The Grand Dame of Green Design: Cornelia Hahn Oberlander

Even if you don't recognize her name, you might recognize one of Cornelia Hahn Oberlander's green designs: the green roof on the Canadian Embassy in Berlin or the grounds surrounding the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver. In 2012, IDEAS producer Yvonne Gall profiled the pioneering landscape architect who died in May 2021.

A profile of the renowned B.C. landscape architect who died in May 2021

Cornelia Hahn Oberlander was a renowned Canadian landscape architect and a beloved member of the Jewish community in Vancouver, B.C. She died on May 22, 2021, at the age of 99. (Canadian Society of Landscape Architects)

Cornelia Hahn Oberlander has often been called Canada's pre-eminent landscape architect — a national treasure. 

Her love of nature and respect for the environment has guided and inspired a career that has spanned six decades.

Oberlander died on May 22, 2021, just one month shy of her 100th birthday. Days before she died, she was honoured with Vancouver's prestigious Freedom of the City award, "reserved for individuals who have gained national or international acclaim in their field and brought recognition to Vancouver through their work."

Her work has been internationally acclaimed, from her green roof on the Canadian Embassy in Berlin, to the atrium of the New York Times building, to Philadelphia's International Airport landscape. 

Cornelia Hahn Oberlander contributed to the Vancouver Public Library Central Branch rooftop garden. It was renovated and opened to the public in 2018. (Vancouver Public Library)

In 1953, Oberlander moved to Vancouver from the U.S. with her husband, starting a small firm. It is here in the big city where she left a remarkably defining legacy, adding character and design to many urban green spaces in the city. Some of her contributions include the Robson Square, the Vancouver Public Library Central Branch rooftop garden, the VanDusen Botanical Garden visitor centre, the Vancouver General Hospital burn unit garden, and the grounds surrounding the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver.

Creative spaces to play

At the age of 18, Oberlander fled Nazi Germany and immigrated to the U.S. where she graduated from Harvard University with a degree in landscape architecture.   

In her early career, she focused on designing landscapes for low-income housing projects and playgrounds. Her first public housing project was creating a playground for architect Louis Khan in 1951, which included a vegetable garden and a fruit tree.

Cornelia Hahn Oberlander is behind the idea to use logs to sit or rest upon at public beaches in Vancouver. (Evan Mitsui)

The pioneer landscape architect has designed over 70 playgrounds across Canada. Her most famous one being the Children's Creative Centre and play area for Expo 67 in Montreal.  

In 2012, IDEAS producer Yvonne Gall spoke to architect colleagues, Oberlander's daughter Wendy and to the visionary architect herself, Cornelia Hahn Oberlander about her inspiration and past to create this profile documentary about her life and work. 

Guests in this episode:

Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, landscape architect

Wendy Oberlander, Cornelia's daughter and artist

Bruce McTavish, biologist, agrologist and past president of the Canadian Landscape Association

Eva Matsuzaki, architect and former president of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada

Jeanette Frost, mechanical technologist in Vancouver

Elizabeth Whitelaw, landscape architect in Vancouver

Bing Thom, architect in Vancouver

* This episode was produced by Yvonne Gall, with consulting producer Dave Ridell.

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