Cornelia Oberlander 1921-2021: Landscape Architect Icon & My Friend

There are some people that you never expect to pass, people that you know and see as the fabric of place and your existence in it. That is fundamentally what and who  Cornelia Oberlander is to me.

At her funeral she was called the Dean of Canadian Landscape Architecture, and more intimately known as the “Queen of Green”. To me she was much more than that, she was a constant in my life for over four decades, a teacher, an advisor, a mentor, and a great friend. She never backed away from what she believed in, and she was a believer in continually reminding municipalities, governments, city councils, architects and students of her fundamental principles. She championed ecology.

Cornelia’s daughter, Judy Oberlander, was the first of the Oberlander family I met when I was Director of Development for the Old Strathcona Foundation in Strathcona, Edmonton. It’s no surprise that Judy also was the founding Director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University and has a quick intelligence as well as  innate knowledge and expertise in the field of heritage conservation. When I came to Vancouver to pursue a master’s degree in city planning, Judy took me to her home to meet her mom, Cornelia Oberlander.  Cornelia was sitting  on the living room floor doing physiotherapy exercises after a  painful fall skiing on the slopes, and  was of course, working at the same time.

That more or less describes all the Oberlanders, who are hardworking, practical, and welcoming. When daughter Judy spoke about her international design work at the University of British Columbia’s (UBC)  School of Architecture, Professor Abraham Rogatnick introduced her as a member of the Canadian ‘Fonda” family. The Fondas which included Henry and children Peter and Jane were famous American twentieth century actors. The Oberlander Family are our Canadian improved equivalent, with  Cornelia and husband Peter, and their three children, Tim, a physician scientist, Wendy, an internationally accomplished artist and filmmaker and Judy, who today works across Canada in her well recognized consulting practice.

I had come to the UBC School of Community and Regional Planning for graduate work, and was in Dr. Peter Oberlander’s policy class. It was a class that had a limited number of students, met at a round table in his office at the UBC Centre for Human Settlements, and had a proper break half way through where Peter served us tea from a silver tea service and let us talk generally about planning. Dr. Oberlander, or as we affectionately called him, “Dr. O” was a trained architect from McGill and the first Canadian to achieve a Master’s in Regional Planning and a Doctorate at Harvard University. Ken Cameron has written a book about Dr. Oberlander’s many remarkable achievements and firsts. He was the person that set up the first professional planning school in Canada, at UBC, worked tirelessly for United Nations causes, and was instrumental in the Habitat Conference held at Jericho Beach in 1976.

He was also the man that met Cornelia Oberlander at Harvard, where she was one of the first women admitted in the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Because of their Jewish faith Cornelia and Peter had both been uprooted from Europe by World War Two and had experienced great difficulties to come to North America and to be free.

But Cornelia was never phased by being the sole woman in many of her graduate classes, and when asked what it was like to take classes and then work in a field that was all men, simply replied “I never thought about it”.

Her mother upon arriving in America had bought a small farm in New Hampshire, and they sold fruits and vegetables from the farm with Cornelia and her sister. Prior to escaping Nazi Germany, her mother Beate Hahn who was a horticulturalist  had written children’s books and drawn little pictures of Cornelia watering the plants in the books. There is a story of Michael Levenson from City Farmer excitedly bringing Cornelia a book written in German that he thought should be translated and available for Canadian gardening children. Cornelia was so pleased to see the book, which of course was one of the volumes written by her mother, with the illustrations of Cornelia in it.

To be a student of Peter Oberlander’s meant that I was invited to the Oberlander gatherings to discuss planning and urban issues. It was there that I got to know the Oberlanders well, through their kindness and generosity to students and new graduates. When I defended my master’s thesis it was Peter and Cornelia Oberlander that took me for lunch at the Faculty Club to celebrate.

That mentorship over time turned into a friendship, and Cornelia was always available to be a guide on the side on planning, policy , and of course plants.

Cornelia had an organic approach to landscape design that makes even her early design work seem as modern as if she had just produced it, much the way that architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses seem completely fresh today. She had exposure to the Bauhaus School of thought  at Harvard and Walter Gropius had been teaching at Harvard’s School of Architecture since 1938. Mr. Gropius was a family friend of the Oberlanders, and visited them at their house in Vancouver.

