Looking Back: Cornelia Hahn Oberlander
TEXT Susan Herrington
Writing in The Canadian Architect during its inaugural year of publication, Vancouver-based landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, Hon. MRAIC, asked, “In Canada, during the last year, more than 10,000 single-family dwellings have been built. How many of them were planned in an architect’s offices or had the advantage of advice from a landscape architect?”
Oberlander’s query hints at one of her most prevailing beliefs in design–the necessity for collaboration between architects and landscape architects. This attitude was shaped by her early career in Philadelphia. There, as an associate to landscape architect Dan Kiley, Oberlander worked in the offices of architectural legends Oskar Stonorov and Louis Kahn, where she practiced as part of interdisciplinary design teams. Collaboration and its importance were also instilled in Oberlander as a landscape architecture student at Harvard University. Faculty members such as Walter Gropius, Christopher Tunnard and Marcel Breuer encouraged teamwork between landscape architecture and architecture students.
Oberlander’s oeuvre provides a noteworthy record of her sustained collaboration with architects. Upon her arrival in Vancouver in the 1950s, Oberlander immediately identified with the new breed of local architects eager to explore a modern design vocabulary as they transformed their relatively small city. She was convinced that modern design should play a leading role in the creation of new housing, civic buildings, transportation systems and open spaces. For Oberlander, to be modern was not a style, but a way of life that she had experienced firsthand as a young child living in Weimar, Germany.
The residence of Dr. and Mrs. Friedman was one of Oberlander’s first collaborations in Vancouver. She completed the project with Fred Lasserre, the head of the Architecture Department at the University of British Columbia. Together, they designed a house and garden on a steeply sloped triangular lot. In her article for The Canadian Architect, Oberlander emphasized the organizational role that plants served, the importance of Richard Neutra’s “mystery and realities of the site,” and the role of grading to meet the different levels of the house so as to facilitate indoor-outdoor living. Oberlander later worked on a variety of private residences and in the 1960s was landscape architect for some of Vancouver’s first low-rent high-rise housing projects.
In 1974, Oberlander received her big break—an environmental urban design project with Arthur Erickson. The three-block complex, often called Robson Square, led to over three decades of projects with Erickson. The experience also introduced her to another wave of young architects and future collaborators, including Bing Thom FRAIC, Nick Milkovich FRAIC, Gino Pin FRAIC and Eva Matsuzaki FRAIC.
Today, Oberlander continues to work closely with architects, bringing a strong environmental sustainability agenda to projects. Recent collaborations include work with KPMB Architects on the Canadian Embassy in Berlin (2005), Renzo Piano on the New York Times Building in New York (2007), and Moshe Safdie, FRAIC, on Library Square in Vancouver (ongoing). As Oberlander has often said, “I dream of green cities with green buildings…this can only be done if all our design-related professions collaborate.”
Susan Herrington is a Professor of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at the University of British Columbia. She is the author of Cornelia Hahn Oberlander: Making the Modern Landscape, which received a 2015 John Brinckerhoff Jackson Book Prize.