Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, the critically acclaimed Canadian landscape architect, has passed in Vancouver at the age of 99. Oberlander’s long career was filled with impressive highlights, From being taught by modernist architects such as Walter Gropius at Harvard, to working with Louis Kahn, Arthur Erickson, Shigeru Ban and Moshe Safdie on a string of thoughtful, life-enriching projects – her work and legacy on the value of green expanses and the importance of public space will remain important and influential for generations to come. 

Cornelia Hahn Oberlander was born in Mülheim to a Jewish-German family, who fled the Nazi regime and emigrated to America, when she was 18. She studied landscape architecture at Smith College and then Harvard, marrying fellow Harvard Design School student planner Peter Oberlander. The couple moved to Vancouver in 1953 for a job opportunity, where they stayed, Oberlander soon becoming prolific in the residential landscaping scene. Larger-scale, public works are a significant part of her portfolio too. Her two big Vancouver projects with Erickson – Robson Square and the Museum of Anthropology (pictured below) – are probably her best known.

Site plan of the Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver, 1977. © Cornelia Oberlander, Cornelia Hahn Oberlander fonds, Collection Centre Canadien d’Architecture/Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montréal

Oberlander was also ‘an early proponent of rewilding, community consultation, pedestrian-friendly accessibility and creative playgrounds for children,’ writes Hadani Ditmars, who interviewed the landscape architect at her 1970 Vancouver post-and-beam home, designed with architect Barry Downs, in Vancouver for the May 2018 issue of Wallpaper* (W*230). ‘[Now] when many of the sustainable practices Oberlander espoused for years have become mainstream, she is still an unstoppable force of nature, working on several projects and doing advocacy work.’

Her honours tell a story of a great mind that spearheaded change and championed excellence in her profession. She won the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada’s 2011 Prix du XXe siècle, she is the recipient of the 2012 American Society of Landscape Architects Medal, and became a Companion of the Order of Canada. She was also recently awarded the Freedom of the City Award by the City of Vancouver – it is the city’s highest honour. A new International Landscape Architecture gong by The Cultural Landscape Foundation was recently been created in her honour too - the Oberlander Prize. It will be announced every two years, starting 2021.

‘My passion is to be with nature and introduce people to it from all levels of society,’ she said, in the same 2018 piece. ‘I believe in the therapeutic effects of greenery on the human soul.’ §