Remembering Canadian Landscape Architect Claude Cormier

A tribute to Canadian Landscape Architect, Claude Cormier.

Photo credit: Will Lew

A memorial is being held this week in honour of landscape architect Claude Cormier, who passed away on September 15.

It will be held at 4 Place Ville-Marie in Montreal, near The Ring. All are invited to pay their final respects on Friday, October 20, from 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. and from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. and on Saturday, October 21, from 2:30 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.

Cormier was the creative force behind of some of Canada’s most beloved public spaces including The Ring in Montreal and Love Park in Toronto. He passed away at his Montreal, Quebec, home at the age of 63 due to complications from Li-Fraumeni Syndrome, a rare genetic condition that predisposes carriers to multiple cancers.

Cormier leaves behind a wide circle of colleagues and friends, some of whom offer the following homages in his honour ahead of the memorial.

L’Anneau (The Ring) Montreal (Photo credit: David Boyer Photographe Inc.)

Marc Hallé

My adventure with Claude Cormier started as an intern in 2003, in his small Plateau Montreal office that doubled as his house. In those days, he slept on a cot in a small laundry room behind the kitchen, leaving the rest of the house as a laboratory for landscape architecture. He had painted the ceiling sky blue, creating a workspace that was almost as pleasant as being outside on a sunny day. This ceiling is a metaphor for Claude, the ‘high pressure system’. Yes, the work environment was at times intense, Claude never stopped until things were perfect. But for those who knew him, he radiated light with a positivity and a proactive outlook that kept clouds far at bay. He took every measure to be sure it never rained on our picnic. Although his sunshine came with its fair share of heat, it also motivated people to be their best. Faces would light up when he entered a room. People would want to sit next to him at meetings, knowing how good he would make them feel with his wit and laughter. It is the same spirit he brought to his work in the public realm with places of universal appeal that also speak to the wishes of the heart. Claude possessed a clear leadership style that always pointed to where you were going. He gave equal focus and attention to issues both big and small, never prone to a dismissive “good enough” or a cynical “why bother?”. He was tirelessly optimistic with a pragmatism that was also firmly planted in terra firma.

Impatient, scrappy, decisive, visionary, courageous – Claude knew how to transform fear of new ideas into excitement for what was possible. Love it or hate it, he evaluated success on a project’s ability to stir emotion. When the Journal de Montreal published Lipstick Forest on its cover under the headline ‘C’est Horrible!’, Claude considered it one of his best reviews. A couple years later, the same project was chosen as the cover for the Ulysse travel guide to Montreal, as a symbol of the city’s spirit. This is one of many examples where a project, dismissed at the beginning as a laugh, became something quite profound at the end. From Pink Balls to Berczy Park’s fountain of dogs, Claude had a talent for surprising people with an experience of their own humanity, to be moved by beauty, and connected with their inner well of joy.

Love Park (Photo credit: CCxA)

Bruce Kuwabara

Charismatic and flamboyant, Claude Cormier has often introduced himself by saying that if Frederick Law Olmsted and Martha Schwartz, two totally different but famous American landscape architects, had ever had a child, it would be him. Laughter aside, Claude gave Toronto new public landscapes that work ecologically, sustainably, delightfully, and iconographically, from Sugar Beach to Berzcy Park to Love Park. Working with Claude was a constant process to express a really big idea that is bold and clear, bringing amenity and delight to everyone. He loved life, family, and friends, and was consistently able to create experiences and places of serious fun, places that make people smile, places that engender conviviality and a vibrant contemporary urbanity. Claude had a big heart too, having created the Claude Cormier Award to provide financial support for promising and creative landscape architecture students at the Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design at the University of Toronto.

National Holocaust Monument, Ottawa (Photo credit: Double Space)

Ken Greenberg

Every once in a while a unique talent appears on the scene in the world of design. Claude Cormier is one. His work combines brilliant intuition and artistry making every place he touches truly special. To his careful attention to detail, making things well, creature comfort and sensitivity to the environment, he has brought a singular gift for tapping into emotions through surprise, humour and grace notes that have been described as “serious fun.” Through his many beautiful gifts to our city he has pursued a special love affair with Toronto including – Sugar Beach with its iconic pink umbrellas, Berczy Park with its irresistible Dog Fountain and the newest, Love Park with its overt invitation to love and care for each other. His work invites us to smile, to be sociable in each others’ company and to be our best selves. Claude, we will miss you.

