I had a special stamp made for Cornelia to use with her signature ginkgo stamp. J’ai fait fabriquer un tampon spécial pour Cornelia, pour accompagner son tampon ginkgo emblématique.
On the Road with Cornelia Hahn Oberlander
Writing Cornelia Hahn Oberlander: Making the Modern Landscape was an amazing seven-year endeavor. With support from a Social Science and Humanities Research Council grant, the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Graham Foundation I worked with then-master of landscape architecture students, Gemma McLintock, Sarah Rankin and Megan Vogt. They were brilliant.
They helped me conduct interviews with Cornelia, document site visits, and prepare cases studies on her most famous projects. Marc Treib graciously accepted the job of writing the foreword. I also visited fourteen different archives across North America. When it was all finished I was able to secure additional funding from the Canada Council for the Arts for a book tour–actually things had just begun.
We covered twelve different cities (eleven in North America, one in Sweden) between 2014 and 2015. Because the book is about Cornelia and her ground-breaking work I didn’t do the typical book reading. Instead I showed slides to Cornelia in front of a live audience and she spoke to the images. The imagery was often different for each event, we never rehearsed, and I had no idea what she was going to say! It could be very funny, practical advice, or a heart-felt reminiscence of her life with the architect and planner, Peter Oberlander (1922-2008). The following provides some highlights of the amazing places and people we met during the tour. It was a grand time for us both.
In May of 2014, we presented at the National Gallery in Ottawa. We started the show in the main auditorium, just steps from Cornelia’s famous landscape there. At the conclusion we received the usual round of questions–except for one person. He happened to be the gardener for the National Gallery and he needed help! Cornelia’s response was memorable. She stood and began walking out of the auditorium. Where was she going? The entire audience followed her–outside. As she walked with the gardener through her landscape, she showed him (and the following crowd) some pruning techniques and gave advice on the best way to care for the Taiga Garden. We learned a lot!
Tripping up in Chicago
The main stage at the Graham Foundation is quite high. There’s no ramp, only stairs. The coordinators hadn’t met Cornelia yet, and they were worried. Would she have difficulty ascending the stage? I assured them not to worry, she’d have no problem. Unfortunately, it was extremely cold when we arrived in Chicago. Everything was covered in an invisible coating of ice. When we reached the Graham Foundation, I got out of the cab first so I could help Cornelia. I didn’t want her to slip. But when I leapt out–WHAM! I was down on the ice. Cornelia of course safely exited the taxi herself. Once I stood I realized I had twisted my ankle. But the show must go on. So, when we came on stage Cornelia quickly ascended the stairs. I followed, limping very slowly to which one of the organizers said, “you should have told us it was you who needed the help.”
Cornelia the Rock Star
We all know Cornelia is a rock star. One evening at the University of Toronto’s John H. Daniels Faculty I experienced her stardom first-hand. The main auditorium was overflowing with students, faculty and practitioners. Typically, at the end of our presentation people come down to the stage to ask questions. But this time, hundreds of enthusiastic fans rushed the stage when we finished. They were coming so quickly and eagerly that I immediately escorted Cornelia to a side room. We then exited down a corridor. I thought we’d escaped the stampede, but suddenly another door opened. Unbeknownst to us, it was a spillover room filled with more people watching us on a live video feed. When they saw Cornelia, they started rushing down the hall screaming “Cornelia, Cornelia!” We froze. Luckily my son blocked the hallway and we found an emergency exit door. Next thing I knew we were standing outside in the snow with no coats. It was cold, but we had escaped!
Worst Plane Trip
Our flight to Washington DC to present at the Landscape Cultural Foundation was the ghastliest. We had left O’Hare very late at night in an aircraft that was about the size of a minivan. The Washington-Baltimore area was besieged with thunderstorms making the plane shudder and shake as we careened through the sky. I gripped Cornelia’s hand ever so tightly. The pilot attempted to land the plane five or six times. Despite the size of the craft we had a monitor that displayed its tracked movement. The screen was a series of spirals attesting to his aborted attempts to land. On the last try Cornelia yelled, “Captain, put on the radar then turn on the landing lights!” He apparently listened. We broke through the thunderclouds and landed with a thud on the tarmac of a very rainy Reagan National Airport.
Cornelia’s and Peter’s New York
When Cornelia and Peter lived in New York City it was the epicentre of art and design, and I was given a little taste of this New York during the tour. After our presentation, we took a couple of days to see Cornelia’s New York. We visited the Frick, took tea at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in a special lounge with one of Cornelia’s Smith College friends (Smithies always showed up at our presentations–and took copious notes), and we visited the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, where a tour had been arranged just for Cornelia. One of the most memorable lunches was at Peter Oberlander’s favourite, the Café Sabarsky, Neue Galerie, where hushed patrons dined on goulash soup, spätzle, apple strudel, and drank cucumber lemonade. With its dark, wood-panelled walls, Adolf Loos chairs, grand piano and wide selection of Austrian newspapers, I felt like Cornelia had teleported me back in time to a Viennese coffee house.
After our presentation at Harvard we left to give a presentation at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal. When we arrived at Logan airport it was announced that our plane had a flat tire. Apparently, Air Canada has a rule that they can only use tires from Canada, so we had to wait four hours for the tire to arrive. By the time we had landed in Montreal I knew we were extremely late. We had to run if we were going to make it. So, Cornelia leapt onto the baggage cart and I ran as fast as I could with her through the airport. When we reached the passenger pick up area, we’d discovered that a special escort had been sent to collect us: a professional driver piloting a sleek black limo with several Bouvier des Flandres dogs in the back! The organizer had just announced our names when we walked on stage.
One of the most unusual tour stops was at a conference for landscape architects called Oyster All Inclusive in Sweden. We stayed at a renovated women’s prison and visited the famous Skogskyrkogården Woodland cemetery by Gunnar Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz. We also met some amazing Swedish landscape architects and urban designers who showed us Norra Djurgårdsstaden, a new housing development aimed to be a fossil fuel-free district by 2030. We were also given a five-hour long walking tour of Stockholm’s newly redesigned urban landscapes. Interestingly, we learned that these designers had been visiting Vancouver over the past decade to study our city’s urban developments. No wonder it felt vaguely familiar.
Favourite taxi driver
Cornelia gave me a black Longchamp bag which matched hers for the tour. She also revealed something she learned at Smith College: lipstick and a comb are essential travel gear. One evening as we made our way out to Central Park to do our show, I slid into the backseat of the cab. Cornelia was about to get in herself when she paused and asked, “Susan, how do I look?” From the front of the cab came this marvelous Brooklyn accent, “you look like a million bucks!”
A special thanks to the Canada Council for the Arts for funding these tours and Bernie Abromaitis at Merit Travel, who arranged all of our flights.