The world may have lost a pioneering and accomplished landscape architect from Vancouver and an esteemed member of the city’s Jewish community but her work and contributions to urban spaces continue to thrive and inspire for both current and future generations.
Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, who was born in Germany on June 20, 1921, died in Vancouver at the age of 99 on May 22.
Just prior to her death, Vancouver city council approved the Freedom of the City Award, the city’s most prestigious award for those who have garnered national or international renown and brought recognition through their work, for Oberlander on May 18.
Oberlander’s nomination for this award was supported by the Jewish Federation of Vancouver, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, and the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia in honour of Jewish Heritage Month.
“Cornelia Oberlander was one of Vancouver’s most renowned Jewish residents, and during Jewish Heritage Month this May, we honour her outstanding accomplishments in bringing world-class landscape design to Canada, and to Vancouver in particular,” Mayor Kennedy Stewart stated in a news release. “On behalf of Council, I extend my deepest sympathies to her family and friends. May her memory be a blessing.”
It was just one of numerous awards and accolades that Oberlander collected over her illustrious career.
Oberlander escaped Nazi persecution in Germany when she was 18 years old, and fled to England before immigrating to the U.S., where she was among the first class of women to graduate from Harvard University with a degree in landscape architecture.
After she moved to Vancouver, she founded her own landscape architecture firm in 1953 and developed her vision for green cities and incorporating nature into urban environments.
Among her work in shaping public spaces in Vancouver are her famous use of logs for seating at public beaches (1963), and her contributions to Robson Square and Law Courts (1983), the Vancouver Public Library Central Branch’s rooftop garden (1995), the VanDusen Botanical Garden Visitor Centre (2011), and UBC’s Museum of Anthropology and the C. K. Choi Building.
Beyond Vancouver, she also designed landscapes for housing and playgrounds across Canada, drafted national guidelines for creating play spaces in Canada, and worked on projects such as the National Gallery of Canada and the Canadian Chancery in Washington, D.C.
She had also won the Margolese National Design for Living Prize, the 2013 Mayor's Arts Award for Lifetime Achievement, the Interior Designers of Canada/International Interior Design Association Leadership Award of Excellence, Emily Carr University’s Doctor of Letters, and was named to the Order of Canada in 2017.