Book Reviews: September 2014
Cornelia Hahn Oberlander: Making the Modern Landscape
By Susan Herrington. Charlottesville: University
of Virginia Press, 2013.
Few can argue against the successes of internationally acclaimed landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander. After over six decades of practice, her portfolio boasts a diversity of works ranging from intimate private suburban gardens and public playgrounds to politically charged urban schemes realized in collaboration with high-profile architects. Vancouver’s Museum of Anthropology (1976) and the National Gallery of Canada (1988) are among her most well-known. While this celebration of Oberlander’s prolific career feels long overdue, landscape architect and professor Susan Herrington lends a unique approach to the telling of the story by weaving Oberlander’s biography within the trajectory of modern landscape architecture.
The book is based on years of interviews with Oberlander and her clients and collaborators, along with a case-study approach to her projects that considers both their political context as well as public reception. Herrington ties Oberlander’s career to key shifts in the practice of landscape architecture. She organizes the book thematically, beginning with “Housework.” Here she links the foundations of Modernism and its new aesthetic to the social and moral
responsibility that imbued Oberlander’s early efforts to give voice to the disenfranchised, through pioneering community design methods for public parks and housing. “Human Environment” tracks Oberlander’s more spatially complex works, her children’s environments and urban landscapes, exploring the relationship between experience, environment and psychology that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. Finally, in “Ecological Environment,” Oberlander prioritizes the expression of environmental values in landscape design by marrying its ecological functioning with its aesthetic appreciation.
Herrington’s book not only offers a deeper understanding of this transformative figure, but demonstrates how larger movements are rooted in everyday practice and thus shaped by forces not beyond our control.
Tanya Southcott is a Montreal-based architect and writer.
Artists, Architects and Artisans: Canadian Art 1890-1918
Edited by Charles C. Hill. Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 2013.
This catalogue accompanying a recent major exhibition offers a richly illustrated view of art and design culture at a formative stage in Canadian history. The nine essays, including curator Charles Hill’s introduction, contextualize more than 320 objects within a dynamic period of deep interpenetration of the arts.
At the turn of the century, divisions between artists, architects and artisans were sometimes blurred, and collaboration was essential. This was evident in buildings ranging from Montreal mansions that incorporated details created by furniture companies, to Muskoka cottages where designer-owners teamed with local carpenters. In major public commissions such
as the Saskatchewan Legislative Building, architects Edward and William Maxwell designed every detail down to the furnishings and worked with skilled artisans to realize their designs. Private clubs—from the Toronto Architectural Eighteen Club to the Arts Club of Montreal—played a significant role in fostering a fertile, interdisciplinary arts environment.
While the period was important for the development of Canadian nationalism, artists and architects were indebted to international trends and ideas. These include Beaux-Arts training, the Arts and Crafts movement, and City Beautiful schemes.
For scholars, the book brings together a wide range of period objects, from pianos to civic plans. Detailed footnotes, biographies, bibliographies and “notices” about important companies of the time make this a valuable resource.
For architects, the period’s emphasis on craft and engaging with other visual arts may serve as inspiration. A sense of comprehensiveness (if not necessarily unity) fuelled art and architectural production at the time. The majority of the work presented was produced for society’s top strata, but there are lessons about vision, collaboration, and integration of the arts that could be applied today with great social impact.
Michael Windover teaches in the History and Theory of Architecture program at Carleton University.
Architectures de la connaissance au Québec
Edited by Jacques Plante. Québec: Les Publications du Québec, 2013.
Architectures de la connaissance au Québec is the latest in a series of books launched by the School of Architecture at Université Laval to highlight exceptional buildings in Quebec’s architectural landscape. Jacques Plante follows his previous publication on theatres with a similar format: a highly detailed and richly illustrated collection of case studies complemented by 16 essays. Plante analyzes 33 libraries and archive centres from the past 25 years, including projects that were still under construction at the time of publication in 2013 and that have since been completed. Written by a variety of contributors (including architects, artists, librarians and historians), the companion essays provide a range of viewpoints on the design and lived experience of past and current libraries.
Plante and his team have clearly spent much time researching the chosen projects. The abundance of details makes for a great reference book, but is sometimes overwhelming. Some repetition in the descriptions, such as the often discussed “Hanganu-esque” spiral staircase, results from the relatively limited number of architects working on such projects in Quebec. Unfortunately, the excellent overall quality of the book is weakened by some odd design decisions, such as a number of thumbnail-sized images too small to be legible, and legends that are sometimes presented on a different page than the related drawings.
Plante’s book is an important reminder of the quality and breadth of library projects in Quebec, developed in large part thanks to a significant program of architectural competitions. These innovative library projects have in many cases led to the growth of the same facilities. In expansion projects, architects have succeeded in reacting to rapid changes brought about by information technology and digital transformations—taking these new challenges in stride.
Olivier Vallerand is an architect, educator, and recently completed a PhD in Architecture from McGill University.