Remembering Cornelia Hahn Oberlander (1921-2021)

Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, the famed Canadian landscape architect, has passed away at the age of 99 in Vancouver. Here, we pay tribute to her life and work.

Cornelia Hahn Oberlander in 2018, sitting on a Harry Bertoia ‘Diamond’ chair in her Vancouver home, located in the University Endowment Lands, a semi-forested area west of the city
Cornelia Hahn Oberlander in 2018, sitting on a Harry Bertoia ‘Diamond’ chair in her Vancouver home, located in the University Endowment Lands, a semi-forested area west of the city.
(Image credit: Yoshihiro Makino)

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.

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

(Image credit: press)

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.’

Ellie Stathaki is the Architecture & Environment Director at Wallpaper*. She trained as an architect at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece and studied architectural history at the Bartlett in London. Now an established journalist, she has been a member of the Wallpaper* team since 2006, visiting buildings across the globe and interviewing leading architects such as Tadao Ando and Rem Koolhaas. Ellie has also taken part in judging panels, moderated events, curated shows and contributed in books, such as The Contemporary House (Thames & Hudson, 2018), Glenn Sestig Architecture Diary (2020) and House London (2022).