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 published by the Cultural Landscape Foundation, architecture journalist (and Cormier’s close friend) Beth Kapusta writes that Cormier, who grow up on a farm and sugarbrush near Princeville, Quebec, went on to receive his Bachelor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Toronto’s Daniels Faculty before obtaining his Master of History and Theory of Design at Harvard University (with the help of benefactor Phyllis Lambert). “At Harvard, Cormier was influenced by the theories of Martha Schwartz and Peter Walker, whose exploration of the artistic and conceptual potential of landscape design was a departure from the modernist orthodoxy of the previous generation. Cormier often described himself in lectures as ‘the illegitimate love child’ of Schwartz and his other major influence, Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., whom Claude admired for his broad social vision and shared affinity as a ‘scientific farmer.’”

A Love Letter to Claude Cormier (1960-2023)
Lipstick Forest

Cormier set up his practice — today known as CCxA — in Montreal in 1993. One of his first major commissions, completed in 2002, was Lipstick Forest, for the redesigned and expanded Palais des congrès de Montreal. The surreal interior landscape featured 52 electric pink concrete reproductions of actual trees. It had been preceded by earlier, if smaller, experiments that, by turns, brought nature indoors and painted it in vivid hues. His first commission, Kapusta notes, was 1993’s Enchanted Forest: “a temporary installation in Bar Le Business, Montréal’s answer to Studio 54, where a forest of real trees provided the mise-en-scène for the narrative of Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf to play out on the dance floor.” In 1999, he installed the aptly named Blue Stick Garden at the inaugural Métis Garden Festival. 

A Love Letter to Claude Cormier (1960-2023)
Sugar Beach

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.

A Love Letter to Claude Cormier (1960-2023)
Berczy Park

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 the just-opened Love Park, with a 170-metre-long “love seat” in the shape of a giant heart. He’ll also leave behind a legacy of larger landscapes, including ones that are taking shape at two important developments: the Port Lands in the city’s downtown east end and The Well in the west end.

A Love Letter to Claude Cormier (1960-2023)
18 Shades of Gay

In Montreal, Cormier has created some of the most personally meaningful and universally uplifting work of his career. His (irreverently named) Pink Balls and 18 Shades of Gay installations have been suspended over Montréal’s Sainte-Catherine Street East – the heart of its Gay Village – every summer for almost a decade. As Kapusta notes, “The expression of queer joy was an important dimension of Cormier’s design identity.” Recently, Cormier completed The Ring, a monumental 30-metre-diameter steel hoop positioned between the modernist towers of Henry Cobb’s Place Ville Marie.

A Love Letter to Claude Cormier (1960-2023)
The Ring

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.

A Love Letter to Claude Cormier (1960-2023)
Love Park

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.

The post A Love Letter to Claude Cormier (1960-2023) appeared first on Azure Magazine.