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Landscape architecture icons to know now: Cornelia Oberlander and Harriet Pattison

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Cornelia Oberlander, 95, and Harriet Pattison, 88, began their careers when there were few women in design

The grounds and reflecting pool of the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, designed by Cornelia Oberlander
Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia

Cornelia Oberlander and Harriet Pattison knew of each other long before they met: In a field with few female practitioners at the time, they were often told of “another” woman working in landscape architecture. It’s a testament not only to their pioneering careers, but how rare it was to be a woman working in their profession—which, in the early 1950s, was any aspect of design.

Even as the two women shared collaborators and cities, they did not meet in person until a few years ago. The modernists were reunited again last month as they shared the stage during an event at Palm Springs’ annual Modernism Week. The panel was put on by The Cultural Landscape Foundation, which has published voluminous oral histories from both Oberlander and Pattison (as well as many other landscape architect icons).

Cornelia Hahn Oberlander (95) and Harriet Pattison (88) with Charles Birnbaum at Modernism Week. The image on the screen is Louis Kahn and a young Nathaniel Kahn.
The Cultural Landscape Foundation

Although their approaches to landscape architecture could not be more diametrically different, the women both recalled entering a field at a time when there were few female colleagues and even fewer female mentors. “I believed all along that it was important for women to be working,” says Oberlander. “I didn’t look right or left—I just kept going.”

Born in Germany in 1921, Oberlander attended Smith College then enrolled in Harvard’s design school during the period that Walter Gropius headed the architecture department—giving her a quintessentially Bauhaus education which she brings to her minimalist landscapes. “l learned about all the modern painters and how they related into modern architecture, I figured that one out,” she remembers.

But Gropius, as well as other faculty members like Marcel Breuer and legendary modernist landscape architect Christopher Tunnard, instilled upon her the importance of collaboration. “You can’t do things in a vacuum, by yourself,” she says, noting how a cross-disciplinary approach is what makes each of her projects so regimented, and so unique. “You have to collaborate with others.”

Pattison’s path was a bit different. After getting her bachelor’s degree at the University of Chicago, where she was born in 1928, Pattison headed to Yale to attend the drama school. “I wanted to study scene design, but they put me in the acting class,” recalls Pattison, who shared the stage with a young Paul Newman. But she also managed to add design classes to her schedule, taking a color course with Josef Albers where she “learned what color could do.”

It was the theater that ended up influencing Pattison’s style. “In designing landscapes I’m very much drawn to theater presentations,” she says. “As a child going to the Goodman Theater in Chicago, the most exciting event was to see the gold curtain rise, then the green curtain separate, and see a great scene in the distance, a landscape. It was very evocative.” Indeed Pattison’s landscapes are like living, scenic paintings—with planted forms creating drama and movement. “I love plants and consider them a paint on the land,” she says.

Both Oberlander and Pattison moved to Philadelphia after school, where each of them collaborated with architect Louis Kahn. Oberlander worked in the city’s planning department starting in 1951, eventually working on public housing with Kahn. Pattison studied landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania and became acquainted with Kahn in 1958. (Pattison had actually met him once years before, when he was designing the art gallery at Yale.)

Pattison lived for a short time in the Cherokee Apartments in Philadelphia, a multi-family complex for which Oberlander had designed a site plan that included stately cedars.
Carol Franklin/The Cultural Landscape Foundation

Kahn was already married with a daughter, yet fathered children with two other women, including Pattison. Their son Nathaniel, who was born in 1962, directed and produced the 2003 documentary about his father, aptly named My Architect.

When Nathaniel was still an infant, Pattison accepted an apprenticeship—more like a “girl Friday,” as she tells it—in the office of legendary landscape architect Dan Kiley, a collaborator of Kahn’s, who worked out of a farmhouse in rural Vermont. She lived alone with Nathaniel in a room over the garage, and every morning a woman would arrive on horseback to watch him while Pattison worked.

Kiley’s office is the second place where Pattison and Oberlander overlapped, although a decade separated them. Oberlander worked for Kiley in the early 1950s, where she remembers the studio opening at 7:00 a.m. for breakfast, which included fresh goat milk. While in Kiley’s office, Oberlander worked with Kahn (before he met Pattison) on Philadelphia’s Mill Creek housing project. (Oberlander didn’t get the room over the garage, however, she shared a bedroom with Kiley’s oldest daughter, who she says made her sleep on the floor.)

The roof of Vancouver’s Robson Square features an expansive “secret garden” designed by Oberlander that takes up three city blocks
Charles Birnbaum/The Cultural Landscape Foundation

In 1953 Oberlander moved to Vancouver with her husband, architect and planner H. Peter Oberlander with whom she collaborated on decades of projects, as well as with Canadian architect Arthur Erickson. Her body of work includes many urban plazas and cultural institutions, yet some of her most striking projects are high-rises, which add density without eschewing the landscape. Oberlander says these values were instilled upon her when visiting modernist Scandinavian apartment complexes, which nestled housing in forests in a way that preserved public space.

“You have to find ways to have greenery even around the high-rises,” Oberlander says, but it’s also important to remember the roof. “A green roof should be on every high-rise to replace the ground that is taken up with the building.” Some of Oberlander’s most famous projects are these landscapes in the sky: an expansive three-block rooftop atop Robson Square in Vancouver designed with Erickson, and the rooftop and courtyard of Renzo Piano’s New York Times Building.

“It brought together building and landscape in a way that I think Lou was amazed by,” Pattison says of Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum, describing how the tree canopy framed the structure, “setting it off as a jewel.”
Charles Birnbaum/The Cultural Landscape Foundation

Meanwhile, Pattison joined the office of George Patton, eventually playing an indispensable role in one of the country’s most unique urban spaces. While working at Patton’s office in the early 1970s, Pattison designed the site for the Kimbell Art Museum in Dallas, creating an allée of trees that carry the geometry of Louis Kahn’s iconic stone arches into the landscape.

But it was especially fortuitous that Pattison worked with Kahn during this time, as she also ended up collaborating with him on the design for the FDR Memorial in Four Freedoms Park. The memorial planned for the tip of Roosevelt Island in Manhattan was scuttled after Kahn’s untimely death in 1974. “The plan that Lou and I worked on went into storage because there was no way of paying for it at the time,” she says. But due to the success of Nathaniel’s film—it was nominated for an Academy Award—there was enough awareness about the project to raise the necessary money to complete the memorial. It opened in 2012.

The Four Freedoms memorial features a dramatic approach that rewards with stunning views of New York City, which Pattison calls “the garden and the room.”
Four Freedoms Park Conservancy

In today’s world, both Oberlander and Pattison agreed that the most important issue facing landscape architecture, and the place practitioners could have the most impact, is addressing climate change.

Oberlander calls upon landscape architects to partner closely with ecologists, biologists, and hydrologists to create “true landscapes” that not only insulate shorelines from sea-level rise and coastal flooding, but also can withstand the extremes of drought and heat. Pattison says that landscape architects can forge a crucial link between educating the public about climate change and designing solutions to prevent it. “To preserve civilization—it’s a great role landscape architecture can play,” she says.

Where buildings were once considered the structures that determined a city’s success, now its urban landscapes have become the most important way to measure a city’s quality of life—both as a critical refuge for growing populations and as the frontline of defense on a changing planet. For Oberlander and Pattison, forging a path for women in this discipline has also ushered in a critical a new role for designers: the architects who protect our cities.