Quebec Pastorale

The Methods and Approaches of the Next Wave of Quebec Landscape Architects are Discussed.

TEXT Lola Sheppard

In the second-largest country in the world, with a vast, largely unbuilt terrain, the notion of landscape and territory has long been seen as a symbol of national identity. In its art, literature and architecture, Canada has characterized itself as a country of “untamed” beauty, in which human intervention negotiates a tenuous relationship with the land. In Canadian literature, “[it] has always been taken for granted…that engagement with the land is a subject of intense interest and depictions of its grandeur, immensity and variety, a primary source of aesthetic pleasure.”1 In art, the Group of Seven was emblematic of a particular vision of the Canadian landscape: rugged, empty, and expansive. Influenced by an anti-modernist reaction to the perceived artificiality of urban life, wilderness emerged as a restorative environment. “It reflected a romantic notion of nature…which exalted a solitary experience of landscape conceived as scenery and views for visual consumption.”2

Constructing Landscape in Quebec

With the settling of French explorers and fur traders, the Quebec landscape quickly transformed from the raw, forested landscape of the aboriginals, to a European landscape of agrarian settlement and husbandry, patterned by the system of rang and monte.3 Examining Quebec landscape painting over the past century, Guy Boulizon contrasts the French Canadian landscape with the vast, romantic, and empty landscapes of Northern Ontario or the West, as depicted by Emily Carr and the Group of Seven. He suggests that: “the Quebec landscape is essentially an ‘inhabited’ landscape, created by a secular culture…in this sense, the Quebec landscape is a privileged place to study the much vaster problem of the relationship between Nature and Art, between Nature and Culture.”4

There is, as such, a legacy in Quebec, of a cultivated landscape. It is not a raw landscape but an agrarian one. At the same time, landscape architecture as a profession in Quebec is relatively young. The professional association has existed for just over 40 years, and the School of Landscape Architecture at the University of Montreal, the first and only landscape school in the province, is even younger. The discipline is, therefore, simultaneously influenced by a European tradition of cultivating and constructing the land, and free of any particular stylistic paradigm–whether it be the French formal tradition or the English picturesque. This “youthfulness” is currently manifesting itself in a new generation of Quebec architects and landscape architects who are reconceiving Canadian attitudes towards the landscape not as a fixed or visual entity, but rather as a cultural artifact, to be designed, programmed, and materialized.

While the particular conceptual and aesthetic concerns of various Quebec landscape architects differ widely, there are certain tendencies which emerge. The work oscillates between a consciously artificial landscape and a lyrical landscape. The visibly artificial or constructed landscape openly borrows from pop culture and the everyday. The lyrical approach reads the landscape as a shared narrative, recognizing that man’s hold on the land is tenuous and fragile.

Synthetic Landscapes: Artifice as Strategy

Designers such as Claude Cormier and NIP paysage are the most obvious examples of practices which play off a dichotomy of fake and artificial. The “fake” stands in for an original, passing off as genuine without recognizing that it is a copy. The “artificial,” on the other hand, is defined as “humanly contrived, often on a natural model.” Cormier points out that there is authenticity in artifice. The idea of “real nature” or “real landscape” is not the issue. There is an overt acknowledgement that no contemporary landscape is ever “natural,” but inevitably constructed.

Cormier’s earlier Lipstick Garden is most exemplary of this idea of an artificial landscape. In a subtler way, his soon to be completed HtO Park (with Janet Rosenberg + Associates) plays off the idea of an artificial “urban beach,” with a system of grass dunes and weeping willows that provides the option of shaded or sun-drenched seating by the waterfront. Ash trees and hardscape negotiate the park’s interface with the city while a series of wooden steps–a reinterpretation of the traditional beach–take the visitor gradually down to the water’s edge.

This celebration of the artificial in landscape architecture introduces a sense of humour into the work, and a co-opting of popular culture. These firms find beauty in the banal, and have a shared interest in appropriating seemingly everyday materials. NIP paysage acknowledge inspiration from such unexpected sources as the “ugliness, unnoticed beauty and trashy vernacular” of our daily lives, while Espace DRAR have grounded their practice in contemporary environmental realities by using “unusual, abandoned or recycled materials and most importantly, humour.” In one such instance, a proposal by NIP paysage, for the parking area of Montreal’s Safari Park, remaps animal patterns onto the lot, humourously suggesting that our current codings of use in infrastructure, such as the “zebra” crossings, are open to reinterpretation and play.

Engaging Landscapes: Surfaces at Play

The notion of humour is closely tied to the idea of play and game in the landscape. Moving away from a romantic vision of landscape as a fundamentally visual experience, many recent projects in Quebec incorporate the idea of interactivity and play. These new landscapes require physical engagement through touching, walking, playing, and sitting. If the untamed landscape is to be appreciated as an observer, the new landscape is to be appreciated as a participant.

Catalyse Urbaine introduce the notion of the “game” in projects such as Operation Lawn Chair, a proposal for the tactical reappropriation of underutilized spaces in the financial district of New York City. Boxes of recreation equipment–volleyball nets, croquet kits and bandstands–are delivered to sites and play surfaces, encouraging users to set up impromptu games, and hence activate public space. Corbeil and Bertrand’s proposal, Seeds to the Wind, for the annual Paysage phmre installations along rue Mont-Royal in Montreal, involved distributing 6,000 flower seed packages to local residents and business merchants. Participants were asked to plant the seeds in gardens, balcony planter boxes and public parks, creating a line of white flowers in the neighbourhood. In both these instances, the designers act as spatial detectives, uncovering hidden potential, and rely more on the user to activate public space rather than on elaborate design strategies.

