Landscape Architect Cornelia Oberlander Dies at 99

She is considered to be a pioneer in landscape architecture.

Expo 67 Children's playground.

Canada Center for Architecture

The 1967 world's fair in Montreal was full of delights for children, but one of the most popular sites in the entire Expo67 was a small playground designed by a relatively unknown Vancouver landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander. According to Playgroundology: "By North American standards it was cutting edge, ahead of its time"—parents gasped at the idea that their kids might trip or drown.

But Oberlander wrote:

"Playgrounds should encourage absorption in activity and unselfconscious concentration. They ought to provide seclusion from disturbing or diverting influences , afford a release from everyday pressures, and give to the child at play the possibility of a make-believe world."

She saw it as a prototype for cities:

"The playground especially designed for Expo ’67, in conjunction with the Children’s Creative Centre, should provide some new ideas for crowded urban communities. Everywhere in cities, there are areas that could be made into “vest-pocket parks”, with mounds, ravines, treehouses, streams for wading, and places for building."

Oberlander worked all over North America, including the wonderful courtyard in The New York Times building. But she did some of her most important work in Vancouver, where she had lived since 1953.

Many people don't know what landscape architects do, including many architects who think that they just put stuff in planters around their buildings. But Oberlander's work was an integral part of the buildings.

"My passion is to be with nature and introduce people to it from all levels of society," Oberlander told Wallpaper magazine. "I believe in the therapeutic effects of greenery on the human soul."

Critic Paul Goldberger wrote at the launch of the Cornelia Hahn Oberlander International Landscape Architecture Prize (“Oberlander Prize”):

"Landscape and architecture are two worlds that too often exist independently of one another, and I think it is no exaggeration to say that one of the messages of Cornelia Oberlander’s extraordinary career has been to say that these fields can only benefit by becoming more connected."
Robson Square
Robson Square.

Lloyd Alter

When I was in Vancouver a few years ago, I took a pilgrimage to Arthur Erickson's Robson Square to see the building. But I quickly learned that Goldberger is right, you simply cannot separate the building from the landscape. Forty years ago when it was built, nobody thought about green roofs; this is still breathtaking. It is a demonstration of what Goldberger is talking about:

"Landscape, to Cornelia Oberlander, is not a medicine you apply to architecture to make it better, but an integral part of the art of building, the art of making places. She has always known that landscape is a discipline that speaks to all that goes into the making of the cityscape, and of the deep and essential connections between landscape and cityscape—that landscape needs cityscape, that cityscape needs landscape."

This really moving video covers Oberlander's remarkable life and career, which was made for the Cultural Landscape Foundation, follows her from Germany to the United States to Vancouver. You can read more about her life at the Cultural Landscape Foundation.

Charles Birnbaum with Cornelia Oberlander
Charles Birnbaum with Cornelia Oberlander.

Lloyd Alter

Last words to Charles A. Birnbaum, president and CEO of The Cultural Landscape Foundation:

"Cornelia was a giant in the field of landscape architecture, an inspiring and pioneering figure known for her extraordinary creativity, courage and vision. Her legacy of built work and influence demonstrates how one person can shape a profession that has global impact and importance."