Oberlander brings the Canadian Shield inside the National Gallery of Canada

Hanging on the walls of the National Gallery of Canada are several masterpieces beneath which lie earlier, painted-over versions of themselves, often detectable only by x-ray. It is not only artists, however, who at times relish revisiting, and radically altering, their work. When the Gallery invited celebrated landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander to redesign its interior garden court, she didn’t hesitate. Oberlander, after all, was responsible for the institution’s original landscape design, inside and outside the building, when she worked with the building’s architect Moshe Safdie in the late 1980s. Now, at 97, she was being offered the chance to reimagine a key part of the whole. “It was very exciting,” says Oberlander. “The idea was to have a garden based on the Canadian Shield.”

Oberlander, born in Germany in 1921 and living in Canada since the early 1950s, is a highly influential pioneer in her field, renowned for her early work on playgrounds and low-income housing developments, and later, major public building projects such as the Vancouver Public Library and the Northwest Territories’ Legislative Assembly building in Yellowknife. The landscape architect, one of the first female graduates of Harvard University’s School of Design, received the inaugural Governor General’s Award for Landscape Architecture in 2016 and was made a Companion of the Order of Canada in 2018.

Cornelia Oberlander working in the Taiga, National Gallery of Canada, 1987. Visual Resources Collection, National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives. Photo courtesy of Ottawa Citizen.


The National Gallery’s newly designed Fred & Elizabeth Fountain Garden Court departs dramatically from its predecessor, which Oberlander describes as “a monastic garden with ficus trees and ferns. It was a contemplative garden before you entered the Rideau Chapel. That was the idea.” It was also sharply geometric, with all the plants aligned in diagonal rows. “It was very crisp, perfectly suited to the times,” says Bryce Gauthier, principal of Vancouver’s Enns Gauthier Landscape Architects, who worked closely with Oberlander on the implementation of this year’s design.

In contrast, the new garden is fluid and organic, meant to evoke the iconic, pre-settlement Canadian landscape, as well as the Gallery’s stunning setting atop Nepean Point, overlooking the Ottawa River. It contains massive Canadian Shield limestone rocks that create an undulating topography, a gravel path that suggests a river bed and a bed of greenery with ferns and orchids. “These rocks depict the escarpment that is our original landscape of Canada,” says Oberlander. Referring to the recent overhaul of the Canadian and Indigenous Galleries, she adds, “As with the changes in the Galleries themselves, the direction is to connect us with our past.”


Her original designs for the Gallery consciously linked the space outside with the art within. The outdoor “taiga” landscape related to the rich collection of Canadian landscape art with its focus on the north,  and the minimalist galleries looked out on the minimalist courtyard of crab apple trees. The results later earned awards, but the concepts seemed radical at the time, and required careful selling. “I had to fight for them, and enlighten them,” says Oberlander.

Not this time. The Gallery’s aims for the new Fred & Elizabeth Fountain Garden Court tied neatly with Oberlander’s decades-old principles of grounding landscape design firmly in place: she has always drawn inspiration from a site’s unique characteristics and ecology. As Gauthier points out, institutions increasingly aim to respect their local contexts. “There’s been a pretty dramatic shift over the past two decades around trying to root your design to the site in a way that’s authentic, and reasonable, and real,” he says. “It’s happening here in Vancouver, in Shanghai, in Italy: the need for institutions to look like they’re rooted in place.”


Applying such principles indoors does present challenges. “There’s a reason why most interior landscapes look like Florida,” says Gauthier. “Plants in the northern hemisphere need to go through a seasonal cycle. A controlled climate such as in the Galleries, 21°C and 44-50 percent humidity, is a challenging environment for native plants to survive in.” He and Oberlander visited Ottawa nurseries to hunt down suitable plants that would echo local fauna. “We went through a hundred species trying to find plants that would mimic or look aesthetically like the Nepean Point landscape. We steered away from trees to little ferns, grasses, flowering plants.”


Unlike its look, the garden court’s original purpose remains as it was: no revision required. “It’s meant to be a calm, reflective space,” says Gauthier. “We’re not trying to recreate any artistic metaphors. It can’t compete with the art.” Oberlander, who travelled to Ottawa during some of the implementation work, is deeply satisfied with the results. “We have made a contemplative space for the 21st century,” she says. “It’s very green, it’s beautiful, it’s inviting, and it relates to the needs of the city dweller to have contact with nature.”

The Fred & Elizabeth Fountain Garden Court opens March 29, 2018.  For more information, see the Gallery’s online Hours and Admissions page. To share this article, please click on the arrow at the top right hand of the page.



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