Opinion: Queen of Green just keeps sowing
At 93, green-space pioneer Cornelia Hahn Oberlander continues to transform public places
By Pat Carney, Special to the Vancouver Sun June 27, 2014
Library Square, Vancouver
Cornelia Hahn Oberlander is late for lunch at UBC’s University Centre. She noticed on her arrival that the Japanese plum trees she designed and planted at the entrance in 1957 have been cut down during the current renovation.
“Sawed off,” she says. Architect Arthur Erickson would be upset. So would Leo and Thea Koerner, who in the mid-1950s financed the building as a faculty centre.
“It’s terrible,” she said. “Those trees were in perfect shape. There was not a bud that wasn’t in bloom this year.” She picks up the menu and tells the server to ask the bistro manager when she has time to drop by our table to discuss the changes to Cornelia’s original landscaping plan.
Oberlander, who turned 93 this month, is our Queen of Green, an internationally acclaimed landscape architect, a pioneer in the use of native plants, green roof gardens, the integration of lush beauty with sustainable development. She was awarded the prestigious American Society of Landscape Architects medal in 2012, and the International Federation of Landscape Architects premier award in 2011.
Our landscape contributes to our sense of identity, who we are and how we live. If Vancouver achieves Mayor Gregor Robertson’s vision of being the world’s greenest city by 2020, we owe a lot to Oberlander, who has long advocated green buildings in green cities. In her vision, public spaces are people places.
Think of the terraced roof gardens of Robson Square, graced with dogwood, pines, laurel and other species native to B.C. And the Vancouver Trade and Convention Centre’s iconic green roof, Canada Place and the new Visitors’ Centre at Van Dusen Gardens, inspired by the native plants catalogued by Captain George Vancouver’s botanist Archibald Menzies in 1792.
This sense of identity, and our increasing awareness that trees and shrubbery reduce noise pollution and improve air quality, is reflected in the concerns expressed as foreign investors, including the MLC (as local realtors call the mainland Chinese), tear down Vancouver’s heritage homes and tear up their gardens. Three giant cranes pierced the skyline of Shaughnessy Heights this month.
At UBC, Oberlander has been involved in the design of 13 projects along with her colleagues, including architects Erickson and Fred Lasserre.
She gestures to the angled pool below the Centre, lushly framed by trees and blooms and mountain views.“We did all that,” she says.
Bistro manager Stephanie Packward comes to our table with copies of the landscaping plan, telling us: “The Japanese plum trees had to go because of the disease that is sweeping the campus.” She falters under Oberlander’s steely hazel gaze. “At least that is what they told me.” Packward adds that plans to tear up the greenery around the centre’s pool are on hold for now.
“Oh God, what is this?” says Oberlander, reviewing the proposed plant list, ticking off the choices. Oberlander doesn’t normally swear, but I share her frustration at seeing our heritage being torn up by its roots. I peer at the name printed on the plan. A Seattle landscape designer.
Oberlander’s reputation is global. She designed the National Gallery garden in Ottawa, selecting plants native to the taiga shield between Canada’s arctic tundra and temperate forests — bog cranberry, wild strawberries and kinnikinnick, a ground cover plant with small colourful berries. She used a similar approach to the new public high school in Inuvik, where permafrost presented a challenge, as well as at the Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly in Yellowknife on the rocky outcroppings of the Canadian Shield.
At times she has taken her inspiration from the landscapes portrayed by Canada’s Group of Seven artists. Abroad, she has worked on the Canadian embassies in Washington DC, and Berlin, and the New York Times building courtyard, where birch trees glimmer in the winter snow. She talks the language of drainage plans, sub-soils and slopes: the technical side of a pretty view.
And she is still working, lecturing on climate change at her alma mater Smith College and promoting her new biography on a book tour of New York, Toronto and Ottawa.
“Its theme is going from garden making to sustainable development,” she explains. She has contracts for projects across Canada.
Oberlander, a refugee from Nazi Germany, attended Smith College and Harvard Graduate School of Design. At Harvard she met and married Peter Oberlander, who became a leader in the emerging field of urban planning. They moved to Vancouver in 1953 and raised three children, Tim, Judy and Wendy and spent summers at their Saturna Island cottage, where we are neighbours. She showed me how to cut windows in my cedar trees to frame the sea views, rather than cutting the cedars down.
When she was 11, she decided to be a landscape architect. Her early work was designing children’s play areas.
“Children learn how to take risks by playing,” she once told me. “They challenge themselves; can I reach that bar? Swing that high? It is a problem in a world where children are increasingly protected from risk.”
Oberlander transforms empty spaces into people places. For years I drove by an open space at UBC completely devoid of people. Then one day I noticed a grassy mound in the centre of the space with a couple sprawled on top, reading. A child climbed some stepping stones set in the side of the mound. At the bottom, a stone rim provided seating where people ate their lunch. Students threw flying discs near a small grove of saplings sheltering more benches, where a dog walker rested, canines at her feet. Ah, I thought. Oberlander’s been here.
A favourite project is the UBC Museum of Anthropology, where she has recreated a Haida village site. As we walk down the gravelled path, she says: “This is an ethnobotanical walk. All the plants relate to the lifestyle of our native people.” She caresses a maple leaf, once used to wrap fish and food. She turns over a native fern frond to show the spores on the underside, used for medicine.
We pause at the Musqueam Gate, recognizing local Aboriginal claims. But my eyes are drawn to the coastal inlet she created, with its rippling water running between two mounds representing coastal mountains. Three longhouses stand sentinel on the sand and pebble beaches. One displays Haida artist Bill Reid’s family totem pole in front. The North Shore Mountains loom in the distance.
The setting creates the sense of a secret coastal inlet, the same dreamlike sense of eternity.
For me, a veteran of the B.C. coast from Saturna to Alaska, it was so realistic I almost expected a cedar canoe to appear around the point. Instead, the helmeted head of a biker popped into view.
I drive Oberlander home to pack for a flight to Calgary to receive an honorary degree from the University of Calgary. Newcomers may demolish the beautiful houses and gardens on the University Endowment Lands to build their garish mansions but as long as the Aboriginal village site she created overlooks Burrard Inlet, part of our natural heritage remains.
If our mayor and council want to honour our Queen of Green in her 94th year, they might approve the plans for the roof garden her team has proposed for the Vancouver Public Library, on hold while roundabouts and other priorities are built. But they better move quickly. Oberlander’scalender is full.
Pat Carney is an author, retired politician and former Vancouver Sun journalist who lives on Saturna Island
Oberlander’s biography, Cornelia Hahn Oberlander: Making the Modern Landscape, by Susan Herrington, University of Virginia Press, 2013, is available at Hagers Books and Amazon.
© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun
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