Cornelia was always interested in the natural landscape, how it looked, how it behaved, how wind went through it, what plants were naturally there, and  how they reacted to the elements. She was an advocate of “Invisible Mending” using nature and plants that were indigenous to the area to plan her designs in a way that people would assume that the planted landscape was always there. And she was genius at it.

You can imagine how startling Cornelia’s approach was in the 1950’s and 1960’s which were the  scrubbed, trimmed and ‘weedbar’ days of gardening when nature was to be manicured at all costs. Postwar big green lawns represented status and roots. There was no place for undomesticated nature in landscape design.

For every project Cornelia would make a model or a maquette of the landscape to scale, and then think through the design principles that governed the site.  Even after the projects were built, you would still see Cornelia going back to revisit them, and ensure the landscapes worked. I like to  go to one of my favourite landscapes in Vancouver, Cornelia’s stone beach and outdoor museum at the Arthur Erickson designed Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. I often found Cornelia wearing boots standing  in the middle of the pond. She would tell me she was taking photos of the leaves in the water, but I knew she was really double checking the infiltration system.

The pond at the Museum of Anthropology was designed so  you could imagine  Haida paddlers just about to come around the bend in a canoe.  Cornelia worried when the Museum decided to install an agitation system in the pond to keep mosquitoes down. As she pointed out that was noisy, not too natural and maybe the picnickers did not need to be so close to the water when they had their lunch during mosquito season.

When the pond was drained to do repair work to the foundations of the museum, (which is still ongoing), Cornelia realized that she would probably not live to  see the landscape  again as she had designed it.

Susan Herrington’s book “Making the Modern Landscape” outlines the over six decade career that includes work Cornelia built in Berlin, New York City, Philadelphia, Seattle, and across Canada. Cornelia worked with practically every well known architect, and her legacy in Vancouver includes the fine rooftop garden of the downtown Vancouver public library, the landscaping and allee (double row of street trees) for Robson Square and the Law Courts.

Besides huge and monumental works like the landscape of the National Gallery in Ottawa or the VanDusen Visitors Centre in Vancouver,  Cornelia also designed for  communities. She designed gardens for co-ops, and was one of the first landscape architects to make informal play areas for children based upon age and skills, now standard practice. She also developed national guidelines for playgrounds.

Cornelia was a stickler for accuracy and she did not like that some of the work done by  noted architect Arthur Erickson was now being reinterpreted in a way that was not true. She and  Arthur worked together for three decades.

Cornelia was ahead of her time in most everything. She had a deep understanding and knowledge of plants, and has been advocating green roofs for decades to anyone that would listen. She asked me to edit work she had completed on the importance of access to parks and green views for high density dwellers. She always involved students and young professionals, and learned as much from them as they would have from her.

We once counted up how many honorary doctorates she has received.  I believe it was eight or nine. She has received nearly every major international accolade for design, and has an international landscape architecture prize named after her.

I have so many stories and learnings from Cornelia that I will share over time. Here is a preface for a project that Cornelia had written about in the last years of her life.

It reads:

“Longing for the Garden of Paradise is built into our genes. Throughout history we have been influenced by the gardens of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome and Asia which continue to inspire our contemporary gardens around the world”.

It is that wonder about nature and our quest for wholeness in nature that is at the foundation of all of Cornelia’s work.  What a privilege to know this outstanding woman and her remarkable family.

I will miss Cornelia Oberlander greatly. But we are blessed with her incredible legacy of design, spirit and mentoring that is carried on by her family and the people she touched.

We wish her family and friends peace and comfort at this difficult time.

Thank you for sharing Cornelia with us all.

Photos by Sandy James; Photo at top of Cornelia Oberlander with Deanna Manzer

Published by Sandy James Planner

Vancouverite! City planner, writer, former master gardener, perpetual public space champion. I'm interested in pace, space and place. Micromobility and accessibility, best environments for free range kids. She/her. Dogs. I really walk a lot. Editor~ Viewpoint Vancouver Urbanism/Insight/Evolution Managing Director of Walk Metro Vancouver, www.walkmetrovan. Twitter: @sandyjamesplan My current writing:

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