West Vancouver Art Museum curator Hilary Letwin has long been fascinated and inspired by the work of eminent landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander.
Now, she gets to share that passion with the wider community through the museum’s latest exhibition, Cornelia Hahn Oberlander: Genius Loci.
The remarkable 99-year-old, who lives in Vancouver and is still consulting on projects, is among the most notable landscape architects in the world. Over her career, she’s designed landscapes locally, nationally and abroad, and become known for her desire to “create terrains that are less an interruption and more an amplification of what already exists on a site.”
Hence the name of the exhibition, Genius Loci, meaning "the protective spirit of a place."
Oberlander was born into a prominent Jewish family in 1921 in Germany, and later fled the Nazi regime with her mother and sister to create a new life in the United States in 1939. After studying, she relocated to Vancouver in 1953, where she embarked on a number of landscape projects still around today. She’s also well known for pioneering the green roofs seen around Vancouver.
Letwin, who co-curated the exhibit with Amery Calvelli from the Art Gallery of Alberta, said it showcases 12 different projects by Oberlander across four categories of her work, including playgrounds, social housing, private residences, and large public spaces. Each project shows photography of the places alongside her sketches, plans, and research proposals.
“The No. 1 goal of the exhibition was not only to present Cornelia and her life's work but also to focus on some of the projects that people would maybe be less familiar with,” explained Letwin.
Seeing Oberlander's 'beautiful' designs sparks idea for exhibit
Letwin, who moved to Vancouver 10 years ago with her husband, said her curiosity for Oberlander’s work was sparked while out on daily walks exploring the city.
“As I was walking around Vancouver, I kept coming across these beautiful, very elegant, sort of pocket gardens around the city,” she said.
“Of course, I wanted to know why they were designed and who they were designed by, and I discovered more times than not that the gardens were designed by Cornelia Oberlander. These are places like Robson Square, and the Vancouver Public Library’s roof gardens, and the Museum of Anthropology. All of these really iconic Vancouver spaces were because of Cornelia’s designs, and that made me appreciate just what an impact this landscape architect has had on our own built environment.”
Fast forward a few years, and in 2018, Letwin interviewed for the assistant curator position at the West Vancouver Art Museum. To bolster her chances for the job, she brought with her the idea for an exhibition on Oberlander’s landscape architecture.
“There was always a special focus every year and something related to West Coast modern design and architecture,” said Letwin, adding that West Vancouver, from the '50s, was a place where a number of architects and designers inspired by Bauhaus (a German concept by architect Walter Gropius) came to build their family homes on the rocky slopes overlooking the ocean, and it became a very distinctive residential architectural style on the North Shore.
After looking at the museum's prior exhibitions, she noticed that many focused on male architects and thought it was only fitting to shine a light on a female architect who has and is still having a significant impact on Vancouver’s landscape.
Like many of the male architects of her time, Oberlander also came out of a house design program. She studied at Smith College in Massachusetts and, in 1944, continued her studies at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University before she ventured to Vancouver in the '50s, working on a mix of landscape projects. From the early 1970s, she began collaborating with renowned architect Arthur Erickson.
“She was deeply influenced by this sort of Bauhaus modernist approach, which can be defined in lots of different ways, but most simply, it's the use of simple materials, and it's the pursuit of good design through simplicity,” explained Letwin.
When Letwin got the job, she was encouraged to pursue the idea for the exhibition, and after visiting Oberlander in early 2019, she teamed up with Calvelli from the Art Gallery of Alberta to make the show a reality.
While this isn’t the first exhibition to feature Oberlander’s work, it is the most retrospective – and she also helped choose what to include.
“She was very pleased with the idea,” said Letwin. “She has been very actively involved in the process.”
Two projects in the exhibit are on the North Shore
Two of the projects highlighted may be familiar to North Shore residents.
“The first project is the North Shore Neighbourhood house playground,” said Letwin.
“This is a project that Cornelia designed in 1968. The playground is, unfortunately, no longer really there. They do have a playground, but it's not the one that Cornelia designed.
“That just goes to show really the fragility of landscape architecture and landscape design. It's so easy for these landscapes to be changed. Landscape designs, especially ones like this one from 1968, you know, they're subject to be updated and changed for lots of different reasons.”
The second North Shore project selected is the landscape design Oberlander created for the Monteverdi Estate, a development of 20 homes on Monteverdi Place designed in 1979 and completed in 1982 by Arthur Erickson's firm.
“That was a good example of Cornelia working together with architects, which is what she often did throughout her career,” said Letwin.
“Her intent was to maintain as many of the trees as possible and to maintain the existing landscape as much as possible. She did some very careful planting of plants like rhododendrons, which do very well in this environment, and then she advised very judicious pruning and tree care.
“That landscape, of course, is now over 40 years old, and it's largely unchanged. It's still beautiful. It's still very peaceful, and it retains all its original charm.”
The exhibition is hoped to give viewers an all-round appreciation for Oberlander’s work.
“It's very hard to do a visual exhibition about something like landscape design because ultimately, one wants to be able to transport people to that particular site, to really appreciate the magic of Cornelia’s designs,” said Letwin.
“But of course, that's not largely possible. So, I want people to be able to basically understand the story of each of the projects that have comprised her career. I'd like people to walk away with a sense of her priorities from project to project, but also to understand the breadth of her focuses throughout her career.”
Letwin said Oberlander’s projects over the years revealed consistent and significant stewardship of the natural environment.
“Her landscape designs, in every single instance, have been inspired by a hope to connect people with nature and with their natural environment.”
An inspiring woman
For Letwin, Oberlander is inspiring not only for her landscape designs but for her commitment to research before embarking on a project, her professional vigour and grace, and her ability to balance professional and family life.
“As a mother of two young children myself, I always have appreciated, especially in the last few years, seeing how she developed her career very successfully while still raising a family,” she said.
“I think that she's done it with such grace and elegance, and that to me was inspiring.”
She said Oberlander had always shown such appreciation for life and had a way of always putting things into perspective.
“She has had an extraordinary life,” said Letwin.
“She likes to say that ‘she never looked back,’ and I think that's absolutely the case.
“I think that she has always seized every opportunity that life brings her, and I greatly admire that about her.”
The exhibition will be open until March 13. Once it wraps up in West Vancouver, it will be displayed at the Art Gallery of Alberta.
Elisia Seeber is the North Shore News’ Indigenous and civic affairs reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.