Landscape, Art and Architecture: Cornelia Hahn Oberlander at the National Gallery of Canada
Renowned Canadian landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander (1921–2021), who passed away in May this year, designed a number of unique spaces for the National Gallery of Canada, collaborating with architect Moshe Safdie during construction of the current building from 1983 to 1988. Her trees and shrubs have matured over the past 33 years, transforming the grounds in line with her vision.
A love of nature, her cultural background and her education shaped Oberlander’s practice. A refugee from Germany, she studied landscape architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, one of its first women graduates. Her professors included Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus School, who promoted a modernist vision of architecture and design to improve society. Oberlander has stated that Gropius’ rigorous theoretical concept of Werklehre (“Instruction in materials and crafting skills”) became a foundation for her career. Oberlander graduated in 1947 and moved to Vancouver in 1953.
Her connection with the new NGC building project began in 1983. In a 2008 interview with Charles A. Birnbaum of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, Oberlander recalled an unexpected call inviting her to meet Safdie, while she was in Ottawa on National Capital Commission business. The two discussed the architect’s ideas for a northern-themed garden. After providing notes and sketches the next day, Oberlander said, “I had the job.”
Oberlander’s inspiration for the Taiga Garden came from the site itself, Safdie’s architecture and the purpose of the new building. She knew that Group of Seven landscapes would feature prominently inside the Gallery and chose as a reference A.Y. Jackson’s Terre Sauvage (1913), an early and influential painting of a rocky landscape with Black Spruce. Working with landscape architect and scholar Friedrich Oehmichen of the Université de Montréal, Oberlander selected species that would encourage up-close observation.
It took her five attempts to convince sceptical officials that species such as Dwarf Mugho Pine, Siberian Cypress, Arctic Bluegrass and Cotton Grass would thrive on the local limestone outcrops. Sumacs, known for their crimson autumn leaves, would echo the red splashes depicted in Terre Sauvage. A Japanese expert later advised on how to prune the pines to enable them to grow into the desired forms and proportions. A panel at the entrance to the Taiga Garden helps visitors identify various plants and trees.
Oberlander biographer Susan Herrington has observed that the Taiga Garden constituted a radical form of landscape art at that time, especially for a capital city where parks inclined towards formal lawns and flower beds. The shapes and colours of the Taiga Garden complement Safdie’s glass facade without masking or competing with it, and preserve outward views towards Major’s Hill Park and Parliament Hill. The garden, however, also received the occasional conceptual criticism. Author and Gallery historian Douglas Ord has criticized the “oversized, derivative” Taiga Garden, reflecting his objections to mythologizing the Group of Seven in a nation-building discourse. Architecture critic and author Lisa Rochon, despite being an admirer of Oberlander, finds her use of nature as allegory “overworked” in this particular project.
Oberlander remained attached to her Gallery creations and lobbied for their ongoing care as the vegetation matured. During the question period of her 2014 public lecture at the Gallery, Oberlander was asked by a staff gardener for help with the garden. She immediately adjourned the session to the outdoors, with the staff gardener and the audience. According to Herrington, “We learned a lot!” The following year, in an interview at the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design at the University of Toronto, Oberlander expressed satisfaction with the mature garden, noting that it “… looks good now, because I have a very good crew taking care of it.”
Reflecting upon the importance of Oberlander within the context of the Gallery, Director Sasha Suda comments, “To be in the presence of Cornelia Oberlander was to know someone who believed in nature and how it affects the way we experience art, whether we are outside a magnificent building or inside an intimate courtyard. She believed in sustainability and the power of landscape architecture to evoke some of the greatest works of art in our collection.”
Adjacent to the walkway on the east side of the Gallery, Oberlander created the Minimalist Courtyard, an enclosed orchard garden, with stairs, ramps and openings evoking the sculptural volumes of Donald Judd and Carl Andre, two American artists collected by the Gallery and associated with Minimalism. Inside the courtyard, staggered rows of crab apple trees display the seriality characteristic of many Minimalist works. The spectacular magenta blossoms on the mature trees in spring, and the bright orange fall foliage on both trees and vines in fall, illustrate Oberlander’s strategic use of colour, a form of knowledge that Judd had explored. Recently, Oberlander gave her support for the installation of a temporary “Tavern at the Gallery” in the Minimalist Courtyard, with full protection for the trees.
Adjacent to the Minimalist Courtyard, Oberlander’s Pin Oak Allée draws visitors toward Nepean Point and the Op Art Path. The title of this latter work refers to an international art movement involving abstraction and illusion. Within Canada, it was particularly embraced by artists in Vancouver, where Oberlander lived. When viewed from its higher reaches, the gravelled, zigzag path provides an illusion of interlocking chevrons of increasingly scale. This monumental work can be seen as a form of land art.
With its main location outdoors and related aesthetic material inside the Gallery, Op Art Path illustrates the theory of land art pioneer Robert Smithson, who referred to his outdoor creations as “Sites” and their parallel gallery installations as “Non-Sites”. When the Gallery decided to add outdoor sculptures to its grounds, Oberlander was consulted on the best siting for Roxy Paine’s One Hundred Foot Line, which has been strategically placed on the slope of Nepean Point to optimize indoor and outdoor viewpoints. The sharp angles of Paine’s sculpture echo in vertical form the horizontal zigzag of Oberlander’s Path.
In June 1988, after more than four years of close collaboration, Oberlander wrote to thank Safdie for providing “an unprecedented opportunity to design a unique landscape/building relationship in an interdependent and interactive environment.” Safdie’s response confirmed that both parties had enjoyed working together and took pride in what they had achieved. Throughout her career and working with some of the world’s leading architects, Oberlander consistently encouraged early consultations and sought to foster creative relationships.
In recent years, Oberlander was involved in the restoration of the grounds of the Gallery’s only international property, the modernist Canada Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. After visiting the site, she provided ideas to improve walkways, taking full advantage of local viewpoints and facilitating access to neighbouring structures. Oberlander’s contributions feature in Open Sky, Katrine Giguère‘s 2020 film on the Pavilion for the National Film Board of Canada.
The widely admired grounds of the Gallery reward visitors who venture into and explore these spaces. Oberlander wanted visitors to walk through them slowly, observing and appreciating even small plants, as well as the natural features and vistas. Viewing the Gallery’s collection of art may then give rise to new connections and meanings.
The grounds of the National Gallery are open to the public. Access to upper areas of Nepean Point is currently restricted by construction. Click below, for the article on Oberlander’s work in the Fred & Elizabeth Fountain Garden Court and see also her interview about the spaces. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.