“Risk is Where Success Resides”: A Conversation with Claude Cormier

Claude Cormier doesn’t do private gardens. The famed Canadian landscape architect, principal of Claude Cormier et Associés, works exclusively in the public realm — designing spaces that will foster community and a sense of place. A true non-conformist, he has been called “brazen” and “thoroughly unapologetic,” his projects often defying convention in their use of colour and form.  

In his youth, Cormier was immersed in landscape — albeit not always from a design perspective. He grew up on a farm in Princeville, Québec, and holds a degree in agronomy from the University of Guelph. After moving to Toronto to complete a BA in Landscape Design and going on to study design theory at Harvard, Cormier founded his eponymous practice in 1995.

In the 26 years since, Claude Cormier et Associés has become one of the most recognized landscape design firms in North America. From modest beginnings with temporary installations — such as the eccentric Pelouse Bleue in Montreal — Cormier’s work evolved to encompass prominent squares, parks and civic landmarks.

Across all scales, a ludic sense of joie de vivre and a deep commitment to public life remains the Cormier signature. Comprising 180,000 balls suspended above Sainte-Catherine Street, Montreal’s 18 Shades of Gay is a floating icon. Anchored by a delightfully unpretentious fountain of dog sculptures, Toronto’s beloved Berczy Park is an infusion of public joy, while Sugar Beach transforms a slice of the city’s industrial waterfront into a surprising summer destination — complete with pink parasols. And he’s not slowing down, with landmark Toronto projects like The Well and Love Park set to transform the city in years to come.

On the heels of a new book and generous donation to the University of Toronto’s Master’s in Landscape Architecture, Azure caught up with Cormier to catch up on recent career highlights, explore how the field of landscape architecture has evolved, and find out where he’s headed to next.

Serious Fun, the book recently published on your work, details many of your projects from the past two decades. Looking at this retrospective, where do you find yourself now in your career? What’s the big picture for you?

Claude Cormier

There’s a lot of stuff going on! We have work in Montreal, we have work in Toronto, we even have work coming from out West. I think I’m moving to a kind of a next step, of allowing my colleagues at the firm to have more of a voice. It’s not me stepping back per se, but I’m allowing room for others. It’s a healthy place to be.

Another big thing is that the profession has changed a lot from when I first started. We are getting brought on much earlier in the development of projects. We used to come in right at the end. We’re a more integral part of the process now, which is beneficial to us, but also more challenging.

What was it like to work on Serious Fun? When you looked back at your work, what struck you about your projects?

Mark Treib and Susan Herrington [the authors] were the ones who approached me. Really, it’s their book on the work that we do. It’s an analysis of our process through multiple lenses.

The book is in two parts: Mark writes The Making of Serious Fun and Susan writes The Beauty of Serious Fun. Sometimes they will take up the same project, but from a different angle. Mark came up with the title Serious Fun, because everything we do has an element of pleasure — but underneath that, there’s a lot of rigour. It’s serious material in terms of making it all happen behind the scenes. Our projects may look very cool and optimistic — but each of them, without fail, was a huge battle.

Alongside elegant new paving, generous seating and open space for performances and casual get-togethers, Toronto’s Berczy Park is defined by its showpiece fountain, featuring 27 dogs and a single cat. Photo by Michael Muraz.

What makes it all a battle? Is it pushing for the liberty to be creative with your projects?

Yes. For example, let’s take Berczy Park fountain in Toronto. A fountain is a fountain — it’s a body of water — but it’s also supposed to create animation in the city, and there are so many ways of doing that. You can design a fountain that does its job — it matches the stone of a nearby building and it has water jets. Okay, fine. But it can also be expressive.

Like a building or a piece of art, a fountain can convey that notion of beauty. It can tell a story. When we start on a project, it’s easy to fit in everything the city is asking for. What’s harder is to tell a story about the place we’re building on. Landscape architecture can tell the story of the community that lives there — their dreams, their past, their future. That’s what we’re trying to do — to add a strong narrative component that resonates with the context.

