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The inspired landscape: How one landscape architect fueled the creative process

by Timber Press on November 13, 2015

in Design

Van Dusen Botanical Garden Visitor Centre

Van Dusen Botanical Garden Visitor Centre. Image: Perkins+Will Architects

In The Inspired Landscape, author Susan Cohen details the creative process of 21 leading landscape architects. Here, she reveals how Cornelia Oberlander’s VanDusen Botanical Garden Visitor Centre came to be.

For the technologically advanced VanDusen Botanical Garden Visitor’s Centre project, Cornelia Oberlander sought and found inspiration in pictures and stories from historical books in her own home library. Karl Blossfeldt’s stunning photographs in The Alphabet of Plants, images from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, provided an inspiration for architectural form, and Mr. Menzies’ Garden Legacy: Plant Collecting on the Northwest Coast, the tale of an eighteenth-century sea voyage, provided the inspiration for her planting palette.

Created on the grounds of a former golf course, the VanDusen Botanical Garden in Vancouver, British Columbia, opened in 1975, after the site was saved from intensive real estate development through community activism and the philanthropy of a local timber magnate, W. J. VanDusen. The 55-acre garden is a popular local institution that contains worldwide plant collections thriving in the temperate climate and frequent soft rains of Vancouver.

LEFT: This orchid image in Karl Blossfeldt’s pioneering book of plant photographs inspired Oberlander’s idea for the shape of the roof garden. Image: Pinakothek der Mondernephoto. RIGHT: After rejecting the nonnative plant as design inspiration, Oberlander turned to this illustration of the ground orchid, Habenaria orbiculata var. menziesii, a native of the Pacific Northwest coast. Image: University of Washington Press

LEFT: This orchid image in Karl Blossfeldt’s pioneering book of plant photographs inspired Oberlander’s idea for the shape of the roof garden. Image: Pinakothek der Mondernephoto. RIGHT: After rejecting the nonnative plant as design inspiration, Oberlander turned to this illustration of the ground orchid, Habenaria orbiculata var. menziesii, a native of the Pacific Northwest coast. Image: University of Washington Press

By 2005, the garden’s plants and educational programs were doing well, but more space was needed, both for administration and to serve the public. In response, a new visitor center was proposed, a building that would include classrooms, offices, lecture spaces, meeting rooms, a library, a shop, and a café, while disturbing as little as possible of the existing landscape. The garden gathered a team that included both architect Peter Busby of Perkins + Will and Vancouver landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander in collaboration with Sharp & Diamond Landscape, Inc., to design the building and the grounds.

Oberlander is considered a national treasure in Canada for her many contributions to the practice of landscape architecture. She is known for her minimalist aesthetic, her commitment to sustainable landscapes, and her artistic responses to design challenges. Intellectually, she delights in the design process and in finding the perfect image in her mind to inspire each project, such as the painting Terre Sauvage by artist A. Y. Jackson for her taiga landscape at the National Gallery of Art in Ottawa, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon for the exterior planters on the upper floors of the Canadian Chancery building in Washington D.C., or an aerial view of the Mackenzie River Delta for the roof garden of the Canadian Chancery in Berlin. In Vancouver, she collaborated with the architect Arthur Ericson to create the setting for the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology, honoring the culture of the Haida people.

LEFT: Oberlander’s orchid leaf concept is clear in the planting plan for the roof. Image: Perkins+Will Architects. RIGHT: This plan shows the leaf-like forms of the roof garden and the planting areas near the new building, where Oberlander used only native plants recorded by the eighteenth-century naturalist Archibald Menzies. Image: Sharp and Diamond Landscape Architecture Inc.

LEFT: Oberlander’s orchid leaf concept is clear in the planting plan for the roof. Image: Perkins+Will Architects. RIGHT: This plan shows the leaf-like forms of the roof garden and the planting areas near the new building, where Oberlander used only native plants recorded by the eighteenth-century naturalist Archibald Menzies. Image: Sharp
and Diamond Landscape Architecture Inc.

It was only natural that Oberlander turned to books to find design inspiration for this new commission in Vancouver. Books have been an enduring touchstone since her childhood in suburban Berlin, where her family home contained an extensive library that included several horticulture books written by her mother, Beate Hahn. In Oberlander’s adopted city of Vancouver there are books everywhere: rows and rows of books on shelves, tables, and even neatly stacked on the floors of her glass-walled home and office.

As she began to conceive ideas for the project, the green roof on the VanDusen Botanical Garden Visitor Centre was on Oberlander’s mind. That there would be a green roof was not in question. The visitor center was being designed to meet the Living Building Challenge, the most advanced measure of sustainability in the environment.

Also, building and site must achieve a fit, which is an Oberlander specialty, and she wanted something unique for the new visitor center, not an ordinary rectilinear, plant-covered roof. She imagined something more organic, a shape that evoked natural forms, such as those of plant leaves. Perhaps the roof would not even stay on the top of the building but might dip down and touch the ground at some points.

In this drawing, the leaf-like forms of the roof seem to undulate, as if they were a living plant. Image: Perkins+Will Architects.

In this drawing, the leaf-like forms of the roof seem to undulate, as if they were a living plant. Image: Perkins+Will Architects.

