by Susan Herrington. University of Virginia Press, January 2014. 272 p. ill. ISBN 9780813934594 (cl.), $39.50; ISBN 9780823935362 (ebook), $39.50.

Reviewed May 2014
Ann Armstrong, MA MLIS, area525@aol.com

Cornelia Hahn Oberlander (1921- ) is unquestionably the most accomplished landscape architect Canada has ever known. In this, the first major account of her life and work, author Susan Herrington, a professor of architecture and landscape architecture at the University of British Columbia, brings to light Oberlander’s many contributions to forging a distinctively modern landscape. Divided into five cohesive chapters, the author interweaves Oberlander’s biography with the history of landscape architecture since World War II.

The book begins with a review of Oberlander’s early life through college.  Born to a professional horticulturalist mother and engineer father in Weimar Germany, Oberlander and her family escaped from the Nazis in 1938.  A year later they immigrated to the States where she began studies in landscape architecture at Smith College, transferring to Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, then under the direction of Walter Gropius, and graduating with a bachelor of landscape architecture in 1947.

The three central chapters are laid out in chronological order by project.  Herrington follows a simple but elegant formula: introduction to the project; design process, landscape strategy and reception. For some of the more elaborate projects, overall concept is included. Oberlander has collaborated with such luminaries as Louis Kahn, Dan Kiley, and Garrett Eckbo in the States and Arthur Erickson and Moshe Safdie in Canada. Her collaborative process is discussed within the respective projects.

The second chapter is concerned with her early career in New York and Philadelphia in community planning, demonstrating her unique sensibility and ability to communicate with the client. Also covered are her public housing work and early experiments in children’s playgrounds and her move to Vancouver in the 1950s, then a very young and undeveloped city. The chapter includes work on private housing.

Chapter three defines the concept of the human environment, as understood by landscape architects in the 1960s and 1970s, and how psychology changed the way landscape was perceived. Projects featured in this chapter included Robson Square, the children’s playground at Expo 67, and the Canadian Chancery in Washington, D.C.
Chapter four looks at the ecological environment of the 1970s and 1980s and places Oberlander firmly as a supporter of the ecological movement. The Museum of Anthropology, Rooftop Garden at Library Square, National Gallery of Canada, and the Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly Building are highlighted. In the final chapter, Oberlander’s design inventions are outlined.

Exhaustively researched and exquisitely written, Herrington has done Oberlander justice. This book will benefit students and professors of environmental design, art history, women’s studies and Canadian studies.

©2014 ARLIS/NA