Toronto’s Sugar Beach is a vivid counterpoint to its industrial surroundings, and a taste of vacation in an unexpected setting. Photo by Industryous.

Landscape as narrative” still feels like a relatively new idea. Of course, design thinking and public consciousness is always evolving, but projects are approved and built at a slower pace. Do you think the pandemic has changed how we look at public space — or does change happen on a slower timeline?

Well, if it has changed, I would hope it would be for the better! My understanding is that, if I take Toronto as an example, the basic rules haven’t budged. Maybe the notion of the importance of public realm has changed, but are we going to actually allow more room for it in public development projects? I haven’t seen any movement there. Perhaps things have shifted in the public imagination, yes, and that’s  good because it all starts there. But in terms of public policy, I don’t think it has and I don’t think it will.

The notion of density has not been reduced; the notion of footprint has not been reduced. A developer likes to squeeze as much development as possible onto one site and that will not change. I can’t say to a developer, “We want 10 per cent more space for our landscapes.” It doesn’t work that way.

An accessible and pedestrian-friendly new landscape with ample seating, Montreal’s Dorchester Square is accented by a deconstructed riff on a traditional fountain. Photo by Jean-Francois Savaria.

There’s also been a change in how people use the shared spaces already at their disposal. There was a fine line, during the pandemic, between overcrowding and making good use of the only spaces we could gather, which were outdoors.

In Toronto, it became out of hand. People were gathering in huge groups, and the only place to do that was in public spaces like Trinity Bellwoods. And they got overcrowded.

But here in Montréal, it was phenomenal to see — we have so many spaces that are huge and want so badly to be used. So, I think now there may be a different sense of awareness of this need: We need well-designed parks, we need to design our streetscapes differently — for outdoor dining, for example. It’s changing the way we use cities.

You’ve worked extensively in both Toronto and Montréal, where you also live. How do you compare the civic culture and regulatory regime of the two cities?

They are very different. Marc Hallé, a principal associate here, read something to us recently in the office, which I thought was quite interesting: he said that everybody loves Montréal, but Montréal may not love you back. The city has its own identity  and it’s quite insular in a way.

Toronto, on the other hand, is extremely cosmopolitan, which provides an amazing texture to the city — it feels very open and welcoming. I’d say Toronto is more receptive to our ideas, but we work the same way in both because it’s who we are.

Recognized with an Award of Merit at the 2018 AZ Awards, Montreal’s 18 Shades of Gay transforms a kilometre of Sainte-Catherine Street into a new kind of destination. Photo by Jean-Francois Savaria.

While Toronto strives for global presence and recognition, there’s a much more defined local design culture in Québec. But in terms of procurement and commission, does that make Montréal more reserved in a way?

Definitely. I mean, name five architects from outside Québec that are working in Québec right now. You can’t! In the rest of Canada, international architects are everywhere, but not here. People care a lot about cultural preservation. The fear of being “invaded”  is pervasive. But I wouldn’t live anywhere else.

Designed as a folly for Quebec’s International Garden Festival, Cormier’s Blue Stick Garden has traveled to Montreal, Toronto and Somerset, England.

How would you describe the kind of projects you like to work on?

At our firm, we like approaching complex problems with simple solutions — ideas that seem so straightforward, but actually have a lot of weight behind them. We’re also always centering human relationships to public space at the core of our practice, with the notion that beauty can bring comfort.

For example, we’ve recently started construction on Love Park in Toronto. The competition for that project happened right after the Yonge street terrorist attack in 2018. At that time, I saw an image on social media of someone drawing hearts over the city and it stuck with me. Next thing I knew, I was drawing a big heart on the Waterfront site. Love felt like an appropriate theme, because it speaks to everyone and we all aspire to it. It’s also something we need more of in our cities.