She remembered a favorite book, Art Forms in Nature, which she had known since her childhood in her family’s library in Germany before the war. It was a volume of flower photographs by Karl Blossfeldt, most taken in the late nineteenth century. His photos, unique in their time, celebrate the curvilinear lines of budding flowers and unfolding leaves. She reached for The Alphabet of Plants, another book of Blossfeldt’s photographs.

There, she spotted an image of the sprouting leaves of a young orchid plant and had her Eureka moment: the roof of the visitor center could be shaped like overlapping orchid leaves, with each curving leaf to carry a green field of plants. However, Blossfeldt’s photograph was not of a local orchid, so Oberlander found an image of a native and thus more appropriate orchid in another book.

The next morning she called the design team’s office and, in a case of Eureka striking twice, she discovered they had looked at the same Blossfeldt photograph. In the end, they agreed that the shape of a native orchid would be perfect for the roof. The dramatic roof of undulating leaves is the glory of the VanDusen Botanical Garden Visitor Centre. The leaf-like roof segments arch and reach toward the ground, with part of their surfaces visible to passers-by. The plant material used was chosen to reflect the Pacific Northwest coastal grassland community, and the roof is covered with native fescues that grow no taller than 6 inches and need mowing only once a year. Interspersed are native flowering bulbs such as yellow glacier lily, white fawn lily, checker lily, nodding onion, and great camas. The effect is soft and enticing in every season.

The green roof also contains solar panels. Image: Perkins + Will Architects

The green roof also contains solar panels. Image: Perkins+Will Architects

Oberlander and the design team were also charged with creating a planting scheme that would blend the new building with the botanical garden’s existing landscape. Oberlander favors a native plant palette in her work, and a quiet one at that. Her gardens are never about color. As she has often said, “Cornelia’s landscapes do not have flowers!”

Oberlander knew she wanted the new plantings to look natural, almost as if she had not been there. She had done something similar at the Museum of Anthropology, where she created a landscape of meadows and mounds seeded with the indigenous grasses and wildflowers that would have been familiar to the native people whose art is celebrated in the museum.

Similarly, Oberlander wanted the plants at the VanDusen Botanical Garden to be native as well. In her library, she found Mr. Menzies’ Garden Legacy: Plant Collecting on the Northwest Coast by Clive L. Justice. She read again the story she knew well of the famous Vancouver Expedition, the historic voyage of the HMS Discovery, a full-rigged ship with a crew of a hundred, captained by George Vancouver. Archibald Menzies, a Scottish surgeon, botanist, and naturalist, took part in this pioneering expedition, which explored and charted the Pacific coast of North America from 1791 to 1795. During the voyage Menzies documented many plant species unknown in Europe, and returned with dried specimens, seeds, and plants.

Oberlander’s landscape for the Museum of Anthropology reflects the heritage of the local First Nations. The building and the landscape recall the longhouses that are sited at the edge of the forest near the shoreline and shale beaches. Image: ColinK/Flickr

Oberlander’s landscape for the Museum of Anthropology reflects the heritage of the local First Nations. The building and the landscape recall the longhouses that are sited at the edge of the forest near the shoreline and shale beaches. Image: ColinK/Flickr.

Inspired by the story, Oberlander had found the plant palette for the VanDusen Botanical Garden. In a series of zones determined by site conditions, she specified only those species that Menzies had recorded as native to the area, including trees such as river birch, Pacific dogwood, and Arbutus menziesii, commonly called Pacific madrone. She used kinnikinnick as a groundcover, and she planted blue Oregon iris in the bottom of swales. For the rain garden, which she particularly likes, Oberlander used three plants that would clean the water: juncus, water sedge, and Iris pseudacorus, or yellow flag. Her voice filled with satisfaction as she recalled how she stood in the water in her high boots and directed exactly where each rock and plant should be placed.

In this way, Oberlander created a subtle, seamless integration of the new landscape with the existing native vegetation and the botanical garden’s more decorative plantings nearby. Her focus on native plants reinforces the ecological mission of the VanDusen Botanical Garden in the twenty-first century. As a strong advocate for the use of native plants in every landscape, Oberlander hopes that visitors will appreciate what they see, take the message home, and plant native varieties in their own gardens.

Oberlander’s rain garden, both decorative and practical, contains only native plants known to be in the area in the eighteenth century. Image: Sharp and Diamond Landscape Architecture Inc.

Oberlander’s rain garden, both decorative and practical, contains only native plants known to be in the area in the eighteenth century. Image: Sharp and Diamond Landscape Architecture Inc.

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cohen_suSusan Cohen is a licensed landscape architect and fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects. A graduate of Smith College, Cohen received her professional degree in landscape architecture from the City College of New York and has taught courses at the New York Botanical Garden, where she coordinates the landscape design program and serves as a member of the board of advisers. In 1998 she founded the New York Botanical Garden’s celebrated Landscape Design Portfolio lecture series to introduce outstanding landscape architects from around the world to an enthusiastic audience.

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Click image for a look inside this book.

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“The Inspired Landscape reveals the sources of design inspiration for landscape architects and provides an essential foundation for understanding and appreciating the dynamic artistry of global practice today.” —Charles A. Birnbaum, Founder and President, The Cultural Landscape Foundation

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Евгения December 21, 2015 at 10:55 am

Natura – is the most creative desighner!!!!

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