Soul of Sol

Every morning, as I impatiently squint my eyes and search down the road for my bus, I inevitably look up. A short distance beyond my bustling quartier is a massive mountain, sitting nonchalantly on the horizon. Olmsted’s Mount Royal Park is out of scale, but somehow it works as a magnificent backdrop, framing the city of Montreal. Though it seems unlikely, the dense trees and the even denser triplexes actually make a strangely appropriate pair of nature and culture.

Or so I thought. Over 70,000 trees are planted, said Mathieu Casavant of NIP paysage. My bubble burst, my perception of a wild Mount Royal forever changed. But landscape architecture has evolved since Olmsted. His era of importing a slice of nature to the city and trying to pass it off as the real thing is gone. Landscape architects in Montreal today may use the same palette of materials but they are no longer looking to blend, or imitate nature. Instead, they are pursuing a different kind of wilderness in the urban jungle, one that bares the artificiality of the materials while drawing from the city’s culture to reveal the essence of our sol.

Sol literally translates as soil. However, hearing Micheline Clouard of VLAN Paysages describe the brown matter that surrounds us, you would start to see it with a golden hue. Sol, where vegetation and buildings anchor, embodies the latent potential of the future while holding traces of the past. Working with sol is to extract that tenuous sense of time and unearth the invisible. Having grown from multiple villages to a mainly French-English town to today’s diverse city, Montreal’s sol is infused with much complexity. To understand and present the city’s multiple layers, the scope of landscape architecture has extended from gardens and parks to public squares and infra-structure. With the bouncing city beckoning, I decide to turn my back on Mount Royal to explore some of these places.

From the metro, I first emerge at Victoria Square, a strip of open space that links the city with Old Montreal. Surrounded by steel and glass, it is like a bigger and shinier version of a classic European piazza. It used to be a prominent public space, but 200 years of history has left its scars. As part of a grand revitalization scheme, VLAN Paysages works with the consortium of Daoust Lestage (in charge of the design and project management), Provencher Roy & Associs Architectes and landscape designers William Asselin Ackaoui on the preliminary landscape concept for the square. Faced with such a loaded site, the design team decided to find inspiration in each of the periods that has marked it to compose a contemporary public space that resonates with the collective memory. On the surface, they propose a series of mini-gardens that act as memory cases along the long axis, much like a museum except the artifacts are not encased in glass. The metro, pedestrian network, and even a major expressway exist below. Protected by a double-skin of trees and a screen of water jets, it is a surprisingly relaxing place in a quartier of business suits. By subtly orchestrating the movement through the square and carefully framing views, everyone inadvertently plays a part even when they are just buying lunch, temporarily adding another layer to an age-old square.

From the historical square, I move westward to an existing playground that NIP paysage has just reworked. It has the usual swings and slides. Nothing special. However, for any design, the best litmus test is kids. It is not long before the first child nimbly explores the nearly finished construction site. He ignores the specially selected games and heads straight to its hilly borders. The border used to be an arbitrarily placed chain link fence. Fortunately, NIP convinced the city to tear it down, and instead, sculpted the site’s existing berms and planted them with dense vegetation as a way to define the playground. Not only do they open up the playground to the park, but they also extend it to the community, allowing more people to monitor the children. Moreover, instead of weeds, NIP’s boundary becomes an interesting place to play, letting the kids’ imaginations run wild. The exaggerated berms are like imprints left by moving glaciers, a small slice of history that will hopefully seep into the children by osmosis. While I muse on the impact of the playground’s sol on the neighbourhood, more kids have come by, running up and down the berm as if it were a new invention. I try my best to stay on the sidelines but I cannot hold still. So I join them.

Leaving the playground, I head to the site of Claude Cormier Architectes Paysagistes’ favourite unbuilt project. East of downtown, descending the very high Jacques Cartier bridge to the island of Montreal, one currently goes through an interchange that just misses the Veterans Park. The park desperately tries to shield itself from traffic with a thin line of trees, to no avail. Since the high-speed ramps and the contemplative park oppose each other, Cormier made a proposal to the city to rework this threshold. Reaching into Montreal’s history, Cormier designed a cross-shaped park made up of rows of neatly aligned silver maple trees with ramps winding through. Blatantly displaying its religious reference, the cross fits right at home with the rest of the city’s churches, echoing the white cross on top of Mount Royal. Though it evokes the simplicity and serenity of Olmsted’s park, the concept remains true to Cormier’s motto of “artificial but not fake.” Standing at the site, I can imagine myself approaching from the bottom of the long axis, the flyover gently depositing me at the foot of the cross, then quickly veering right as I am about to hit the centre. This 30-second close encounter with God would suffice for atheists like me. But for those non-practicing Catholics, would the commentary of distancing themselves from the faith hit too close to home? Could these onramps be a precursor to a modern function of sacred spaces?

As I head home after the blitz around town, I come face to face again with Mount Royal. The square, the playground, and the theoretical entrance to the city may not be as bold as the mountain against the orange sunset, but by working closely with Montreal’s sol, these landscape architects have managed to create places that would reflect and resonate with the contemporary city’s soul.

Joanne Lam is a Graduate Architect living in Montreal.