H. Peter Oberlander

November 29, 1922 – December 27, 2008

I don’t recall exactly when I first crossed paths with Peter and Cornelia Oberlander. I think our first meeting might have been as recent as 10 years ago, but it's not important. Ten years, 20, 30 - with these two, the actual length of time just doesn't matter very much because they have this remarkable knack of making you think that you've always been friends.

In a way, they simply appeared on my radar one day, two bright blips, moving faster than anything else on the screen, following parallel but different trajectories across the screen and never too far apart from one another.

Since we crossed paths (collided?) that first time, I have enjoyed many opportunities to get to know them better. I recall with pleasure numerous Leacock lunches in Vancouver and some unforgettable evenings with friends and family in their home. I also remember a lecture by Peter at McGill a few years ago, shortly after the publication of Houser, when he held an audience of close to 150 people in the palm of his hand, speaking for 90 minutes without pausing or repeating himself or even clearing his throat, without once consulting a note, and – an outrageous move in a school of architecture - without projecting a single image. On another visit, he expressed interest in having a tree planted in front of the school, perhaps a gingko, he said, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of his graduation from McGill; a few months later, as if by magic, a gingko appeared, planted – at his suggestion - in celebration of the lives and careers of his colleagues in the class of ‘44.

Last year, McGill and the School of Architecture recognized Cornelia’s professional achievements with an honorary doctorate - her 5th or 6th, but who’s counting - but I think that Peter was more excited and energized by the gesture than Cornelia. They looked for an interesting way to express their gratitude and I think it was Peter who came up with an elegant solution, the Cornelia and Peter Oberlander Prize in Urban Design, which will be awarded for the first time this May.

Like many of his professional colleagues, I was also - with characteristic stealth - recruited by Peter for the World Urban Forum in Vancouver in 2006. One minute you're in a café in Montreal talking about something two years down the road and the next, you're telling a room full of people in Vancouver how Peter talked you into joining Team Oberlander. WUF 3 was stimulating and productive, and Peter’s role in shaping that event was more significant than most of us knew at the time. I think that this was Peter at his best, organizing and motivating, maneuvering on stage and behind the scenes, and most importantly, going out of his way to put people that he thought should know each other in touch with each other.

Peter’s zest for life was contagious, and I learned early in our relationship never to meet him – for a meal or a drink or just a chat - without my notebook, usually an unlined passport-size Moleskine. My notes from those conversations are all about ideas and seem to consist mostly of names of people and organizations connected by lines and arrows. They resemble the pages of a football playbook, or the design sketches of an inspired choreographer, which is as apt a description of Peter as any - coach and choreographer.

Mark Webster has referred to Trevor Boddy’s observation that no one understood how to work bureaucracy like Peter, and all of us recognize the fundamental truth in this remark. However, I think it goes deeper and when Mark brought this up I was reminded of a little book that I have used in my own teaching, called Finite and Infinite Games, by James Carse. It’s an easy read and suggests, among other things, that our lives are shaped by two kinds of games, finite and infinite. The essential difference is in the objective: in the finite game, the aim is to win, but in the infinite game, the idea is to keep the game going. It occurred to me that Peter’s understanding of bureaucracy – of the world - was based on his profound understanding of the notion that it is a game and that games have their own sets of rules. His genius was in using his intuition and his knowledge of the rules not to win (except, of course, when he was up against bureaucracy) but to keep the ball in play.

I seemed to leave every encounter with Peter recharged with ideas and filled with optimism about the world and what we should be doing to improve it. Whenever we parted company, I would leave simply feeling better.

David Covo, 27 April 2009


2009 UN Habitat Scroll of Honour.