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.
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.