New Award for Landscape Architecture Honors Cornelia Oberlander

CC BY 2.0. Robson Square/ Lloyd Alter

The Cultural Landscape Foundation introduces a prize that rivals architecture's Pritzker or Stirling.

When last in Vancouver I visited Robson Square, which I knew of as a famous project by architect Arthur Erickson. But it is also known for the incredible landscape architecture by Cornelia Hahn Oberlander; you cannot, in fact, separate the landscape from the building here. Forty years ago when this was built, so-called green roofs like this didn't really exist; Cornelia Hahn Oberlander had to invent everything. It is still a breathtakingly beautiful integration of architecture and landscape.

Charles Birnbaum with Cornelia Oberlander

Charles Birnbaum with Cornelia Oberlander/ photo Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0That's why it was so fitting to hear Charles Birnbaum of the Cultural Landscape Foundation describe the new Cornelia Hahn Oberlander International Landscape Architecture Prize (“Oberlander Prize”). The architecture world has its famous prizes like the Pritzker and, in the UK, the Stirling. Landscape architecture never had a major prize like this, and frankly, never has got the attention it deserved. As critic and author Paul Goldberger noted at the launch of the prize in October:

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.

Certainly Oberlander has not got the recognition that she deserved, equal to any architects. Paul Goldberger continued:

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.

The really moving video covers Oberlander's remarkable life and career, following her from Germany to the United States to Vancouver. She certainly deserves this honor, and as Birnbaum noted, it is nicer to name the award after a great designer than a big donor.

Goldberger's remarkable speech in New York really encapsulates the importance of landscape architecture in our lives, and explains, better than I could ever do, why I am a supporter of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, which "engages the public to make our shared landscape heritage more visible, identify its value, and empower its stewards."

The architecture of a public building sometimes addresses a social need, sometimes not, but the design of a public piece of landscape almost always addresses a social need. Whether it is successful at this is another question, but its very existence, surely, is a testament to belief in the social good.
And if I think about the great design achievements of the past generation in most cities, and certainly in New York, they are not in the making of buildings—of which we’ve done decently but only rarely better than that, and a lot of the time we’ve done far less than decently—no, it is in the making of places, public places, public landscapes, that our time has made its mark. Just to stay in New York, we have added the High Line, Hudson River Park, Brooklyn Bridge Park, and Governor’s Island to the public realm, and each of these is an accomplishment of landscape architecture far more than of architecture.

Finally, Goldberger reminds us why this is on TreeHugger:

I have not even mentioned the other key reason for the urgency of this prize, and the logic of naming it for Cornelia Oberlander, which is climate change, and the issues surrounding sustainability, where she has been a pioneer, leading the way long before it was obvious to everyone how important this is.

Most people don't understand what landscape architects do. I don't think most architects even get it. But when we think of the places we love in our cities, so often they are the places they have designed. They deserve this recognition.