Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, a German-born Canadian landscape architect who combined naturalistic designs with modernist ideals and recognized the urgency of climate change early on and designed public spaces to mitigate its effects, died on May 22nd in Vancouver, British Columbia. She was 99.
The cause were complications from Covid-19, said her daughter Judy Oberlander.
Ms. Oberlander was one of the first women to study at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, founded by Walter Gropius, a leader of the Bauhaus movement. Her modernist ethos and her own upbringing gave her a mission to improve people’s lives with nature-nourished public spaces.
With the Canadian modernist architect Arthur Erickson, she created some of the most enduring and popular public spaces in Vancouver, her adopted home. One is Robson Square, a three-block downtown square built between 1978 and 1983. An oasis of green roofs, waterfalls, and hanging gardens sloping down from the city’s courthouses and government offices – a flat concrete complex designed by Mr. Erickson – through an ingenious series of gently stepped granite stair ramps that Ms. Oberlander called “Stramps” (she let herself inspired by goat trails). They make every level passable for everyone, even if you are in a wheelchair or pushing a stroller.
She and Mr. Erickson also teamed up at the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, another critically acclaimed landmark. Here his amazing, brutalist building made of glass and concrete nestles in an open meadow with native plants, the building looks as if it had emerged completely from the landscape of Ms. Oberländer.
Ms. Oberlander, an advocate of pocket parks and playgrounds in cities, emphasized the healing properties of nature and the ability of landscape architecture to bring about social change.
“The longing for nature is ingrained in our genes,” she told Charles Birnbaum of the Cultural Landscape Foundation when he interviewed her for an oral story of her life. “That is the driving force behind my work.”
Long before the term “climate change” found its way into the dictionary, Ms. Oberlander designed green roofs to cool cities and manage rainwater. She worked with some of the most famous architects of the 20th century worldwide, including Louis Kahn, Moshe Safdie and Renzo Piano.
Specifically, she worked with Mr. Piano on the New York Times’ new headquarters, a 52-story tower on the West Side of Manhattan. His design envisaged an inner atrium in the form of a perfect cube with a grid of birch trees, and it was the seemingly impossible task of Ms. Oberlander to make this a reality.
“Cornelia brought science up,” said Hank White, the landscape architect she worked with on the project. She summoned a scientist who had developed a software program to model microclimatology and asked him to measure the wind, sun and shadow patterns of this yet-to-be-created space. In the end, the trees were not placed on a grid on an undulating ground of hills and valleys, but exactly where the light would fall.
“She was a landscape architect who studied housing construction, who studied cities,” wrote the architecture critic Paul Goldberger about Ms. Oberlander in 2019 when the Kulturlandschaft Foundation organized a prize on her behalf. Her life, he continued, “was intertwined with the growing presence of the modern movement in the United States and then Canada, and their entire career has been a rebuke to those who may be foolhardy enough to think that landscape design is mainly a question of the choice of plants. “
Cornelia Ann Hahn was born on June 20, 1921 in Mülheim-an-der-Ruhr as the eldest of three daughters of a wealthy and socially conscious family. Her father, Franz Hahn, was an engineer in the family’s steel company, founded by Cornelia’s great-grandfather, and later a management consultant; her mother Beate (Jastrow) Hahn was a gardener and children’s book author. Cornelia grew up in Düsseldorf and Berlin. Her father was killed in an avalanche skiing in 1933.
June 9, 2021, 10:03 p.m. ET
When the Nazis came to power in the 1930s, Cornelia, like many other Jewish children, was banned from attending school. The family’s passports were taken away, as was the steel business from which their fortune came. Her butler started hiding his own money for the family under a rug so that it could help them if they escape. At the end of 1938, two weeks after the Reichspogromnacht, the Nazi pogrom against Jews, they were finally able to flee with the help of Geoffrey Lawrence, a British judge and family friend who later oversaw the Nuremberg trials.
The Hahn family settled first in New Rochelle, NY, and then New Hampshire, on a 200 acre farm where Ms. Oberlander’s mother practiced organic horticulture. Cornelia chose Smith College for her undergraduate studies, attracted by its courses in landscape design.
At the Harvard School of Design she met Peter Oberlander, who studied urban planning. Born in Vienna and also a Jew, he landed in Canada in 1940 after a series of internment camps. Cornelia caught his eye at a student picnic, as did the dessert she had brought with her, an Austrian Bundt-style Gugelhupf.
“It was ‘a place in time,'” said her daughter, Wendy Oberlander – a kind of Madeleine who immediately established a connection between the two young European refugees that sealed the deal.
The couple married in New York City in 1953 and moved to Vancouver, where Mr. Oberlander became Professor of Urban Planning at the University of British Columbia. He died in 2008. In addition to her daughters Judy and Wendy, Ms. Oberlander left behind a son, Tim, and four grandchildren.
Ms. Oberlander was serious about children and their play and was especially worried about city children and their access to nature. Starting with her early work in public housing in Philadelphia, she made sure to include places for children in her landscapes.
A playground that she designed during this time consisted of curved concrete forms – “all the elements so that children can invent their own story,” said Alexandra Lange, architecture critic and author of “The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes”. Independent Children ”(2018). The Philadelphia location prefigured Ms. Oberlander’s design for her more famous work, a playground for Expo 67, the world exhibition in Montreal; Ms. Lange described it as a stage for children to express themselves on, rather than an array of devices telling them what to do.
The Expo design, called Space for Creative Play, was a hilly landscape of loop paths, a canal with arched wooden bridges, a climbing net and a beach. “Everything children need,” Ms. Oberlander often said, “is some sand, water and something to climb.”
She later designed 70 urban playgrounds, mostly in Canada. Among her many awards, she was honored with the Order of British Columbia in 2016 and named Companion of the Order of Canada in 2018. Days before her death, the Mayor of Vancouver announced that she had received the city’s highest honor, Freedom From, the City Prize.
“My mother lived between two pandemics,” said Tim Oberlander, “and her story ties in with the arches of German-Jewish history.” He said that Vancouver’s recent lockdown made his mother feel so “locked up” – her words – as in her last years in Berlin. When she got sick, she was still working.
When Mr. Birnbaum from the Cultural Landscape Foundation flew to Vancouver in 2008 to interview Ms. Oberlander for his oral history, she showed him and his crew around their property: a modernist house cantilevered over a ravine (she and her husband had it with designed by a friend) and a semi-wild landscape with fruit trees and flowers.
As was her custom, Ms. Oberlander was marching fast at six feet, and the film crew struggled to keep up. When Mr. Birnbaum asked her to slow down, she said: “When I was young, I was always the fastest. My mother said I had to slow down and let the Aryan children win. I swore I would never slow down again. “