Sharanya and Brett Zeggil were posing for wedding photos with their relatives and their dog. It was a sunny late-fall afternoon, and the newlyweds stood in downtown Toronto’s Berczy Park, by the park’s centrepiece: an ornate fountain where 27 statues of dogs stood ready to spit streams of water. Beau, the couple’s beagle-bulldog mix, stood by, tail wagging, next to an oversized ceramic Dalmatian.
“I love this place,” said the new Mrs. Zeggil. “This is what makes the city lively and bright and adds culture.”
At these words, the park’s designer, the landscape architect Claude Cormier, broke into a broad smile.
“We are designing for people,” he told me, “people of all classes, all races, all ages. This is essential to what we do.”
In this respect, Mr. Cormier stands out in a profession that can focus on either pricey gardens or big ecological questions. While he is trained in agronomy, Mr. Cormier, 60, is primarily a student of human behaviour and city life. He is currently designing three new Toronto parks, several more major public spaces in the Toronto region and two parks in Montreal. His work is also the subject of a new book, Serious Fun. And this fall, Mr. Cormier announced a $500,000 donation to the University of Toronto’s Daniels Faculty to fund a scholarship for landscape architecture students who carry, as he did, a critical perspective on what the profession can do.
In short, Mr. Cormier is becoming an institution – and a colourful one, at that. When he showed up to announce the scholarship at the University of Toronto last month, he was wearing leather boots with high platform heels. “This is my first time wearing them, and so this was a risk,” he said. But risk, he added, is important to making good public places.
“There needs to be an element that creates a bit of vibe and energy,” he said. “Sometimes you need to take a chance. But it’s essential to do that, because that’s where the pleasure resides.”
The role of a landscape architect is, for many people, mysterious. The profession deals with the design of outdoor spaces, particularly public parks. Its modern origins lie in the 19th century, with designers such as Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed Mont-Royal and New York’s Central Park to imitate natural landscapes – bringing nature into the lives of city folk.
Mr. Cormier is very comfortable mixing the natural and the urban; he grew up on a dairy farm near Princeville, Que. “I have the good common sense about what agriculture can bring you,” he said.
And yet, he was drawn to the city, Montreal, where he now lives and works with a dozen colleagues and where he has finished several important public spaces. His most visible work was the “Pink Balls” installation on Sainte-Catherine Street East – a seasonal project between 2011 and 2016 for which he hung 170,000 plastic spheres, giving the city’s gay village a clear visual identity for the summer.
He has also had a major impact in Toronto. In 2010, Mr. Cormier completed Sugar Beach, a waterfront park defined by lush willow trees, transplanted slabs of Canadian Shield granite and pink fibreglass umbrellas (by designer Andrew Jones) that are both shelter and Instagram bait. He also has worked in HTO Park, Evergreen Brickworks and on the Berczy Park redesign.
Right now, Leslie Slip Lookout Park and Love Park are both under construction near Toronto’s waterfront. In addition, his office is shaping the landscape for a half-dozen important private developments, including The Well on the former Globe and Mail site downtown.
The day of our park visit, we met to tour several Cormier landscapes in Toronto. The first was a nascent city park on Dalhousie Street, surrounded by a major development under construction. Mr. Cormier’s firm had been commissioned by St. Thomas Developments to design this public space.
“This is a very simple park,” Mr. Cormier told me at we stood in one corner of the space, a rectangle of about 90 by 100 metres. But as we toured the space, its many subtle details emerged. The stone underfoot had two different finishes. The trees, he noted, were grey birches, fed by a large volume of soil. We walked over to a utility box on a pedestal; its shiny stainless-steel finish bounced our reflections back at us.
Then we walked to the park’s centrepiece: a pair of comma-shaped mounds of earth, loosely sprinkled with shrubs and small trees. Cormier’s design surrounded the planting beds with a low steel fence (“otherwise, it becomes a dog toilet,” he said with a sidelong grin). So what about the shape of those mounds, I asked? Was it purely arbitrary?
Not quite, he said. In fact it was a loose depiction of a yin-yang symbol – a private joke for the client, developer Patrick Quigley, who is of Chinese descent. And yet, you don’t need to know the joke to see where the focal point is, or to appreciate the sensory impact of the mounds and the gardens.
As we walked out of the park, we passed a cluster of young men and women indulging in some recreational cannabis. “That smell is always part of the landscape now,” Mr. Cormier said. “This is a sign that a park is working.”
Today, many landscape architects today are engaged with bigger questions, particularly with combatting climate change and mitigating its effects. A new prize in the profession, the Cornelia Oberlander Prize, went to landscape architect Julie Bargmann, whose work often deals with cleaning up contaminated sites.
This represents an echo of an earlier activist tradition. In his book Design With Nature (1969), the Scottish landscape architect Ian McHarg exhorted colleagues to “give expression to the potential harmony of man-nature,” to shape their work – and all human activity – around ecological conditions.
Mr. Cormier, by contrast, doesn’t focus his work around ecological questions. “Nature is there in everything we do,” he said, “but quietly.”
Mr. Cormier “has a really strong vision and is always going to find a way to bring cultural engagement into it,” said Susan Herrington, a professor at the University of British Columbia and co-author of Serious Fun. She cited an example from Montreal’s old port. There, Mr. Cormier worked on a park and redesigned it to absorb stormwater – avoiding the construction of an expensive culvert and saving the city a million dollars. “For most landscape architects, that would have been enough,” Prof. Herrington said. “Instead, Claude redirected those resources into creating a beach.”
The result was Clock Tower Beach, which features imported sand and hardy blue umbrellas that are visual icons. This is typical for Mr. Cormier, who calls himself a postmodernist. In the 1990s, he left his young design practice to spend a year at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. There, he became close with Martha Schwartz, a leader in the postmodern school of landscape architecture, who famously decorated her front garden with shellacked bagels. From Schwartz, he gained the freedom to design spaces that are frankly artificial, to employ materials that are not plants, and to insert a sense of humour into his work.
The result can be hard to distinguish from public art, and it can ruffle feathers. When the Berczy Park dog fountain was completed, I had a robust private debate with a local art critic who thought this sort of thing should be the preserve of professional artists.
Likewise, “some landscape architects get really upset about this kind of thing,” Prof. Herrington said. She reports the criticism of another landscape architect on Mr. Cormier’s Sugar Beach umbrellas: “‘He should just be providing a bench and a tree for shade.’”
Mr. Cormier rejects that utilitarian idea of landscape. He often draws on the 1960s work of urbanist William Whyte, and in particular the idea of “triangulation” – that an object in a park can draw the attention of different people and bind them together in a shared experience. “That idea is a bit out of fashion today,” says Ms. Herrington. “But it works.”
In one forthcoming Toronto project – a Rosedale apartment complex called The James – Mr. Cormier has designed a courtyard that centres around a giant sculpture of a half-grapefruit. He has a plan for a cat-themed park in Toronto, a counterpoint to the dog-themed Berczy Park.
Then there is Love Park, a two-acre site that Mr. Cormier and his associate Marc Hallé are designing with local architects GH3. Located on Queens Quay West near Harbourfront Centre, surrounded by blue-grey highrises and the Gardiner Expressway in the city’s tourist area, it will be “a refuge and an oasis,” Mr. Cormier told me. It will grow ginkgo, redwood and golden weeping willows, with carefully engineered soil conditions. But the main feature will be a pond shaped like a heart, lined with a bench covered in red mosaic tile.
“People will gather there,” Mr. Cormier told me. “And maybe some day, people will choose to get married there, too.”
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