Reford Gardens in Quebec is a place where ideas take root. Sometimes they take the form of birches or geraniums; other times, seesaws, pink flamingos or chain-link fence.
That’s because the gardens, in a village on the Gaspé Peninsula, are home to the International Garden Festival – a global hub for creative exploration in landscape architecture. Now the organization behind both is aiming for a broader role, making the gardens a cultural hub devoted to design and culinary arts – with a building project that will open up the site to new sorts of collaborations and residences.
They are working with the prominent Quebec City-based architecture studio of Pierre Thibault on the building project, dubbed Future Shop, and on a new masterplan for the site. “We’re rethinking our workshops as public spaces and attractions in themselves,” says Alexander Reford, who leads the garden and the festival. “We want our visitors to participate in, and celebrate, the creative environment that we offer.”
Located in the village of Grand-Métis, Reford Gardens is also known as Jardins de Métis. It was founded by Reford’s great-grandmother, Elsie Reford, in 1926, and is now owned by a non-profit organization. It’s located on what Reford calls “a unique site” in the Gaspé Peninsula, and its main attraction is an English-style garden full of rare species.
But since 2000, it has also been host of the festival, based on a design-competition model. The institution invites proposals, often from young designers, to create an installation. “They are different from what you might imagine a garden to be,” Reford explains. “They are not primarily about plants. They are about an idea; they are taking a stand.” This past year’s theme was play: as Reford explains, exploring the idea of play and “an engagement with the outdoors.”
The festival has just closed its installations for this year and opened up its call for submissions for 2020; the festival will open June 1. Reford says they typically receive about 150 submissions – from architects and landscape architects, many of them young, in Canada, the United States and a sprinkling of other countries. Of these, usually five are chosen to build their ideas. This is done largely on site; this involves dozens of young designers and artists, working in a variety of media and materials alongside a local construction crew and the gardens’ workshops.
Some of these workshops are now being remade by the Future Shop project. Reford explains that different aspects of production will be combined. “We’ll turn a workshop area that is off limits into a public environment so that visitors can appreciate the creative environment that we are.”
Thibault, who has won the Governor-General’s Medal in Architecture, has the task of remaking a complex of buildings constructed in 1972. Additions and a renovation will wrap them in new wood cladding and remake the surrounding outdoor spaces. The architecture echoes that of two nearby residences that Thibault completed in 2018 – wrapped in carefully detailed ash wood and sloping metal roofs, they resemble barns reduced to their essential forms.
The point of the new centre, Reford says, is to “bring about different sorts of conversations,” including artist residencies in various disciplines. He aims to recast the gardens as an arts-focused cultural centre, “frankly inspired by Artscape Daniels Launchpad, or the Evergreen Brick Works, or any number of others that have turned workshops into attractions in themselves.” The gardens are already a draw for visitors, about 80,000 last summer, Reford said.
The basic idea that draws them is the fusion of art, design and nature. Among this year’s installations, Reford cites Forêt by artist Mathilde Leveau and architect Ronan Virondaud – an artificial forest that combined vertical wooden trunks with a “canopy” of black cloth and a forest floor of fresh wood chips. “It really played with the level of discovery,” Reford explains, “of darkness and light, and of different senses including the olfactory. It created a sense of mystery.”
Many of the installations verge on public art, showcasing the creativity of architects and especially landscape architects.
This is a fusion that was unfamiliar in Canada in 2000 but is now present with programs in big cities across Canada, including La place des Montréalaises and Winter Stations in Toronto. Reford says his organization “has helped place landscape architects as shapers of cities,” and that is true.
So what’s next? “We’re thinking a lot about suburban and rural areas of the country, and what impact design can have on those environments,” Reford says. Can culture, design and nature reshape a place? There’s no better case study than in the gardens themselves.
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