Landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander — this year’s winner of the prestigious Margolese Prize — could easily rest on her laurels. After all, this nonagenarian has already given Vancouver one of its “urban lungs”— the vibrant mix of waterfalls and greenery at Robson Square. In Ottawa, she designed the National Gallery’s starkly beautiful indoor and outdoor gardens. On campus, the Museum of Anthropology pays tribute to the landscapes of Haida Gwaii, thanks to her design concepts.
Oberlander, 94, still keeps a thriving practice. Most days she’s hard at work by 9 a.m.: researching, sketching, phoning colleagues, and answering countless emails from students and clients. She devotes her spare time to giving talks and lectures, occasionally at UBC’s School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture.
Sustainable is an often-used word. What does it mean to you?
The word “sustainability” was coined in 1987 with the publication of the Brundtland report. It desires for us to live without undermining the integrity, stability and beauty of the landscape. It means adapting design to the local ecology. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we have to use resilient plants, native to our environment which can endure the diverse conditions of climate change. These are the same plants recorded by botanist Archibald Menzies, who came up the west coast with Captain George Vancouver and identified our native ecology in 1792.
There are new challenges in landscape design. People are looking for low-maintenance plants that are versatile.
How do you measure sustainability in your projects?
For my projects, I aim wherever possible to follow the Cascadia Living Building Challenge. It is a building certification program developed by the Cascadia Green Building Council that looks at the total building and site design.
What else drives your work?
Writings by the eminent scientist E.O. Wilson, author of Biophylia Hypothesis, who suggested that there is a biologically based, instinctive bond between humans and their environment. In short, we all long to be surrounded by nature, which is built into our genes. He urges us “to preserve every scrap of biodiversity as priceless while we learn to use it and come to understand what it means to humanity.”
Which of your projects is your favourite so far?
The provincial government complex at Robson Square. In my proposal to the architect, Arthur Erickson, I wrote that I could visualize a park on top of the building, filled with plants that can live amidst the city’s condition and make it green. And it is green today – an oasis in the city.
All the planter boxes are filled with Japanese maples, magnolias and pines. By repeating the type of plant material, we achieved a cohesive, restful look.
Robson Square was also the most challenging. When I worked on it, I insisted on using a lightweight growing medium, but in 1974 no one knew anything about this. Eventually I found a solution in the California Handbook on soils.
The Museum of Anthropology is also a favourite. This landscape features our First Nations culture of Haida Gwaii. Today, with the water in the inlet, the landscape becomes an outdoor museum.
I also enjoyed designing VanDusen’s Visitor Centre and the National Gallery in Ottawa.
What role does design play in civic life?
A big one. We have too many high-rises and too few green spaces. I’m hoping more designers and citizens understand that green spaces are important, as well as green roofs. Every footprint of a building should be replaced with an accessible green roof for enjoyment and ideally food production.
You were one of the first women to graduate from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. You’ve received the Order of Canada, the Jellicoe award, and many other honours. What advice would you give young landscape designers looking to stand out and succeed?
Practice the three Rs: research, responsibility and risk taking. And to accomplish these goals you will need vision, imagination and motivation.
I also emphasize collaboration. You need to work with the client, the architect and other colleagues to bring your concepts to life.
About the Margolese National Design for Living Prize:
The Margolese National Design for Living Prize celebrates and inspires exceptional impact on living environments benefitting all Canadians. Created by a generous estate gift made to UBC by Leonard Herbert Margolese, it awards annually an unrestricted $50,000 prize to a Canadian who has shown extraordinary talent and dedication to make Canada a better place to live.