Saturday, March 26, 2011

conversation with Cornelia Oberlander

Visited Cornelia Oberlander, the "Grande Dame" of Canadian landscape architecture. She'd been helping out at my school and wanted to catch up on a garden project. Cornelia has a reputation for being charming, gracious and immovably persistent. These traits are useful: she sometimes faced bureacratic hurdles as a pioneer of sustainable landscape architecture.  There is a bit of the rebel in Cornelia that helps her to connect with youth and we were very grateful to have her come and speak to youth at the Sustainable Design Ideas Fair.  

Thinking about David Owen's lecture, I asked Cornelia about her thoughts on dense urban centres and biodiversity: "Is it possible to merge density with ecological design?"

"of course!  The landscape around the buildings, and over the buildings (in form of roof gardens) must attract biodiversity".   Furthermore,  "...The design must come about from the site". Local species inventories along with microclimate studies characterize her  practice.  This research ensures that a sense of place is preserved through her landscapes.

She was happy to report evidence of migratory birds resting on her Vancouver Public Library roof landscape.  And in the  New York Times Courtyardbird song has become distracting to workers.  "Imagine, Susan, they are asking me what to do about the birds!"  This did not appear to be a problem worth troubleshooting.  
Cornelia inspecting her rooftop landscape, Vancouver Public Library, 2009, photo, Susan Chung
New York Times Building Courtyard (photo from

The CK Choi building at UBC is a model for a building blending seamlessly into the landscape. Enormous windows admit dappled light and clean air from a fir forest with vine maple and swordfern.  And the landscape effortlessly absorbs all the wastewater from the building - even from the toilets:  Tea from the toilets drain into a trench full of Irises, sedge, juncus.  Cornelia has conducted school children through her landscape, which has become a focus for environmental education.  

Talking to local school children in the CK Choi landscape:  an integration of existing forest and a designed understory, near the building.  
At our Sustainable Design Ideas Fair, Cornelia gave a keynote address to 120 students:
“...With the economy shrinking, this is what we have to do. We have to communicate all these ideas of sustainable design with your generation.  And (in) your generation is the great hope that you will be able to know how to proceed in this very difficult world, so I congratulate you for finding the C.K. Choi Building, which is being discussed amongst architects, as one of the ten best green buildings in North America.” 

After the ideas fair she issued a challenge, giving us only a year:  "Focus on food and water and start a garden on your school grounds."  She provided mentorship, advice on bed dimensions and donated seeds.  

Landscape architect as environmental educator:  Cornelia was a catalyst for starting a school garden at Prince of Wales Secondary.  
She asked me how our school garden was doing and I told her that it is now entirely run by students.  Her youth outreach activities reflect a conviction that landscape architects must take urgent action, and a leadership role to address the ecological crisis:  She doesn't mince words:

“The future for landscape architecture is immense.  And if they don't take that opportunity at this point, while our governments are waffling on climate change... if they don't learn this climate change inside out, namely storm water management, limiting footprints, using plants that don't need much maintenance or water... if they don't seize that opportunity, then the landscape architects are asleep under the ground like my classmates.  and they better learn to take risks and they assume responsibility and they do their research...and then they'd be ok"   

          excerpt, videos: Design, "Landscape Architecture and the Future",  The Cultural Landscape Foundation's Pioneers Oral History Initiative, Cornelia Oberlander, web.
I noticed that her own garden, built in the seventies, is barely touched, even allowing for "weeds" amongst the paving. No herbicides are used on site.  And storm water drains directly into the landscape.

the house is built on a bridge:  under it, a wild ravine
Cornelia served her homemade hamantaschen and, like grandmas everywhere, she urged me to eat heartily.  I ate the buttery pastries and learned from her that these cookies represent the hat of Haman,  from the story of Esther.  As Cornelia smiled, I thought of Esther of Persopolis, known for her charm, wisdom and determination in the face of opposition. 

Cornelia:  "The secret is cookie dough, a butter cookie recipe from this book"
For those of you who are especially observant of the landscape and season shown by the photos, you will note that I forgot my camera for this visit so all photos of her residence are from a previous visit two years ago