Pergola Garden, Richmond, BC

The parabolic weathered steel canopy was inspired by the highly sedimented tidal flow of the Fraser River. Photo by Andrew Latreille

Pergola Garden, officially unveiled last May, is a device for contemplating the age-old struggle between man and nature. Commissioned by Richmond’s public art program, in partnership with the city’s parks department, the project speaks to Polymétis’s previous interventions that marry the built environment with new ecologies, such as their Three Arches project in the midst of a Mississauga wetland.

“Over time,” says Nicholas Croft, Polymétis co-founder with his partner Michaela MacLeod, in a recent phone interview, “nature always wins.”

The project is sited on a former tree nursery turned park, now surrounded by a forest of new condominiums and suburban tract housing. Constructed in weathered steel, steel cable and yellow cedar, the parabolic canopy fulfills many functions. It acts as a giant trellis for white chocolate akebia, a flowering climber that will eventually overtake the structure as it grows, and doubles as a theatrical set piece for the park—a natural stage for events, performances, and happenings. It was designed, says Croft, to attract insects, birds, and bees, creating a micro ecology system expressing “the inner life of vegetation.”

As one leaves the park’s children’s playground and approaches Pergola Garden, perched next to a timber building housing the geothermal system for the surrounding condominiums, it appears as a stand-alone sculpture. But as one enters under the canopy, it becomes a dynamic frame for nature that shifts as the light and weather change: a moveable spatial feast.

Three ovoids offer slices of sky and opportunities for airplane and eagle viewings (the site is a five-minute drive from the airport). At once a study in solidity and transparency, groundedness and flight, the design was inspired by the low elevation of the Richmond flood plain and the highly sedimented tidal flow of the Fraser. “We wanted it to feel like something that had emerged naturally from the earth and was revealed through erosion,” notes Croft.

As one moves through the shape-shifting choreography of the installation, there are memorable individual moments. One mise-en-scène suggests that the steel cables juxtaposed against the patinaed steel are musical strings of an ancient lyre; another recalls the bridge one must cross from Vancouver to enter the rapidly developing suburb, or the old industrial hangars that line the Fraser River. (The latter are quaint remnants of a time when industries that produced things trumped price per square footage.)

The sprigs of akebia climbing up the weathered steel and offset by glulam cedar trim offer a simultaneous sense of decay and new life. The effect is reminiscent of the last scenes of the 70s sci-fi flick Logan’s Run, when Michael York and his girlfriend, seeking sanctuary, meet Peter Ustinov in a once grand edifice overrun with vines and cats. 

At the edges of a city famous for its money laundering, real estate prices and destruction of homeless encampments, Pergola Garden raises the question: what will remain here in a century? Will the floodplain rise and drown the vacant condos until all that is left is wildlife? Meanwhile, the fragrant akebia, creeping a few more metres every year, will gradually strangle the steel, and keeps silent watch.

Hadani Ditmars is a Vancouver-based journalist, author, and photographer.