A rainbow-hued canopy of balloons, an urban beach planted with pink umbrellas, a public fountain for – and featuring adorable sculptures of – dogs. These are just a few emblems that have become synonymous with the work of Claude Cormier. In Montreal and Toronto, especially, the landscape architect brought joy, wit, colour and a queer sensibility to the public realm. He passed away at 63 after a long battle with cancer.
In a poignant homage to his work and life
Cormier set up his practice —
These early projects demonstrate Cormier’s merging of art and landscape in ways that still feel delightfully unexpected today. Throughout his career, over which he won over a hundred awards, he elegantly cleared the boundaries between art, landscape architecture and public space-making. As he continued to take on larger, more permanent works, this passion for “serious fun” – also the name of the monograph he released (with Oro Editions) in 2021 – only grew. And it didn’t matter if some people didn’t get it. Sugar Beach, one of three landscapes Cormier designed on Toronto’s waterfront, was met with the typical response from conservative politicians balking at the cost of “two giant rocks and 36 pink umbrellas” (ridiculously reminiscent of the politicking gripes hurled at Martha Schwartz’s most prominent work in the same city, Village of Yorkville Park). But that marvellous hardscape continues to be a wonderful surprise in a city that suffers from a dual deficit of public space and joyful design expression. Except for where Cormier has blessed it with his whimsy.
In recent years, he brought us Berczy Park in the St. Lawrence Market neighbourhood – a triple-tiered fountain crowned with a massive golden bone and encircled by water-spouting ceramic sculptures of pups, including a Great Dane, a Schnauzer and a Bernese Mountain dog; and
In Montreal, Cormier has created some of the most personally meaningful and universally uplifting work of his career. His (irreverently named)
Apart from their unabashed joy, which is also a reflection of Cormier’s gregarious personality and expansive generosity – in 2021, he created The Claude Cormier Award in Landscape Architecture, a $500,000 gift to U of T’s Daniels Faculty that annually covers one exceptional MLA student’s domestic tuition fees in their third and final year – what unites all of these works is that they also embrace a cosmopolitan, big-city energy. Whereas most other parks (in Toronto especially) are meant to feel like escapes from the city, curated excursions away from relentless pavement-pounding and into a serener natural world, Cormier’s work captures the imagination and then engages people in an eclectic urban conversation. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, it focuses our attention on the potential for public urban space to be at once a stage for exuberant, life-affirming activity and a respite of contemplative attention to the moment.
The boldness of his designs command attention – the fact that they are designed in the first place commands attention. That we can shape our shared spaces with true – quirky, risky, tongue-in-cheek, queer, colourful, heartfelt – artistic vision is still (again, especially in Toronto) a radical concept. Cormier curtains the sky with balloons, places a ring like a lens onto our surroundings, plants pink umbrellas into hard concrete – and he makes us see the city with new eyes. Again and again.