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Making The Modern Landscape book cover

Cornelia Hahn Oberlander:
Making the Modern Landscape

Susan Herrington

Reviewer: Robert Matas

MAY 2014

Landscape architect Cornelia Hans Oberlander in 1963 was appalled when she saw park workers at Jericho Beach burning logs that broke away from booms. She called up Bill Livingston, the Vancouver Park Board superintendent, and suggested placing the logs along the sandy beaches for people to sit on. Livingston thought it was a good idea.

Fifty years later, it’s often hard during the summer months to find a vacant spot along one of the logs lining Vancouver’s beaches. Changing the landscape of the city’s beaches is one of many ways in which Oberlander has contributed to making Vancouver one of the world’s most liveable cities. But despite being Canada’s pre-eminent landscape architect, Oberlander remains unknown to most people who enjoy the benefit of her work.

Susan Herrington, professor of architecture and landscape architecture at the University of British Columbia, sets out to raise her profile with the recently released biography Cornelia Han Oberlander, Making The Modern Landscape.

The book comes after several public tributes and publications about her achievements, including an extensive oral history available online at the Cultural Landscape Foundation ( and a biography for teens called Live Every Leaf: the Life of Landscape Architect Cornelia Hans Oberlander (2008). She has co-authored two books: Trees in the City (1977) and Green Roof – A Design Guide and Review of Relevant Technologies (2002).

Herrington’s fascinating book goes one step further, unraveling the numerous influences throughout Oberlander’s life that shaped her professional development. Herrington places her innovative urban designs, her use of plants and her commitment to sustainability in the context of trends in landscape architecture over the past six decades. The biography is, as Herrington asserts, as much a history of modern landscape as a portrait of Oberlander’s life.

An impressive collection of photos and landscape sketches are sprinkled throughout the book to flesh out the scholarly account. The list of stunning accomplishments in a stellar career is balanced with references to some of her grand ideas that did not work out.

But the book will disappoint those looking for a popular biography with a window into her personal life. Herrington has taken an academic approach to Oberlander’s life. We become well acquainted with what the landscape architect accomplished. We are told a few delightful anecdotes about her life. But we do not learn much about her feelings or her personal relationships. If you want to get to know her, check out the oral history at the Cultural Landscape Foundation.

Also, the book does not pay much attention to Oberlander’s commitment to Israel and her work within the Jewish community. One of the founding members of Temple Sholom, she held a place of honour on the High Holidays for many years, reading the story of Jonah with her late husband, architect and urban planner Peter Overlander. She designed the Temple’s garden as well as the “biblical” garden at King David High School with its plants reflecting the various species and geographic regions of the biblical land of Israel.

Oberlander, has been involved in more than 500 projects, including more than 70 playgrounds. She has said she decided at the age of 11 that she wanted to design gardens. Her mother Beate Hahn was a professional horticulturalist and author of several books about gardening with children. Oberlander from an early age did drawings for her mother’s books.

Herrington includes a design of a wooded-parkland that Oberlander completed when she was 15 years old. Already at that time, Oberlander was busy in the garden, learning from firsthand experiences about the benefits of organic gardening, companion plants and attracting birds and insects to mitigate pests.

Oberlander, was born in 1921 in Mulheim, Germany, a small city along the Rhine River. The book ignores the prominence of her grandfather in Germany (a politician and professor and the University of Berlin) and the hurdles the family faced before leaving Germany in the late 1930s. The family immigrated to the U.S. and Oberlander in 1940 went to Smith College, a women’s college in western Massachusetts, to study architecture and landscape architecture.

By coincidence, she stayed in a room across the hall from Betty Friedan, who went on to write The Feminine Mystique. However Oberlander’s contact with strong feminists did not turn her into a crusader for women’s rights.

Herrington emphasizes the significance of Oberlander as one of the first woman in a male-dominated profession. But Oberlander never claimed to be a feminist. She told Herrington she never questioned whether a woman could pursue a professional career outside the home while raising her children. She just did it.

She went to Harvard in 1943. A year later, her mother, without Oberlander’s knowledge, asked the university to allow her to take a year off to work in an architectural office. Her mother thought her drafting skills were inadequate. Together, they decided she would take a year off. The book does not tell us how that affected her relationship with her mother.

