Just one month before her 100th birthday, Cornelia Hahn Oberlander died on the 22nd of May in Vancouver. Forced to flee Nazi Germany with her mother and sister when she was 17, she grew up in New Hampshire, and was one of the first female students of landscape architecture at Harvard. In 70 long years of professional life, she worked successfully with renowned architects and landscape architects, first on the US East Coast, where she devoted herself to public housing, and then in Vancouver, where she moved with her husband, urban planner and architect Peter Oberlander, in 1953.
With Robson Square in Vancouver she created one of the first walkable public and urban rooftop garden landscapes in the 1970s, and the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia stands for the recognition of First Nations people and their culture and landscapes. She always recognized the social and artistic dimensions of design. This came to the fore as early as the 1960s when she understood playgrounds as multidimensional environments; her playscape at Expo 1967 in Montreal is still considered a reference project.
“Landscape architecture is the art and the science of the possible,” was her motto. And a great deal became possible in her long professional life, as she constantly expanded her always outstanding knowledge of materials, plants and ecological relationships. She was one of the first from the profession to speak out on the subject of climate change and conducted correspondence with experts worldwide. Her work avoids labels, as documented in detail in Susan Herrington’s 2014 book “Cornelia Hahn Oberlander: Making the Modern Landscape“.
She was professionally active into her old age, attending conferences, firmly expressing her opinions, and always up to date. In her family and professional life, she used to say with conviction, “Man tut das nicht!“ (One does not do that!“)
It was most appropriate that The Cultural Landscape Foundation established a highly endowed award named after her in 2019, which will now be presented for the first time later this year.
Shortly before Hahn Oberlander’s death, the City of Vancouver presented her with the rare Freedom of the City Award.
In a world where landscape architecture matters more than ever, Oberlander’s contributions will never be forgotten. Her willingness to experiment and invent has enabled her to realize design solutions that challenge conventional approaches. I agree with Susan Herrington who concludes that for Cornelia Oberlander there was no fission between ecological and social needs or division between the necessity of pragmatic thought and aesthetic experience.
Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, 1921 – 2021