Cornelia Hahn Oberlander (2016)

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"The Art of the Possible": Cornelia Hahn Oberlander is Honored with the Inaugural Governor General’s Medal in Landscape Architecture

Ottawa – Apil 26th, 2016 - Today, the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects (CSLA) is pleased to announce that Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, O.C., MBCSLA, FCSLA, FASLA, has been selected by the jury as the inaugural recipient of the Governor General’s Medal in Landscape Architecture. Read the press release...

About the Governor General's Medal in Landscape Architecture

The Governor General’s Medal in Landscape Architecture (GGMLA) is the highest honour bestowed on a landscape architect by the CSLA. The medal is intended to honour exceptional landscape architects whose lifetime achievements and contributions to the profession have had a unique and lasting impact on Canadian society.

About Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, by Virginia Burt, OALA, FCSLA, FASLA

Cornelia Hahn Oberlander was born in Muelheim-Ruhr, Germany, and immigrated to the United States as a child with her mother and sisters. Building upon an early interest in landscape, she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Smith College in 1944 and continued her studies in the Landscape Architecture Program at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, graduating in 1947 as one of its first female landscape architects. Schooled at Harvard during the tenure of architect Walter Gropius, and later employed at Dan Kiley’s studio in Charlotte, Vermont, she embraced modernist ideas and values that encouraged collaboration across disciplines – a concept that became an Oberlander hallmark. 

Cornelia has been concerned for the public’s welfare throughout her career. In the early 1950s, she worked as a community planner for the Citizens’ Council on City Planning and on public housing projects with architects Oskar Stonorov and Louis Kahn. In 1953, she moved to Vancouver, B.C. and continued her work in public landscapes, including designing the Children’s Creative Center for Expo 67 in Montreal.  The Expo 67 commission led to her participation in the creation of national playground guidelines and the design of more than seventy playgrounds across Canada. 

In the 1960s, Cornelia founded her own firm which quickly became known for collaborative, socially responsible, and environmentally thoughtful design. As part of her design process, Cornelia thoroughly researches each site on which she works and embraces new technologies to address issues of sustainability and climate change.  Her belief that great projects stem from the integration of landscape and architecture has resulted in numerous collaborations with noted architects including Arthur Erickson, Bing Thom, Moshe Safdie and Renzo Piano. For instance, Cornelia’s more than 35-year collaboration with Arthur Erickson, Canada’s most renowned architect, resulted in many noteworthy projects in Canada and the U.S. including Vancouver’s Robson Square Provincial Government Center and Courthouse Complex, The Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, and the Canadian Chancery in Washington D.C.

Cornelia has practiced landscape architecture for more than sixty years and has played a seminal role in the evolution of modernism in the context of architecture, landscape architecture, and planning.  Throughout her career, Cornelia has championed design that reflects a strong understanding and respect for cultural and environmental context.  Many ideas hailed as groundbreaking today, such as the importance of exposure to nature and the creation of opportunities for social interaction, formed the foundation of her design philosophy decades ago.  Fellow professionals deeply respect Cornelia’s mastery of the design process from development to construction.  Yet when asked about her work Cornelia describes it humbly as “an evolving experiment…the art of the possible.”  For more than sixty years, the creator of this “art of the possible” has been an influential leader in building places and policy that support an intimate and beautiful connection with the natural world. 

Cornelia has been honoured with many prestigious awards including The Order of Canada in 1990 and Officer of the Order of Canada in 2009, Canada’s highest civilian honor for outstanding achievement and service to the nation.  She is a Fellow of the Canadian and the American Societies of Landscape Architects, as well as the International Federation of Landscape Architects.  In 2013, she was awarded the American Society of Landscape Architects Medal, the highest honor the American Society of Landscape Architects may bestow upon a landscape architect whose lifetime achievements and contributions to the profession have had a unique and lasting impact on the welfare of the public and the environment. In addition, Cornelia was awarded the Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe Award in 2011 from the International Federation of Landscape Architects.  This award recognizes a living landscape architect whose lifetime achievements and contributions have had a unique and lasting impact on the welfare of society and the environment, and on the promotion of the profession of landscape architecture.  These many awards honour Cornelia’s projects that have spanned Canada and the globe.

Selected Projects

National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (1986-1989), in collaboration with Moshe Safdie, architect.

The landscape design for this national museum was inspired by the museum’s collection of the Canadian Group of Seven paintings and on the Taiga landscape of Northern Canada. As one critic noted at the time, “it’s as much a work of art as any in the building next to it,” giving visitors a glimpse of “the country’s soul.”

New York Time Building Courtyard, New York, NY (2007), in collaboration with Renzo Piano and HM White Architects

This interior courtyard, featuring the artful use of Northern Birch trees and planted mounds, is the focal point of the new headquarters of the New York Times.  Led by HM White Site Architects in coordination with Cornelia Hahn Oberlander Landscape Architects, as part of Renzo Piano Building Workshop and FX Fowle Architect's design team, it is considered the heart and soul of the headquarters building. Resting on Manhattan Schist bedrock as the building’s only unexcavated area, the courtyard is experienced by 360-degrees of uninterrupted views from a variety of surrounding public spaces and office spaces above.

VanDusen Botanical Garden, Vancouver (2007- present)

Oberlander working with Busby Perkins + Will Architects developed a Master Plan for new demonstration gardens and a visitor center which will accommodate a green roof.  Design choices for the building and the garden exhibit the best in environmental stewardship.
Susan Herrington, in her book Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, Making the Modern Landscape, wrote that “there is no fission between ecological and social needs or division between the necessity of pragmatic thought and aesthetic experience” in Cornelia’s work. In her designs, Cornelia considers the humanity and ecology of a place in turn and together, and does not separate practical use from experiential beauty.  Completed in 2011, it is certifed under the Living Building Challenge, the most advanced measurement of sustainability possible in the built environment. The surrounding areas of the landmark facility, which also has a living roof, range from a rainwater garden to woodland and meadow, each zone carefully designed and planted with native species that fourished when Captain George, Vancouver’s botanist, first began cataloguing the diverse region in 1792.

ONLINE INTERVIEWS 

BOOKS ABOUT CORNELIA HAHN OBERLANDER

  • Herrington, Susan. Cornelia Hahn Oberlander: Making the Modern Landscape. University of Virginia Press, 2014. 
  • Stinson, Kathy. Love Every Leaf, The Life of Cornelia Hahn Oberlander. Tundra Books. Toronto, Canada. 2008.   

BOOKS BY CORNELIA HAHN OBERLANDER

  • Oberlander, Cornelia H., Elisabeth Whitelaw and Matsuzaki, Eva. Green Roofs – A Design Guide & Review of the Relevant Technologies.  Public Works and Government Services Canada.  2002. 
  • Oberlander, Cornelia H., and Nadel, Ira B.  Trees in the City.  Pergamon Press.  New York, 1977.   
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