Plage de l Horloge, Montreal (Photo credit: Adrien Williams)

Phyllis Lambert

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those of pearls that were his eye;
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea change into something rich and strange.
-The Tempest, William Shakespeare

Claude Cormier is unique in Quebec and possibly in Canada as an intellectual designer of landscape. Well versed in agronomy and horticultural science, his public work veered towards conceptual art rather thanscientific fields. This direction grew out of a Faustian bargain Cormier struck with me: If the CCA would support his graduate study at Harvard for a year, he would consult on the health and maintenance of the CCA gardens over time. I must add that at that time, the early 1980s, modernist practice was not apparent in Montreal. Thirty years later, the publication Serious Fun: The Landscapes of Claude Cormier tells of an extensive practice. Cormier’s work that I know personally covers most of the public and private typologies found in the book: unusual species and unusual form that partake of the “traditional” garden that forecourts a house; large stout tree-referring pink forms humanize a municipal convention hall; extensive riverside lawns that make you think of pools of water; small areas of grass and path collages that are entrances and connectors—ideas that compose plazas, public gardens, monuments, squares, esplanades, all these in the heart of the city. Cormier’s high level of innovation changes the beat of the city.

Square Dorchester, Montreal (Photo credit: JF Savaria)

Michael Van Valkenberg

To everyone who loved Claude, I want to talk about Claude the landscape architect, Claude the plantsman, and Claude the man.

First, Claude the landscape architect: In an earlier life, Claude Cormier must have been a tree. It would explain why his projects go so far in connecting us to the soul of each landscape he touches. But Claude also lives very much in our world, so his work feels exceptionally alive and present. He creates places that feel as good to come back to as they do on the first visit, probably because his own joy is palpable in everything he does. He carried that playful spirit from his upbringing on a farm to his first installations at dance clubs in Montreal to the wide-ranging career that followed. Sometimes the effects are momentarily alarming too, shaking us out of our complacency and challenging us to look at the world a little differently. Others do this sort of thing with judgment; Claude does it with generosity. The pink umbrellas, the dogs, a pond shaped like a heart: Claude’s irreverence is also a form of love, helping us find beauty in unexpected places.

Then there is Claude the plantsman. Some might be surprised that I call him that at all, since he is more well known for elevating manufactured materials to a level of sensuousness normally reserved for living things (his Blue Stick Garden immediately comes to mind). But I have seen him settle into a kind of rapture when talk of plants comes up, and I recognize in his landscapes the unmistakable marks of a fellow plant-lover. If he wasn’t a tree himself, Claude must have had a distant relative who was, so primal is his love and curiosity about plants. His work seems to draw from a deeper source; Claude’s plants always offer a little bit extra, a welcome surprise, as he constantly teases out the ways they trigger emotions the rest of us didn’t realize they could reach. His designs remind me of the inherent optimism of our field, which goes hand in hand with Claude’s attitude about life. While some insist that the members of a landscape architect’s ensemble stay in their assigned roles, Claude celebrates the anomalous and the episodic: a painted stick standing in for a blue poppy, or an exuberant 50-foot catalpa suddenly endowed with equal parts whimsy and gravitas as it is captured in a perfect, circular, tree-sized island. Claude empowers plants (and people) to do their own thing—the way that he has always done his.

Finally, there is Claude the person. After my firm won the Port Lands project in Toronto, Chris Glaisek, the client’s Chief Planning and Design Officer, told me a hurdle to get over was that Claude had already developed a design for part of the site. I didn’t know Claude personally then—this was close to 20 years ago—and when I saw his project, I was concerned. It was so good. It was mostly a landscape of paths and plants, and while it had a conventional central clearing, the masses of planted forms caressed its edges. The way they unfolded resembled the way you might pull a wool blanket around you on a cold night. When I finally presented our design to Waterfront Toronto’s Review Board, Claude was on the panel. Panel members were expected to give feedback in the order they were seated around the table, but Claude jumped in the moment I finished presenting. He was wildly enthusiastic in his praise, and from then on, we were fast friends.

This past May, after the dedication of his Love Park in Toronto, he found the time to write and tell me about visiting some of my firm’s recent Toronto projects, how they have helped bring new life to the city that he knows and cares for so deeply. It is never about Claude when you speak to him, and not about you either, but about the work and the joy it brings to others. I am not sure I know a landscape architect who loves what we do more than Claude. And I love that he always seems to operate at the edge of the circle that describes our profession, but that in doing so consistently enriches and enlarges what is at its core. Is Claude a rascal? Probably. A genius, absolutely. I am going to miss him, and our field will, too. Sending Claude my love.