By Amelia Sullivan, Landscape Landscape
The thing about Cornelia Oberlander is that, yes, she was a landscape architect’s landscape architect. But she was also a planner’s landscape architect, an academic’s landscape architect and, without a doubt, an architect’s landscape architect. Her talent and skills spanned disciplines and, whether an eager student or a weary professional, you could be inspired by her.
Her research was meticulous (I’ve never met a more voracious reader)—and like a lot of the best out there, she’d also have a gut feeling, and a gut concept, that she never strayed from on a project. She had an unwavering belief in her work—and that’s very uncommon in our field. There is an adage that “landscape finishes last,” but Cornelia’s projects are landscape-led. When she was studying at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, landscape architecture was still, as she’d often tell me, “all curlicues and watercolours” (and I love watercolours). It was decoration, and it looked to the past. It had not abstracted, it had not yet modernized.
During the making of our 50th anniversary issue, we lost a legend: Oberlander passed away at the age of 99. We’re honoured to have been part of documenting her incredible legacy all these years.
Cornelia was part of a group of post-war landscape architects who changed that. She understood modern design vocabulary and the crucial role of the landscape architect in knitting the building to the site. She was an early proponent of both an ecologically sensitive approach, and to designs that centred people and opportunities to experience nature. She drilled into me that landscape architecture should be collaborative, socially responsible and ecologically resilient.
The Friedman House in Western Homes & Living, February 1955.
So if you are Team Landscape, you had a champion in Cornelia—and boy did you have a breadth of projects to be inspired by in her work. She started out in community planning, public housing projects and designing playgrounds—the play environment she did for the Children’s Creative Centre for Expo ’67 was revolutionary. She brought ideas from Europe around risk and spontaneous play, and letting children be in charge. She also completed several private gardens—her first project in Vancouver, the Friedman House with Frederic Lasserre, is one I’m working on now—and of course locally treasured public spaces like Robson Square, the Museum of Anthropology and the Library Roof.
Oberlander’s revolutionary design for the playground at the Children's Creative Centre at Expo ’67.
The blessing and the curse of landscape architecture is that it is science and art, and Cornelia was committed to both. In her work, I’ve always admired that her big gestures appear to be simple abstractions of geometry overlayed with organic forms inspired by the environment, always with function at its core. She has also always been comfortable keeping her plantings simple. If you look at something as impressive as Robson Square, her first large public project in Vancouver, it’s really about those hanging roses, the trees and a simple understory. Done. Later, she’d get into more “wilding” in her designs, with grass and seeding mixes allowed to grow shaggy, with very intentionally placed clusters of trees. She was using naturalistic vegetation from a very early stage—working on green roofs and with meadow mixes as early as the ’70s, which was unheard of at the time. She has also never shied from a difficult site, and her commitment to emerging sustainable practices and materials often catches me out.
I worked with her for nearly five years when she was already in her 90s, primarily in the role of a facilitator, and to help archive her office. I’d also go along with her on site visits, where she’d revisit her work and make sure it was still in keeping with the vision. We’d take detailed pictures about where paving stones might be failing, or where a plant wasn’t doing well. And she’d send a note to some junior architect or assistant, telling them how she felt about what she saw, and what they needed to do to make it right. Or she’d revisit the homes she’d designed over the years, meet the owners who’d become friends, for tea and a talk, and inevitably she’d later send them a few links to plants that would make for good replacements, or a gardener they should connect with.
The rooftop garden at the Vancouver Public Library’s Central Branch.
It was a wonderful gift and a great privilege to be able to archive how she worked, and as we went through her office, one of my favourite things was finding the scribbles and doodles that were tucked in among her designs. She’d always doodle while she was on the phone with some planner, or contractor or even a politician. On repurposed hotel stationery, you’d find a sketch of a staircase where she’d found the rise and the run of the stairs to be pleasing or the spacing between two city trees—and she’d write down everything.
She was someone who never stopped working, and never stopped believing in the work. She was a doer, first and foremost. There’s that classic Cornelia story: she saw masses of smoke rising up from Jericho Beach and discovered all the washed-up logs were being burned and wasted. It was a simple call to the Parks Board superintendent, with Cornelia saying, “Why don’t you leave those logs out, spaced along the beach, and families could have lunch there?” And, of course, that’s been a legacy design at our beaches ever since. There are moments like that all over Vancouver, and all across the country. All thanks to Cornelia Oberlander.