National Gallery of Canada: Inside Moshe Safdie’s glass palace will be a new garden oasis by Cornelia Oberlander

A look at the old indoor garden at the National Gallery. Photo: National Gallery of Canada

By Karen-Luz Sison

When the National Gallery of Canada opened in 1989, deep inside Moshe Sadie’s glass, stone and cement palace there was an oasis of small trees and plants designed by the legendary landscape artist Cornelia Hahn Oberlander.

Later this month, people will see a new garden in the Canadian and Indigenous galleries also designed by Oberlander, who is now 96 years young. This is not the only example of Oberlander’s work at the Gallery. Outside is another Canadian landscape that she created at the same time.

Named after patrons Fred and Elizabeth Fountain, this new inside garden will not resemble its predecessor.

The German-born Oberlander, who was the first ever recipient of the Governor General’s award for landscape design and in December was named to the Order of Canada “is a worldwide leader in promoting socially conscious and environmentally responsible landscape designs.”

She’s also not one to mince words. She says it was time to uproot the indoor garden.

Oberlander said in an interview that her inspiration for the new design was the Niagara Escarpment and the Canadian Shield before European settlers came to Canada.

“I had to re-think what the escarpment was,” Oberlander said. “It’s a whole new inspiration, and the old courtyard with the ficus trees and the ground cover was no longer valid. You know, after 25 years, things might have to change.

“I always bring a new inspiration to every job,” she said. “I never repeat myself.”

Having a garden in the middle of the Gallery offers a special experience for the public, said Anne Eschapasse, the NGC’s deputy director of exhibitions and outreach.

“I hope they will embrace this garden and make it theirs and enjoy a moment in this space,” she said.

Bryce Gauthier, who led the construction of Oberlander’s design, has worked with her on about a dozen other projects. He says the main challenge of the project was finding plants that looked like Canadian flora and that could also survive in a controlled, indoor climate. Canadian plants are typically adapted to changing seasons.

“There’s a limitation with designing an exterior landscape when that’s your muse and trying to execute that inside a building,” he said.

Gauthier said the core features of the new design are the raised topography, a “river bed” running through the garden, and large stones referencing the geology of the Canadian Shield.

“If a visitor can come in and have that experience and not feel like they’re in an alien landscape, but a landscape of Canada in the middle of the gallery that’s dedicated to Canadian art, we’ve done our job,” Gauthier said.

He describes the garden as “an undulating landscape with a river valley in the middle.”

“(Oberlander) wanted to bring some of the Canadian landscape into the galleries, which is a fitting reference because we are at the heart of the Canadian and Indigenous galleries,” added Eschapasse.

Overall, Oberlander and Gauthier say the garden is meant to be a space of relaxation and contemplation amid the art works in the gallery.

“We’re trying to bring about a feeling of calm, of repose,” Gauthier said. “And that’s done by a fairly restrained palette of materials. It’s mostly just green. You can’t get the seasonal change of the Niagara Escarpment unfortunately, but the green helps. It’s a calming colour.”

“It is a beautiful garden which people can enjoy away from their busy lives,” Oberlander said. “We dreamt about the escarpment. And the public will appreciate that it is very green. They will just like the greenery and the flowers.”

The new garden court will unveiled on March 29.

This article was produced in collaboration with Centretown News and Carleton University.

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