A Man For All Seasons

Peter Oberlander, OC , PhD, FRAIC, LLD (Hon) was an architect, planner, urban advocate, and committed family man. He lived a life full of urban adventures from his childhood in Vienna, Austria, to his escape to England prior to his deportation to Canada as an “enemy alien” in 1940, to a career devoted to supporting the professions of architecture, planning and landscape architecture. Upon his release in 1940, he enrolled in the McGill School of Architecture (BArch 1945) followed by studies at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design (MCP 1947, PhD 1956).

A devoted student of Walter Gropius, Oberlander advocated for Modernism in Canada before it was popular to do so. He helped stop Vancouver from building a massive invasion of freeways, while leading the way for the federal government to support the design and establishment of Vancouver’s Granville Island and Toronto’s Harbourfront as urban cultural places in former industrial zones. Outside the fields of architecture and urban design, Oberlander served as the Chair of the Vancouver School Board and as a board member of many local Jewish organizations.

He came to Vancouver in 1949 to teach at the University of British Columbia (UBC), initially within the School of Architecture, and later establishing the UBC School of Community Regional Planning. Oberlander inspired hundreds of students locally, nationally and internationally through his teaching at UBC and through his work for the United Nations. In addition to his academic career, he consulted with Thompson, Berwick and Pratt, and Downs/Archambault and Partners on a wide variety of planning projects. His devoted marriage of over 56 years to celebrated landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, CM, FASLA, FCSLA, LLD (Hon) brought many collaborative projects and a life filled with travel to the great cities of the world.

A series of firsts marked a distinguished career: cofounding the Lower Mainland Regional Planning Board (now Metro Vancouver) (1952); launching Canada’s first professional program in Community and Regional Planning at UBC (1960); initiating Canada’s Ministry of State for Urban Affairs as its inaugural Deputy Minister (1970); cofounding the United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat I) held in Vancouver and establishing the Centre for Human Settlements, UBC (1976); Senior Advisor and Special Assistant to the United Nations Secretary General (Habitat II) in Istanbul (1996) and the World Urban Forum (Habitat III) in Vancouver (2006). Following his lifelong commitment to the motto of “Ideas into Action,” Peter’s final project was to establish the Habitat Exchange, an online portal and archive of international human settlement resources (www.chs.ubc.ca/archives/).

Numerous publications include Houser: the Life of Catherine Bauer (UBC Press 1999, coauthored with Eva Newbrun); Improving Human Settlements (UBC Press 1976, editor); and Land: The Central Human Settlement Issue (UBC Press 1985). Oberlander also received numerous awards and honours such as Officer of the Order of Canada (2002); Honorary Doctorate, UBC (1998); Canadian Citizenship Judge (1998 to 2005); Fellow of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC); and a Special Certificate of Recognition from the Architectural Institute of British Columbia (AIBC). In 2008, both he and his wife Cornelia received the Vancouver Civic Merit Award in recognition of their many contributions to Vancouver. His passing in late December at the age of 86 marks a turning point in the history of Canadian architecture. CA


Those wishing to remember Peter Oberlander may choose to make a donation to the following Vancouver organizations:

Vancouver Jewish Film Festival Society (www.vjff.org);

The Salvation Army (www.salvationarmy.ca);

BC Cancer Foundation (www.bccancerfoundation.com);

Vancouver General Hospital and UBC Hospital Foundation (www.worldclasshealthcare.ca)