The inspiration for the red tile that will line the pond was the beautiful mosaics in Park Guëll in Barcelona. We thought we would lean into the love motif — scream it off the rooftops with a red, lipstick-like colour. We found an amazing group of women artists here in Montreal that specialize in mosaic work, and we secured them as part of the process.

Designed in collaboration with *gh3, Toronto’s Love Park introduces a vivid red heart onto the site of a former highway off-ramp.

You’ve said in the past that you never give up on a project, even when it gets rejected. How do you know when to push forward and when to let go of an idea?

In our office, we work with a creative attitude. We’re artists, but we also have a problem to solve. We’re not doing anything just because it looks pretty — there are always functional elements to resolve. We’re up against issues of safety, liability, social inclusion, environmental considerations… We have so many questions that we need to answer. And if it doesn’t fit, of course, it’s rejected. But we bring a creative flavour, and that’s often more than what’s being asked of us.

I wish we could take more risks in this field, but it seems that’s not possible because of the approval process. What all these approval mechanisms do, of course, is that they prevent risk. There’s always risk assessment and risk analysis. Any element of risk is always removed, which is a pattern that drives me crazy in my job. At our firm, we’ve learned that risk is also where success resides.

Designed by Daniel Libeskind, Ottawa’s National Holocaust Memorial features a contextually sensitive and appropriately subdued landscape by Claude Cormier + Associés. Photo by Doublespace.

Speaking of risk, what do you do when you’re asked to work on a project that you know might change the nature or character of the site itself? Do you worry your projects can have a hand in accelerating gentrification?

In the world of development, that’s inevitable. I don’t think there’s anything we can do to prevent it. But what we can do is make these spaces better.

As a landscape architect, if you’re approached for a project that would gentrify an area, what do you do? Do you reject it and let someone else take over? I think if we approach it with an attitude of collaboration, of wanting to bring a certain level of quality and sensitivity to a place, it’s doable. It just needs to be thought out.

Also, there are some developers who really care about quality and about creating something that will work for the majority of people. Those are the projects we go ahead with, since we’re lucky enough to choose.

You recently set up a recurring grant with the University of Toronto’s Master’s in Landscape Architecture, which will be awarded to one student annually. What are you hoping will come out of this donation?  What kinds of new work are you most excited about?

My intention was first and foremost to support education in an honest manner. I wanted to help students with financial need finish their final year. At the same time, what I’m looking for are students who have the ability to develop their own way of thinking while simultaneously being part of this institution. Someone who works outside of what society expects — who is pushing boundaries, with a slightly subversive edge. I’d like to give them confidence in their ideas.

Where did this idea of giving back come from?

I was an undergrad in Landscape Architecture, back when it was a Bachelor program — and, oh my god, I loved it. I was coming from a science background, having completed a degree in agronomy at Guelph. But moving to Toronto was tremendous. It was a much more liberal approach to teaching — I basically lived in the studio in those days.

My idea to give back actually came later. When I went to graduate school at Harvard, I had a private sponsor who helped me pay my tuition — I wouldn’t have been able to do it otherwise. And I said to myself: “One day, I’m going to do the same for others.”

Twenty years ago, I started with a much smaller grant to U of T: $2,500 every other year. That was just the beginning. And when I turned sixty, I thought: This is the time to do it, while I’m alive and still practicing.

Looking forward, what projects are on your mind right now?

In Toronto, there’s a large development at Front Street and Wellington [The Well] that we’ve been working on for seven or eight years and there’s still two more years left. We’re having difficulty accessing that site because there’s so much other construction around it, so coordination and management of the project is challenging. It’s very intense.

We’re also doing another waterfront beach in Toronto, the Leslie Spit Lookout Park. I’m about to go into a consultation meeting with an Indigenous Sharing circle about it, actually. We’ve been working closely with them. We have a lot going on, as always. But at least, the book is done!

The post “Risk is Where Success Resides”: A Conversation with Claude Cormier appeared first on Azure Magazine.

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