British Columbia

New $100,000 prize named after groundbreaking B.C. landscape architect Cornelia Oberlander

The Cultural Landscape Foundation, a Washington D.C.-based non-profit, recently announced the $100,000 Oberlander Prize, in recognition of her over 70 years of work.

The Oberlander Prize will be awarded every other year starting in 2021, the centenary of Oberlander's birth

Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, 98, is a groundbreaking Vancouver-based landscape architect. (Cultural Landscape Foundation)

A new international prize has put the spotlight back on the career of Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, the groundbreaking Vancouver-based landscape architect who was an early champion of ecological design.

The Cultural Landscape Foundation, a Washington D.C.-based non-profit, announced a new $100,000 US international landscape architecture prize named in her honour that will be awarded every two years starting in 2021 —  the centenary of Oberlander's birth.

Oberlander, 98, told host Gloria Macarenko on CBC's On The Coast she was "completely overwhelmed" by the announcement. 

"It is the culmination of 70 years of work and research and my one wish was to advance the profession of landscape architecture to new heights," Oberlander said. 

Oberlander was born in Germany in 1921 to a professional horticulturalist mother and an engineer father. Her family escaped Nazi Germany in 1938 to the United States.

She pursued design, graduating from the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 1947 — among the second cohort to allow women. 

But this was not something she spent time dwelling on.

"I never thought of it," she said. "All I thought of it was I want to be a landscape architect and [make] the world a little greener." 

Oberlander designed the green space around the University of British Columbia's Museum of Anthropology. (Photo: Cory Dawson/Courtesy of the MOA)

After working in New York with landscape architect James Rose, Oberlander made her way to Vancouver where she established a design firm. 

She went on to collaborate with architect Arthur Erickson on a number of projects in the city, making her mark on Robson Square, the Vancouver Public Library and the Museum of Anthropology.

Oberlander says her work is a combination of art and science. The science, she says, is knowing the climate, the soil and rainfall of the area.

"The art is — I learned [this] by working with Arthur Erickson for so many years — that I have to start with a concept and analyze the site and he used to always remind us that the building and the site must achieve a fit. And that is really my dictum," she said.

Oberlander was also ahead of the curve when it came to her ideas of green design.

Landscape architects today are trained in the work she pioneered — particularly ideas of sustainability and respecting local ecology.

Even nearing 100 years old, Oberlander is still thinking of the future.

"Climate change is of uppermost in my mind."

Listen to the interview on CBC's On The Coast

The Cultural Landscape Foundation, a Washington D.C.-based non-profit, recently announced the $100,000 Oberlander Prize, in recognition of the groundbreaking landscape architect. 8:11

With files from On The Coast


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