Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, a visionary Canadian landscape architect who championed sustainable and socially conscious design decades before it became a hallmark of her profession, died May 22 in Vancouver, British Columbia. She was 99.
The cause of death was complications from covid-19, said a daughter, Judy Oberlander.
Oberlander, who would have turned 100 later this month, was considered a role model for women in a male-dominated field and was known for forging uncommon working partnerships with architects and for being a trailblazing designer of green roofs, in which a building's rooftop is engineered with a soil-holding infrastructure and specific plants to trap rainwater and cool the building below. She was also recognized for turning to native and ethnobotanical flora to give landscapes and their inhabitants a sense of place.
One of her most enduring collaborators was the modernist architect Arthur Erickson, with whom she helped to transform Vancouver's downtown Robson Square, the provincial government courthouse complex, during the 1970s. About two decades later, they worked together on another landmark structure: the Canadian embassy on Pennsylvania Avenue NW in Washington.
Oberlander was one of the first women to study at Harvard's Graduate School of Design, noted Charles Birnbaum, president and chief executive of the Cultural Landscape Foundation. "Her expansive career encompasses public housing projects beginning in the 1950s, dozens of children's play areas in the 1960s, governmental campuses and cultural institutions, her pioneering efforts with green roofs, and her constant use of landscape architecture to address environmental and ecological issues and the impact of climate changes," Birnbaum said in an email. In 2019, the Washington-based foundation named its $100,000 biennial prize after Oberlander; the first recipient is due to be named this year to mark her centenary.
Oberlander, who never really retired, returned often to give walking tours of the Vancouver campus of the University of British Columbia. She worked on more than a dozen landscape projects at the university during her career, notably at the Museum of Anthropology, where she created an 11-acre landscape evoking the Indigenous Haida people and their island terrain off the coast of British Columbia.
Ingrained in Oberlander's work, large and small, was the idea that everyone should have access to gardens and green spaces that nurture emotional well-being.
Oberlander believed children's playgrounds should exercise the imagination as much as the body, and at the 1967 Montreal Expo, she presented the Children's Creative Center, where swings and slides were rejected in favor of undulating topography, pools and treehouses. This became the prototype for the approximately 70 natural playgrounds she designed, which also drew Erickson to her work.
Cornelia Hahn was born June 20, 1921, in Mlheim an der Ruhr, Germany, to Franz and Beate Hahn. Her father, an engineer, was killed in an avalanche while skiing in Switzerland in 1933.
The family moved to Berlin, where her grandparents lived, but as Jews, they had to flee the Nazi regime, getting out in 1938. They landed in New York, and soon decamped to the tranquility of rural New Hampshire.