Oberlander found a drafting job but was fired three months later and returned to complete her studies. She moved to Vancouver in 1953 after marrying architect and planner Peter Oberlander.

Bringing together much that has been written with original research, Herrington shows how the landscape of some of Vancouver’s most familiar places (Robson Square and the Museum of Anthropology) as well as prominent national and international landmarks (New York Times building, National Gallery in Ottawa and chanceries for embassies in Washington and Berlin) came out of Oberlander’s experiences as a child in the Weimer Republic in Germany, her exposure to seminal thinkers in school and her contact with leading figures in the profession.

Oberlander’s commitment to exhaustive research, modern design with abstract shapes and unadorned lines, and community involvement in planning were evident right from the start of her career in Philadelphia.

In design work for public housing, private residents and playgrounds, she saw the role of landscape architects as working for the community, not the wealthy. She shaped spaces to spark the imagination and creativity of its users. Her innovative work on playgrounds, with informal play areas and separated spaces for different age groups and activities, became a standard for progressive play areas across North America.

Even in the early 1950s, her plans reflected strong ecological values, attributes that would become her trademark in later years. Her designs integrated current strands of trees and plants as much as possible and followed the contours of the land. Years later, she set standards of excellence with her work on green roofs and green buildings.

Herrington tracks Oberlander’s professional development as she shapes design to incorporate ideas from psychology, art and ecology. Oberlander paid close attention to how people react to landscape design, what feelings were stirred by design and colour, in order to understand how they use the space. She created areas that were intended to foster creativity and imagination while relating to the local context.

By mid-1970s, she had moved from playgrounds to urban landscapes that became havens for adults in dense populated areas. Herrington writes about Oberlander’s 30-year collaboration with Arthur Erickson and influences that had an impact on her high profile projects.

Throughout it all, Herrington says Oberlander never lost her commitment to serve all of society. She continued to work on modest gardens for private homes, pubic housing projects, playgrounds and landscapes for people with special needs. She never forgot her past. “Why would I disregard the very reasons why I joined this profession in the first place?” she told Herrington.


Little Failure: A Memoir  book cover

Little Failure: A Memoir 
Gary Shteyngart

Random House
349 pp $32 Canada
ISBN 978-0-679-64375-3n

Reviewer: Robert Matas

MARCH 2014

Gary Shteyngart is widely regarded as one of the most entertaining storytellers in contemporary literature. The highly enjoyable memoir Little Failure, his fourth book after three well received novels, is his story as a Jewish immigrant from Russia trying to make sense of his place in the new world.

Celebrity memoirs are often intended to settle accounts or redeem reputations. Shteyngart uses his memoir to share the important moments of his life, from his birth in Leningrad through his difficulties as an immigrant to the publication of his first novel The Russian Debutante's Handbook, which won the Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction and the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction. Read full review...

Between Friends  by Amos Oz book cover

Between Friends 
by Amos Oz

Translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston

Reviewer: Robert Matas

MARCH 2014

In the early 1950s, Amos Oz at the age of 15 moved to Kibbutz Hulda in central Israel. Idealists at that time still celebrated the kibbutz as a new form of community that would transform human nature. But the reality was something else.

In Between Friends, the acclaimed Israeli novelist takes us to a fictitious kibbutz called Yikhat in the 1950s to meet several characters that were part of that world.

With an eye for revealing details, Oz recreates a rich world of ordinary well-meaning people with difficult pasts and passionate dreams. Read full review...

My Promised Land The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel   by Ari Shavit

My Promised Land
The Triumph and
Tragedy of Israel
by Ari Shavit

Speigel & Grau New York / A Penquin Random House Company  445 pp.

Reviewer: Robert Matas


My Promised Land, has been highly acclaimed, and recommended by Thomas L. Friedman as a book for those trying to make sense of the middle East conflict and are looking for a book about “the real Israel”.

My Promised Land has also been listed as number one on the Economist’s list of best books of 2013. It is included on the New York Times list of 100 notable books of 2013, and is described there as an “important and powerful book”. Read full review...