Honorary degree citation - Cornelia Hahn Oberlander
By: Nicola Pezolet, June 2018
Mr. President and Vice-Chancellor, it is my honour to present to you Ms. Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, visionary landscape architect and environmental designer.
Ms. Oberlander comes by her interest in green spaces that serve the public honestly. Her grandfather, a City Councillor in Charlottenburg, Germany, championed the construction of public housing and a subway link to nearby Berlin. And her mother, a well-known organic horticulturalist, always allotted Cornelia a garden plot of her own.
After fleeing Nazi persecution in 1938, Ms. Oberlander became one of the Harvard Graduate School of Design’s first women graduates. There she acquired four crucial tools: basic design, conceptual thinking, collaboration, and an appreciation of beauty.
One of her professors, German modernist architect Walter Gropius, said beauty was “a requirement for a civilized life.”
Ms. Oberlander has been helping civilize our lives for seven decades. She has worked with a who’s who of 20th-century architects, including Louis Kahn, Arthur Erickson, Moshe Safdie, Renzo Piano, and Rem Koolhaas to create some of our most iconic public landscapes.
Whether designing the Children's Creative Centre and Play Area at Expo ’67, the New York Times Building’s atrium, or Vancouver’s iconic Robson Square, she says “We have to use every piece of ground to make people feel good.”
Beyond their very human scale, her ecologically sensitive designs are all built on exhaustive research into the local climate, soils and native species. No two are alike, but all have a grounding effect – even up on a green roof, a now popular practice she pioneered.
Now in her late 90s, this painter of tranquil spaces can’t put the brush down. Still in high demand, she applies her impressive mental energy to mentoring and advocating, and always has a few projects on the go. As she has said, she just can’t stop thinking about creating places for people of all ages and addressing the needs of our time.
Mr. President, on behalf of Senate and the Board of Governors, it is my privilege and honour to present to you Ms. Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, so that you may confer upon her the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.