Cornelia Hahn Oberlander & the Art of the Possible

Cornelia at Jim Everett ParkCornelia Hahn Oberlander refers to her profession, landscape architecture, as ‘the art of the possible’. I believe this phrase also describes the way this remarkable woman has lived her life.

Cornelia decided at the age of eleven that she wanted to create parks when she grew up. She escaped Nazi Germany with her family when she was seventeen and became one of the first women to be admitted to the Harvard School of Design.

By concerning herself only with doing the best job possible – whether designing a children’s playground, a rooftop garden, or the grounds around a landmark building (like the Canadian Chancery in Washington D.C. or the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa) – she carved out a place for herself in a male-dominated field. To each new site, she brought her commitment to bringing nature to city-dwellers, her deep respect for the environment, and her thorough approach to researching the best approaches and materials for the project.

Cornelia celebrated her ninetieth birthday last spring and she is still bringing her artistic intelligence and technical know-how to landscape projects across North America and beyond – practicing her profession with energy and a determination to make the most of the life that would not have been hers to live, had her escape from Germany in 1938 been unsuccessful.

She returned to Germany early in this century to design the rooftop garden on the Canadian embassy in Berlin. To quote from the biography that I wrote about Cornelia, published by Tundra Books in 2008:

That Cornelia could absorb the Holocaust into her experience, return to the city that had rejected her, and – through her passion for creating landscapes – transform that expulsion into something beautiful, useful, and connected to nature . . . Is it any wonder this woman speaks so confidently and so passionately of ‘the art of the possible’?

The title of the biography is Love Every Leaf. It is taken from a quote from Dostoyevsky which Cornelia says has often given her courage.

Cornelia gives me courage.

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