 P’s – Patience, Persistence, Professionalism,” and later we added a 4th P – Passion. Her original 3P’s included “Politeness”, which Cornelia said was her mother’s advice. We changed “Politeness” to “Professionalism” because inevitably we had too many battles when we pushed the boundaries of design. Whenever there was a hurdle to overcome, we reminded ourselves of the 4P mantra. It was also important to keep a positive outlook. Through it all, we kept our good humour. Every meeting included some laughs. In recent years, we added some inspirational poetry, usually about the special qualities of nature.
Perhaps less known, Cornelia was a role model to many professional women. At lectures, conferences, or meetings in a home, women asked Cornelia for advice, about her experiences. She was never too busy or reluctant to share. The conversations often centered on the challenge of balancing a robust professional career, family life, volunteer work, all while staying connected to our communities. Cornelia was active on all fronts. The older I become, the more I appreciate those who walked the path ahead of me.