Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, CC, OBC, landscape architect (born 20 June 1921 in Mülheim an der Ruhr, Germany; died 22 May 2021 in Vancouver, BC). Cornelia Oberlander moved to Vancouver, British Columbia in 1953, where she founded her own architectural firm. During her career, Oberlander established herself as a landscape architect and became recognized for her social and environmental approach to architectural design. (See also Landscape Architecture.) Oberlander was the recipient of numerous awards and honours throughout her career and life.
Early Life and Education
Cornelia Hahn's German-Jewish family fled Nazi Germany and immigrated to the United State in 1939. (See also Canada and the Holocaust; Jewish Canadians.) She obtained a BA from Smith College (1944) in Northampton, Massachusetts. She was one of the first women to graduate from Harvard University's School of Design with a degree in landscape architecture (1947). She worked with Louis Kahn and Oscar Stonorov in Philadelphia and landscape architect Dan Kiley in Vermont, before moving to Vancouver to establish her own landscape architecture practice in 1953. She married architect Peter Oberlander the same year.
Cornelia Oberlander's early professional years were devoted to designing landscapes for low-cost housing projects and playgrounds throughout Canada, including the Children's Creative Centre for Expo 67 in Montreal. During her career she also collaborated as a member of the design team with many of the country's leading architects. (See also Arthur Erickson; Moshe Safdie.) Her designs, at the heart of which lay the concept of genius loci – treating each site as a unique place that generates unique solutions – were assertively modern. Her work not only integrated the overall architectural project with the natural environment, but respected and enhanced the existing forms of the landscape. Native plants are featured to produce a variety of textures and colours that change with the seasons.
Oberlander's technical expertise was always applied in conjunction with her concern for the cultural, social, economic and environmental context associated with each project. This approach informed many high-profile public building projects including Robson Square and the Provincial Government Courthouse Complex in Vancouver (Arthur Erickson Architects, 1974-83); National Gallery of Canada (Moshe Safdie Architects, 1988); Canadian Chancery, Washington, D.C. (Arthur Erickson Architects, 1989); Vancouver Public Library (Moshe Safdie Architects, 1995); and Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly Building in Yellowknife (Matsuzaki Wright Architects, 1995).
Oberlander's work became increasingly concerned with the design and development of environmentally responsible landscapes. She first made use of native plants in her landscape design for the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia (Arthur Erickson Architects, 1976), specifying plants that were used by Northwest Coast Indigenous Peoples for food and medicines. The C.K. Choi Building, Institute of Asian Research at the University of British Columbia (Matsuzaki Wright Architects, 1996), is a model building and landscape that set new standards for sustainable design, construction and operations. A subsurface wetland with aquatic plants purifies greywater from the building and releases it for irrigation while native plants restore the landscape around the building.
Cornelia Oberlander co-wrote Green Roofs: A Design Guide and Review of the Relevant Technologies (2002) with Elisabeth Whitelow and Eva Matsuzaki, and Trees in the City (1977) with Ira B. Nadel.
Cornelia Oberlander was one of the architects featured in the documentary City Dreamers by Joseph Hillel (2018). In 2019, the Cornelia Hahn Oberlander International Landscape Architectural Prize was established by The Cultural Landscape Foundation.
Cornelia Oberlander married her husband Peter Oberlander in 1953. Together they had three children. Peter predeceased Cornelia Oberlander in 2008. Cornelia Oberlander died on 22 May 2021 from complications related to COVID-19 (see COVID-19 Pandemic in Canada).
Honours and Awards
- Fellow, Canadian Society of Landscape Architects (1981)
- Member, Order of Canada (1990)
- Fellow, American Society of Landscape Architects (1992)
- Allied Medal, Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (1995)
- Honorary member of the Architectural Institute of British Columbia (1997)
- Officer, Order of Canada (2009)
- Commemorative Medal for the 125th Anniversary of the Confederation of Canada (1992)
- Honorary Degree, University of British Columbia (1991)
- Doctor of Laws, Toronto Metropolitan University (1999)
- Honorary Degree, Simon Fraser University (2002)
- Honorary Degree, Smith College (2003)
- Honorary Doctorate, Dalhousie University (2008)
- Honorary Doctorate, McGill University (2008)
- Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe Award, International Federation of Landscape Architects (2011)
- ASLA Medal, American Society of Landscape Architecture (2012)
- Governor General’s Medal in Landscape Architecture (2016)
- Member, Order of British Columbia (2016)
- Companion, Order of Canada (2017)
- Honorary Doctor of Laws, Concordia University (2018)