Landscape Architect Cornelia Oberlander with Glen Patterson at Cornelia’s landscape at the UBC Museum of Anthropology.
The West Vancouver Museum is open. It is limited to eight people at a time, and you may want to contact the museum in advance. But it is well worth taking the hike over the bridge to see this first time exhibition of Cornelia Hahn Oberlander’s life work.
Cornelia Hahn Oberlander is a landscape architect with many firsts, but she will tell you she does not think about it. Born in 1921 she entered a profession that was largely-well, not largely-was all men. She carved a way forward with her views of the importance of the natural landscape, which was a very unusual perspective at the time. This was in the 1950’s and the 1960’s where everything in nature was to be scrubbed, cut back, and manicured. Big green lawns represented status and roots, a visceral taming of nature reaction from the previous war time period in the 1940’s.
She was one of the first women admitted to the Harvard School of Design to study. She is also one of the first landscape architects to be registered in Canada and the first woman. She has worked on many major projects in Canada, and if you are at her atelier, it is not unusual for a phone call from a international architectural firm or the New York Times trying to reach her.
Cornelia designed the central plaza of the New York Times building, in Midtown Manhattan, New York City with HM White Site Architects. She created a birch tree forest in the atrium that can be seen from the surrounding offices within the building. One time she received a call from the New York Times that the trees needed to be thinned, because the bird song from the tree grove was too loud for the editors on the main floor. Instead of responding Mrs. Oberlander hung up.
Cornelia met her husband, Dr. Peter Oberlander at Harvard University. He was the first Canadian to receive a master’s and doctorate in city planning from Harvard. Dr. Oberlander was also the first deputy minister of a federal department of urban affairs, and was a convenor of the United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat) in Vancouver in 1976. Dr. Oberlander was also one of my thesis advisors, and through that connection I have had the privilege of being one of the many graduates mentored by the Oberlanders for decades.
This exhibition called ‘”Genius Loci” (which refers to the protective spirit of place in Latin) has been carefully curated to include four aspects of Cornelia’s work~large public spaces, playgrounds, social housing, and commissioned house gardens.
As Elisia Seeber writes in the North Shore News Cornelia has chosen the works to be exhibited herself, which shows the range from working on the Robson Courthouse gardens with Arthur Erickson to playgrounds and landscapes.
My favourite of Cornelia’s work is the design of the stone beach and outdoor museum at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. (Sadly this is dug up right now for foundation repairs to the museum).
The exhibition is open until March 13, when it will be moving to Alberta.
The YouTube video below has Cornelia describing how she was contacted by Bing Thom to come up with a concept for Arthur Erickson on the gardens of Robson Courthouse in Vancouver.