Claude Cormier, Landscape Architect With a Playful Eye, Dies at 63

Claude Cormier, Landscape Architect With a Playful Eye, Dies at 63
  • PublishedOctober 8, 2023


Claude Cormier was intrigued when he was asked to create a winter garden for the lobby of Montreal’s convention center in the late 1990s. But an interior “greenhouse” of living plants seemed to him completely unsuitable and unsustainable. What Montreal needed, especially in the winter, he thought, was color.

His solution: Lipstick Forest, the name he gave to 52 concrete tree trunks lacquered in bright pink.

When he first presented his design, he recalled, there was dead silence. But the project moved forward, and when the trees were finally installed in late 2002, Le Journal de Montreal, a city tabloid, panned them on its front page, declaring in a headline, “C’est Horrible!”

The public, however, disagreed, and the forest became a beloved city landmark. Mr. Cormier always said the newspaper had delivered his favorite review.

Mr. Cormier, an avant-garde Canadian landscape architect who created playfully subversive and much loved public spaces, died on Sept. 15 at his home in Montreal. He was 63. The cause was complications of Li-Fraumeni syndrome, a rare genetic condition, according to his firm, CCxA, which announced his death.

Bureaucratic confusion and public delight were typical reactions to Mr. Cormier’s work, which enlivened Toronto as well as Montreal. In reimagining a section of Dorchester Square in Montreal, he designed a fanciful Victorian style fountain, tiered like a wedding cake, to evoke the city’s “belle epoque” period.

Yet when it was installed at one edge of the square, it was fabricated to look as though it had been sliced in half; from the street, it resembles a two-dimensional cutout (with a realistic-looking cast-iron woodpecker pecking at its highest tier). The slicing was Mr. Cormier’s response when he was told to lose the fountain in his original design because the city needed more room for tour buses.

A fountain in Berczy Park in downtown Toronto also runs on whimsy: It is ringed by life-size bronze dogs (and one cat) which spout arcs of water. It was a project Mr. Cormier hoped would be financed by a public art fund, and when he showed his proposal, the park’s board members announced that dogs were not art. Mr. Cormier’s team returned with a 50-page treatise on the role of dogs in art throughout history, and the design was approved. (A cat park designed by him, on the west side of town, has yet to be built.)

Mr. Cormier often joked that he was the love child of Martha Schwartz, the provocative landscape architect who made her name bringing contemporary art-like elements into her work, and who was his professor at Harvard, and Frederick Law Olmsted, the creator of urban landscapes like Central Park in Manhattan.

When Mr. Cormier conceived his first urban beach, known HTO, on the shores of Lake Ontario in Toronto — his firm has since designed four — he was inspired by the well-known Georges Seurat painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” Its approach is a gentle slope planted with weeping willows; the beach is planted with yellow umbrellas.

His second beach, Sugar Beach, a Toronto public park near the Redpath Sugar factory, is planted with pink umbrellas, a nod to the refinery’s sweet product. There was resistance to that hue, however. Pink was too feminine and too frivolous, some thought. Mr. Cormier and his team lobbied hard and prevailed. They wore pink hard hats to the job site.

Pink was a totemic color for Mr. Cormier, who deployed it in a seasonal installation in Montreal called Pink Balls — 170,000 strands of pink plastic spheres suspended over Sainte-Catherine Street East, a predominantly gay neighborhood, that transformed it into a pedestrian mall.

The neighborhood had become run down and store vacancy rates were high, said Marc Hallé, a colleague of Mr. Cormier’s. The installation, which went up each summer for five years starting in 2011, buoyed the street’s fortunes by bringing foot traffic back into the area.

“It was so simple,” Mr. Hallé said by phone. “Hang a bunch of balls over the street.”

It was typical of Mr. Cormier’s work, he added, which he described as both humble and monumental. “It was highbrow and lowbrow — not intellectual but visceral.”

The pink thread was a quiet bit of activism on Mr. Cormier’s part, Mr. Hallé said. Mr. Cormier, who was gay, came of age during the AIDS crisis, when there wasn’t a lot of joy in the gay community. His work, with its humorous and welcoming features, is designed for pleasure and for joy. “He was a pleasure activist,” Mr. Hallé said. “He changed hearts by making you feel good.”

Claude Cormier was born on June 22, 1960, in Princeville, a rural community in southern Quebec. His father, Laurent, ran the family’s dairy and maple syrup farm until his death at 44, when Claude was 17; his mother, Solange Cormier, was a teacher.

Claude studied agronomy at the University of Guelph in Ontario, graduating in 1982 — his focus was plant breeding; he wanted to invent a new hybrid flower — and then landscape architecture at the University of Toronto, graduating in 1986. He earned a master’s degree from the Harvard University Graduate School of Design in 1994.

In 2009, he was made a knight of the Ordre National du Québec, a high civic honor. A monograph of his work, “Serious Fun,” written by Marc Treib and Susan Harrington, was published in 2021.

Mr. Cormier is survived by his mother; his sister, Louise; and his brother, Pierre.

His last project, Love Park, designed in collaboration with gh3*, a Toronto-based firm, opened in June. Built on the site of a former expressway ramp, it’s now an inviting urban oasis dotted with lawns and shade trees — and a menagerie of bronze woodland creatures — around a vast heart-shaped pond bounded by a low, red-tiled wall you can sit on. Mr. Cormier and Mr. Hallé called it an urban love seat.

Gardens are boring, Mr. Cormier told The Ottawa Citizen in 2000. “How can we make gardens that look the same as we were making 100 years ago?” he said. “Fashion, architecture, cinema, everything else has changed. Can we make gardens that represent who we are now with the values and culture and technology that we have?”


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