Mnemonic Landscapes: Environmental Memory

Alongside playful irreverence, there is also a much more lyrical and cautionary reading of landscape evident in recent work. There has been a tradition, in the last two decades, of “metaphoric” gardens and squares. In Montreal, projects such as Melvin Charney’s garden for the Canadian Centre for Architecture and Place Berri, or Claude Cormier’s Place d’Youville make reference to local urban history by weaving a narrative into the design. This tradition continues in the work of firms such as Mousse Paysage and Espace DRAR, although with a shift to ecological concerns. Their work addresses the human occupation and misuse of the land.

Not in My Backyard, built by Espace DRAR for the International Garden Festival in Mtis, consisted of a garden of recycled materials — a provocative commentary on the consequences of our collective consumption and waste production. Ha-Ha Happenings, a temporary garden in Westonbirt, England, played off the traditional ha-ha, a sunken trench used to control the movement of animals in grazing pastures. This landscape device was typical of the 18th-century English agrarian land
scape. The installation makes subtle reference to the thousands of animals slaughtered in the wake of mad cow disease, and the repercussions of neglecting traditional, natural farming methods.

NIP paysage, best known for their smaller, playful landscapes, are also engaging ecological issues with their winning design for Point Pleasant Park in Halifax, devastated in September 2003 by Hurricane Juan. The design proposes a dialogue between the natural surviving forest and a series of man-made interventions consisting of tree “ribbons” which frame and highlight the existing unplanned ecosystems. The landscape diagrams simultaneously address the ecological issue of forest regeneration, cultural issues of heritage, and temporal issues of use through the seasons, all while clearly defining formal strategies. The true ingenuity of the project, however, is that while the new intervention acts as a catalyst for regeneration, it is designed to eventually merge seamlessly with the existing forest and erase itself.

Measured Landscapes: Mapping Scale

If many of the projects are smaller interventions, several recent projects have taken on the question of scale in the Quebec landscape. VLAN Paysages’ infrastructure studies for Hydro Quebec, as well as Paysage 90-0 km/h, a master plan and gateway for the Mtis Gardens, examine the effect of speed and movement in perceiving the landscape. Paysage 90-0 km/h addresses the changing experience of a visitor as he or she shifts from the speed of a car (90 km/h) to the contemplative speed of a person entering the garden by foot (0 km/h).

The question of scale and the tenuous relationship of human habitation in the landscape is nowhere clearer, however, than in the work of Pierre Thibault. An architect by training, Thibault has created a series of haunting installations in the Conservation Park of Charlevoix, the southernmost taiga in Quebec. It is not, however, the picturesque landscapes of Western Canada, but the abstraction of winter landscapes in northern Quebec, composed of vast surfaces and horizon. The installations recall land-art projects, such as Walter de Maria’s Lightning Field or Dennis Oppenheim’s Time Line, in their scope and means. Unlike the land artists however, the landscape is not a canvas at the service of “art.” Rather, it is the reverse: the installations are at the service of the landscape. Thibault and others share the desire of land artists to reveal the landscape through markings and measures. This landscape, incomprehensible in its size and climate, is measured out at the scale of tents, masts, and found objects. These installations uniquely engage the scale and sublime nature of the northern Canadian landscape.

Charged Landscapes

The recent work emerging from contemporary Quebec landscape architects is diverse, in the issues they address and in the design strategies they employ. What ties the work together is the impetus to re-read and re-present the landscape. If the turn-of-the-century vision of landscape was an aesthetic and visual experience, much of the recent landscape work in Quebec addresses the land as a surface, to be painted, textured, formed, measured and engaged. The work suggests that landscape is both imbued with history, but able to mine popular culture. It is able to speak of environmental stewardship, yet celebrate its artificiality. It requires engagement in certain instances, and in others, its scale dominates, allowing us to occupy it only briefly.

As architects, there has been a tendency to regard site and landscape as an aesthetic context, rather than a territory to be strategized and constructed. From coast to coast, architects tend toward a sensitive engagement of building in the landscape. Architecture sits in the landscape, frames it, reveals it, but almost always, the land is left as untouched as possible. Landscape is the thing set in opposition to architecture. The work emerging in Quebec suggests that landscape could, in some cases, be as overtly constructed as building, infused with narrative, change, use and humour.

Lola Sheppard is Assistant Professor at the University of Waterloo School of Architecture. She is a partner of Lateral Architecture in Toronto.

1 Susan Glickman, The Picturesque and the Sublime: A Poetics of the Canadian Landscape (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1998).

2 Lynda Jessup, “Group of Seven and the Tourist Landscape in Western Canada,” Journal of Canadian Studies Spring 2002.

3 Colin M. Coates, The Metamorphoses of Landscape and Community in Early Quebec (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2000).

4 Guy Boulizon, Le Paysage dans la Peinture au Qubec vu par les Peintres des Cents Dernires Annes (Saint-Constant, Quebec: Broquet Inc., 1984).