“C’est horrible!” When Claude Cormier’s work made it onto the front page of Le Journal de Montreal in 1999, that was the tabloid’s headline verdict. The project in question was Lipstick Forest, an installation by Mr. Cormier – a landscape architect – at the city’s new downtown convention centre. Rather than install plants, Mr. Cormier and his colleagues had created a forest of handmade concrete “trees” painted lipstick-pink to capture the city’s joie de vivre. And Montrealers soon came to love it. Within three years it was featured on the cover of a city guidebook.
“I think controversy is good,” Mr. Cormier said, reflecting on this fracas, in a 2018 lecture. “If you don’t get approval from everyone, that’s good – because it means it’s not beige.” Mr. Cormier, who died at home in Montreal on Sept. 15 at the age of 63, was never beige. In his 30-year career, he became the most colourful and the most highly respected landscape architect in Canada.
His work balanced deep technical expertise and careful space planning with his love of people and expansive sense of humour. His firm’s public parks and private landscapes, which include Dorchester Square in Montreal and Sugar Beach in Toronto, often cracked jokes: A five-star hotel’s driveway was paved to look like a red carpet, and sculpted dogs fed a public fountain by spitting water. “Claude had a talent for surprising people with an experience of their own humanity,” his colleague Marc Hallé wrote in a remembrance this week, “to be moved by beauty and connected with their inner well of joy.”
Claude Cormier was born June 22, 1960 in rural Princeville, Que., the third of four children and the elder of two brothers. His mother, Solange, was a teacher; his father, Laurent, ran the family dairy farm and sugarbush. Claude and his brother Pierre, two years younger, “were always together,” Pierre recalls, including in their work on the farm. Claude and Pierre would take turns getting up early to milk the cows before heading off to school. When their father died of cancer, at the age of 44, Claude was 17 and Pierre 15. “It toughened us up,” Pierre recalls. “It was a lot of responsibility at a young age.”
And yet their father, Laurent, “prepared us well,” Pierre Cormier said, teaching them how to run a farm and a business with strategy and precision. At the same time, the Cormiers taught their children “that anything was possible for us,” Pierre said.
Even, perhaps, a career in the design world. Claude left the farm initially to study agronomy at Laval University, as preparation for a career in farming; when his father died suddenly, he transferred to the University of Guelph in 1982 and then to study landscape architecture at the University of Toronto. After graduating in 1986, Mr. Cormier sought the aid of Phyllis Lambert of the Canadian Centre for Architecture. She agreed to finance his studies at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, where he obtained a master’s degree in the history and theory of design in 1994. In exchange, he agreed to consult on the design and maintenance of the centre’s gardens. (His early proposal to graze sheep on the lawns was dismissed as impractical.)
At Harvard, he studied with Martha Schwartz, who was then scandalizing the world of landscape architecture by importing the language of conceptual art. Mr. Cormier often described himself as the love child of Ms. Schwartz and the 19th-century landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed Mont Royal and New York’s Central Park. From Mr. Olmsted he absorbed the tradition of manipulating nature – trees, shrubs, topography – to create places that serve people. “Artificial, but not fake,” as he put it in a 2008 manifesto.
At the first Métis Garden Festival in 1999, Mr. Cormier put his ideas to the test: He created a garden entirely without plants. His Blue Stick Garden consisted entirely of sticks, painted in shades of blue and also, as one saw by moving through the garden, orange. Another point from his manifesto: “A Garden is About Experience, Not Plants.”
Mr. Cormier worked briefly for Daoust Lestage, a leading Montreal landscape and urban-design firm, before launching his own studio in 1993. He benefited from the design-competition system prevalent in Montreal. For Place d’Youville in Old Montreal, he designed a crisscrossing network of lines between adjacent buildings and across the former path of a stream, this diagrammatic quality moderated by a lush allée of trees. Later he would design Clock Tower Beach and remake the 19th-century Dorchester Square, reinstating an Olmsted-like pattern of trees and greenery and adding a fountain. The fountain came with a twist, however; it was sliced precisely in half, stopping at the edge of the park to make room for the sidewalk.
In the 2000s he had success in Toronto, a city he saw as a second home. Mr. Cormier won a design competition for a waterfront park called HtO, and a second that became known as Sugar Beach. Not everyone was happy with the latter design, which placed a sand beach opposite a sugar refinery and peppered it with hot-pink umbrellas. In the Toronto Star, critic Christopher Hume described it as “a fiasco.” The city’s deputy mayor criticized the $12,000 umbrellas – which were in fact permanent fixtures made of fibreglass and steel, that remain in place – as an example of government waste. Today the park is hugely popular, and Mr. Cormier went on to win other public commissions in Toronto. His redesign of the downtown Berczy Park in 2017 added another playful fountain to his repertoire, this one a cast-iron specimen whose water sources are an array of hand-painted dogs.
With such gestures, Mr. Cormier flirted with kitsch. This was entirely deliberate. Though he was steeped in the high-art tradition of modernism in architecture and landscape, he was a devout populist. “I do not work for an academic [audience],” he said in that 2018 lecture. “I also want to make sure that what we do is understood by the general public. There is a doubleness to what we do.”
There was a double aspect to Mr. Cormier’s personality as well: He was both hard-driving and extremely personable. “He was always rigorous,” said Ian Mackay, who was his partner for 10 years and remained a very close friend. “He liked to challenge people, and did that with his friends as well. If you asked him a question and he didn’t think it was a good question, he would tell you so and turn the question on its head.”
At the same time, “the luminosity that you see in his work was also in him as a person,” Mr. Mackay says. With Mr. Cormier, “There was always laughter. Even if it might be a really serious conversation, Claude at some stage would say, let’s make it light and delicious. Let’s make sure we always bring the light into life, no matter what the circumstances.”
Mr. Cormier had a large and eclectic group of close friends, Mr. Mackay said, which coalesced around Mr. Cormier when, in 2019, he received a devastating diagnosis: He had lung cancer, kidney cancer and lymphoma. Genetic testing revealed that his family carried a rare genetic mutation that caused Li-Fraumeni Syndrome.
His illness was not entirely a surprise. Cancer is “everywhere” in the Cormier family, Pierre said. Along with Laurent Cormier, the family also lost Claude’s sister Raymonde in 2009, and eight of Laurent’s nine brothers and sisters to cancer.
“He had a real sense of his mortality from a young age,” Mr. Mackay said. “Claude didn’t expect to live a long life – so he made a point of living a full life, and not wasting time. It made him always, always engaged with life – engaged with people, engaged with projects – in a way you don’t often see.”
Mr. Cormier’s diagnosis helped to explain the family’s cancer history for the first time. In the last years of his life, he co-operated with a medical researcher on experimental treatments.
He also continued to work and tended to his legacy. He donated half a million dollars to the University of Toronto’s John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design, the school from which he graduated in the 1980s; the award is for a landscape architecture student whose work is “creative and pioneering.” And he collaborated on a book about his career by two scholars, the title of which captured his dual sensibility: Serious Fun.
At the same time, Mr. Cormier changed the name and branding of his office to CCxA – removing his name from the door and elevating his longtime collaborators Sophie Beaudoin, Mr. Hallé, Guillaume Paradis and Yannick Roberge to owners and leaders of the firm. In June, he came to Toronto for the opening of the new Love Park, a project he described as “a love letter to the city.”
Mr. Cormier chose to live out his final days in palliative care and to die through medical assistance in death. That final decision “was in keeping with the life he lived,” Mr. Mackay said. “He didn’t want to see the colour wash out, and the energy ebb, and just slowly fade away. He wasn’t interested in that.”