A love (park) letter to Claude Cormier (1960 -2023)

Claude Cormier (Photo courtesy of CCxA)

Back in June, I was driving eastbound on the Gardiner Expressway in Toronto feeling tense and hopeless. I wasn’t the only one. The entire city was darkened by smoke from the Quebec wildfires, interest rates were through the roof, and on the eve of the city’s annual pride month, a wave of anti-trans hate saw one major school board refuse to fly pride flags and protestors outside drag queen story times at local libraries.

I looked over the edge of the highway and caught a glimpse of an enormous bright red heart peeking through a gap in the high-rise glass buildings. A smile immediately crossed my face. A genuine feeling of surprise and joy.

Claude Cormier, the Montreal based landscape architect who designed Love Park died Sept 15 at age 63. He leaves behind the gift of a 30-year career’s worth of seriously fun public spaces and an endless supply of smiles like the ones I saw on my first visit to Love Park earlier this summer.

Berczy Park (Photo courtesy of CCxA)

A young couple smiled softly, leaning into each other at one of the moveable table and chair sets contributed by the Waterfront BIA. Two friends giggled at a shared phone as they sat on the 169-metre-long, red-tiled “love seat” that wraps the giant heart-shaped pond that gives the park its name. Beside them, another pair of friends smiled contentedly in silence toward the lowering sun. A man and woman lying on the raised grass berm at the western edge of the park laughed and laughed as she plucked blades of grass and transplanted them one by one into his beard.

“That’s where it all started” Cormier told me in an interview before the park’s opening. His firm CCxA won the Waterfront Toronto competition for the design of the park in 2018 just after the Yonge Street van attack had killed 11 people and injured 15 more. At the time Cormier noted a bleak, dark atmosphere had fallen over the city and thought, “How can we bring a positive mood, a notion of joy?”

Marc Hallé, a partner at CCxA calls the rush of surprise and happiness people feel when they first encounter a CCxA park “the dopamine moment.” I think of it more as the Cormier Effect. An immediate feeling of joy that deepens and evolves over time.

I first met Claude almost 15 years ago when I accompanied my husband to an event hosted by the Association of Landscape Architects of Quebec where I was feeling highly out of place: I am not a landscape architect, I don’t speak French, and I am a vegetarian (the dinner in my memory was a thick slab of steak by itself on a plate). The moment Claude took his seat at our table, there it was, a smile on my face. Like his landscapes, Claude Cormier was bright, welcoming, accessible, and made people feel good.

Sugar Beach (Photo courtesy of CCxA)

In the years since, I have seen this same effect through Claude’s parks and public spaces, his encouraging support of fellow practitioners, and his inspiring and often humorous public talks.  In 2010 he gave a lecture called “Colour is Not a Decoration” at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design where he had completed his Master’s degree in History & Theory of Design. On any given day the school almost vibrates with frenetic anxiety, but at the time of Claude’s visit in April, the runaway stress train toward final reviews had the nervous, over-achieving first year landscape students on the brink. As they trudged heavily down to the lecture hall in their all-black design school uniforms, many fretted about the loss of critical time away from their desks. After an hour and a half with Claude, they almost flew back up the stairs to the studio, giggling and excited to get back to work.

CCxA’s pink lipstick forests, trees covered in blue plastic balls that magically disappear against the sky, and the criss-crossing pathways of Place D’Youville in Montreal showed them that landscape can be fearless, fun even.

“Every design problem that you look at, or every little new thing could be turned into something fantastic,” Claude told me once while we lamented the anxiety holding back many of these young design students “If you bring the notion of playfulness, then the notion of happiness could arise. And fun could take place”.

Like most of Cormier’s work —think of the bubblegum pink umbrellas at Sugar Beach or the heavily photographed dog fountain at Berczy Park —Love Park is inflected with joy, whimsy, and a bold visual identity that lays the groundwork for an enduring public space.

To understand how Claude’s landscapes —which he told me are often critiqued for appearing too simple —achieve this deeper, lasting effect, I asked Marc Ryan, principal of PUBLIC WORK where he and his partner Adam Nicklin look to Claude as a model for doing great work, a model for how to run a practice, and most importantly, a model for being a great human.

“It’s easy to be Instagrammable or cool, but Claude is different,” Ryan said. “Because his work is so thoughtful and so well considered, it’s lasting. It changes. A  smile might be about one aspect at one moment, and the work is so layered that at the next it’s about something new.”

Ryan described each of CCxA’s projects as rooted in a dedication to disciplinary mastery —meaning they are fundamentally great public spaces— but said that “only Claude is brave enough, and warm enough, and smart enough to give it that softer, friendlier, warmer dimension.”

Love Park (Photo courtesy of CCxA)

On a staggeringly hot weekday in September, I visited Love Park again, expecting the space to be vacant with summer tourists gone and workers at the surrounding office towers cowering in air-conditioned food courts. Instead, it sounded like a cocktail party—different conversations (in more than 10 languages that I could count) rising and falling in pitch and volume, punctuated by the occasional laugh or greeting from a passing co-worker “Happy Wednesday guys!” Conversations ranged from rescheduling cancelled COVID vacations to the draw backs of buying black vehicles (easily scratched), to the qualities of “doodles” (hypo allergenic, but hyperactive).

Three men sat barefoot on the grass laughing as they ate their homemade lunches out of plastic containers in the shade of the mature trees and condo towers along the southern edge of the park. Two workers in hi-vis t-shirts guzzled water and pored over a cell phone video on one of the three long wooden benches opposite the pond.

Under the GH3 designed pergola, a man in an Iron Maiden t-shirt and chunky black boots stopped for a quick smoke and a coffee while a woman in pink read quietly, sipping a green smoothie.

In less than three months, Love Park has transcended its initial visual punch and become a platform for daily life in the city. A source of deep and evolving comfort and joy.

“Once you deliver a park, then it’s not yours anymore.” Cormier told me, “But putting ourselves out there always works.”

Even with Cormier gone, the Cormier effect will live on, rippling through these spaces with every smile, laugh, selfie, wedding photo and quiet reflective break from life in the city.

Emily Waugh is a writer in Toronto and former Lecturer In Landscape Architecture at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design