An Afternoon with Cornelia Hahn Oberlander

An Afternoon with Cornelia Hahn Oberlander

I have been researching for the upcoming online exhibition on Jewish involvement in mid-century modern architecture in Vancouver for the Jewish Museum and Archives of BC for 8 weeks. It has been extraordinary to meet and interview figures such as Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, Bill Pechet, Judah Shumiatcher, Leslie van Duzer, Andrew Gruft and Rhodri Windsor-Liscombe. Their expertise on post-war architecture and their insight into the rich design ethos of the 1950s-1970s has been invaluable. I have also been busy collecting material for the exhibition including plans, sound bites and photographs. One of our volunteers, Naomi Caruso, was cataloguing Fred Schiffer negatives when she found a series of remarkable photographs of Vancouver in the early 1970s that I will be using in the exhibition.

One of the highlights of my research was meeting Cornelia Oberlander. I admired her work at the Museum of Anthropology, the Law Courts and at the VanDusen Botanical Garden and had read extensively about her. Cornelia warmly welcomed me into her Bauhaus style home on Arcadia Road, which was designed by Peter Oberlander and Barry Downs and completed in 1970. We discussed her collaborative work with architectural luminaries including Moshe Safdie and Arthur Erickson over fresh pomegranate juice in her bright sitting room overlooking the ravine. Cornelia told me about her residential projects and decided to take me on a tour of a number of them to experience the sites and the landscapes she designed firsthand. We visited the recently restored Friedman Residence, an exemplar of modern architecture designed by Fred Lasserre for Fred Friedman, the first member of the UBC Faculty of Medicine. The house was featured in the February 1955 issue of Western Homes and Living Magazine. Cornelia described the landscape restoration process and her use of laurel, heathers and other regional plant species to create a low maintenance and sustainable space.

Cornelia also gave me a tour of the Oberlander Residence. The open spaces and the unexpected color palette of white walls, mustard yellow accent walls, bright red rugs and the sleek black chairs co-designed by Le Corbusier and Charlotte Perriand captivated me.  My morning with Cornelia was enthusing and provided me with a great deal of material for the exhibition and I am looking forward to the next chapters of its development.


Chanel Blouin is the 2015 Museum Assistant at the JMABC, where she is developing the exhibit, New Ways of Living: Jewish Architects in Vancouver, 1955-1975. This position has been made possible through the generous support of the Government of Canada’s Young Canada Works Program.