Open Space, Grand Métis, Quebec

New installations in Grand Métis, Quebec mark the end of lockdown measures by blurring the boundaries between indoor and outdoor space.

In one of five new installations at the 2021 International Garden Festival, the walls of a house burst open, unfolding to the ground. Photo by Antoine Proulx

The theme for the 2021 International Garden Festival at Quebec’s Jardins de Métis is “Magic Lies Outside.” It’s an apt topic for our times, when so many people have rediscovered al fresco pleasures such as gardening, hiking and bird watching to escape the doldrums of long lockdowns.

Each of the five new installations, chosen from over 200 submissions, addresses the theme in their own way. Hässja, designed by Swedish architect Emil Bäckström, allows visitors to take refuge in whimsical, hollowed-out haystacks—nature made habitable. Choose Your Own Adventure, designed by New York landscape architects Balmori Associates, encourages a mindful garden walk, with crisscrossing paths that lead past places to contemplate specific sensorial pleasures: crunching gravel, the aroma smell of cedars, shade. Miroirs Acoustiques, designed by landscape architects Emmanuelle Loslier and Camille Zaroubi, consists of twin parabolic sound reflectors—one that amplifies the rocking waves of the nearby St. Lawrence River, another that picks up the bustle of the festival grounds. Porte Bonheur, designed by a team from France including architects Laura Giuliani and David Bonnard as well as artist Amelie Vale, is a series of open doors on a lawn, suggesting that fresh air should be as easy to access as walking through a threshold (something that’s unfortunately not always the case).

Two days after the festival opened at the end of June, the entire province of Quebec was declared a green zone: the lowest level on the province’s Covid alert scale. The change came after Quebec had seen some of Canada’s toughest and longest lockdown measures, including 139 days of a nightly curfew that shuttered the province’s typically lively nightlife between 8 pm and 5 am.

It’s hard to imagine a more beautiful symbol for the beginning of reopening than the fifth installation: Open Space, designed by three young, Quebec-based intern architects—Gabriel Lemelin, Francis Gaignard, Sandrine Gaulin, who work together under the name Legaga. The walls of a small, potentially confining house are bursting apart and tilting toward the ground, not just blurring the boundary between indoor and outdoor space, but obliterating it.

Since the beginning of Covid-19, our homes, normally places of intimacy and leisure, became associated with confinement, fear, sometimes even anguish,” explains Lemelin. “With our proposal, we wanted to instil a feeling of hope and joy. We took a small, 11-by-8-foot room and opened its walls to the surroundings. Suddenly, the whole domestic-scape is transformed in a playground open to new interpretation and uses.”

The house, including a fireplace and a set of stairs surreally lying on their sides, are pigmented bright blue. The colour echoes one of the most iconic flowers at the Jardin de Métis—the Himalayan blue poppies that are difficult to grow outside of their original, east Asian habitat. It also underscores how special it can be to escape a long confinement. “By using a bright and saturated colour, we wanted to create a mental distance between the installation and all the other wooden decks that can be found outside,” says Lemelin. “Thus, the monochrome installation contrasts with the surrounding landscape, creating a magical strangeness.”

Beyond the finished product, the process of designing and building the installation was likewise influenced by the pandemic. “We were ourselves in lockdown when we designed Open Space,” says Lemelin. “Being constantly on a computer for work, social life and leisure made us want to take a step back from this virtual environment. Therefore, we worked almost exclusively in physical models.” The switch to the tactile helped the team think early on about the process of completing the construction on-site, in under a week, using standard dimension lumber. For that, Legaga engaged a group of volunteers. “There is something poetic about the whole design and construction process,” says Lemelin. “The room with the fallen walls actually permitted us to reunite with our friends, some of whom we hadn’t seen in a year-and-a-half due to the lockdown. It was just like when we could invite them into our own homes again.”

Matthew Hague is a Toronto-based design and architecture writer.