Skip to main content

Claude Cormier designs Berczy Park with a view to helping people of disparate interests get along

Pixel, an old English Shepherd, checks out the dog fountains at Berczy Park near Front and Church streets.

The dogs are staring up at a bone. As they do – a pug, a boxer, a beagle – they're spitting jets of water into a fountain. But wait: one of the big dogs, maybe a St. Bernard, has two children riding on its back.

The children are real, and so are the crowds of people on the hills nearby, but the dogs are hand-painted sculptures – all part of the newly renovated Berczy Park near Church and Front Streets.

"We do get a little carried away sometimes," said Claude Cormier, the landscape architect responsible for this playful scene. "But I think this will be a new symbol of the city, and it will be here for people to use for 50 years."

Landscape architect Claude Cormier has a long list of design credits in Toronto.

He is right. The park, which officially opens June 28, is a gem, both hilarious and hospitable. And only Mr. Cormier could have made it happen. The Montreal-based designer has put his stamp on the city with parks and public spaces, such as Sugar Beach. They're whimsical but rigorously planned: incorporating time-honoured principles of public space, and the history of landscape design, but also a sense of fun.

(He's also designing a new "cat park" across town to join this "dog park." )

Mr. Cormier, 57, is working on a half-dozen significant projects in the Greater Toronto Area. His presence reflects a new truth of this denser city: Torontonians are hungry for places to walk, sit, and linger with other people. More than ever, public space matters.

And that means getting everyone to talk – even, in the case of Berczy Park, those sworn Toronto enemies: dog owners and parents. "Bringing everyone together," Mr. Cormier said. "That's where the magic is."

Berczy Park, which is located behind the famous "Flatiron" Gooderham Building, serves tourists as well as locals, who increasingly have four-legged friends. The city expects it to host 2,000 dog visits a day.

Mr. Cormier and the project team led by his associate Marc Hallé were inspired by the canine presence and that of the growing population of kids. "The dog people love it, and for the children, they have a sense of play," Mr. Cormier said.

Remarkably, they talked the city into approving the design, "by moving very slowly, one day at a time," Mr. Cormier said. He credits the city's parks project manager Jennifer Tharp and councillor Pam McConnell. They even won approval to add a few sculptures – a cat and two birds, "to make the cat people happy," Mr. Cormier said with a laugh.

"But once we proposed this design," he said, "we had to deliver it."

Berczy Park serves tourists as well as locals.

The cast-iron fountain, modelled on a late-19th-century design, was produced by a foundry in Birmingham, Ala., and its waterworks were created with the fountain specialist Dan Euser. The paving, a diamond-grid of pink and grey granite, goes to the street edge and meets new granite curbs with crisp built-in drains. New elm trees and tulips were installed in large "silva cells," boxes that protect their roots and provide an adequate volume of soil.

"These trees will be happy; they will grow to their full height and give shade for many years," Mr. Cormier said, "unlike so many trees in Toronto. We are doing it right."

Mr. Cormier, whose firm of 13 people launched in 1995, has the expertise to do this work: Raised on a farm in Quebec, he studied agronomy at Guelph, and then landscape architecture at the University of Toronto, and the history and theory of design at Harvard. "He has a very unique signature," said the prominent Montreal architect Renée Daoust, who was Mr. Cormier's boss early in his career. "There is humour and poetry in his landscape, but it is very technically rooted."

Amid all the technical requirements of a public landscape – plant biology, drainage, soil, and shade – Mr. Cormier's goal is making space for people to gather. "We think a lot about William H. Whyte and his Social Life of Small Urban Spaces," Mr. Cormier said. That influential study of New York City plazas found that people tend to follow a few things: sunlight, running water, and people to watch. "All these things," Mr. Cormier said, gesturing across the park, "are right here."

Even if the details of the park fall apart in time, the broader elements of paths and plantings will remain well-designed and robust. And, in landscape architecture, a few moves can have a huge impact.

18 Shades of Gay involves a canopy over St. Catherine Street in Montreal. JF Savaria

Mr. Cormier proved this in Montreal with his best-known project, Pink Balls: a kilometre-long canopy over St. Catherine Street that defines a pedestrian-only district during Pride season. This year it's back, in rainbow hues, as 18 Shades of Gay. "You realize what beauty and aesthetics can do for a neighbourhood," Mr. Cormier said, "to bring pride and a sense of appreciation from everybody."

His office has already shown it knows how to make places for people in Toronto.

In 2007, it helped design HTO Park on the central waterfront and, in 2010, it completed Sugar Beach, which – despite skeptical sniping from politicians during the Rob Ford era – has become one of downtown's busiest public spaces. Two large hunks of Quebec granite, custom-made fibreglass umbrellas, and a few tons of imported white sand – along with some healthy maples and weeping willows – and you have a place where people love to hang out. Mr. Cormier's office is working on an expansion of Sugar Beach across the street.

Mr. Cormier is finding lots of work in Toronto thanks to his expertise in designing complex parks. Squares, plazas and courtyards: these are the outdoor spaces that a denser city needs and wants.

The Vaughan Metropolitan Centre includes a 10-acre park.

That includes a new square and a planned 10-acre "Central Park" at the Vaughan Metropolitan Centre, the 100-acre development of housing and office space surrounding the new transit station at highways 7 and 400. "There is a holistic vision for the project," said Paula Bustard, vice-president of the developer SmartREIT. "We are working to create a downtown setting, and Claude has been a phenomenal addition to the project."

It's a good sign for the region that Mr. Cormier is trusted by developer clients – and also somewhat surprising. He is deeply uncorporate in his outlook and his sensibility, as may have been gathered from all those spitting dogs.

And yet: at the Well, a mixed-use development at Front Street and Spadina Avenue on The Globe and Mail's old location, Mr. Cormier is designing a network of privately owned, publicly accessible laneways and arcades. These will run between new buildings of retail and office use, and mix passages with patios.

Design for the Well at the site of the old Globe and Mail building at Front and Spadina.

"We're trying very hard to make this not like a mall," he said. "We are combining it with the public realm to create a very urban feeling."

The Well near Front and Spadina. Claude Cormier et Associés inc.

On adjacent Wellington Street, that means a five-metre-wide strip of plantings: elms, flowering crab apples and magnolias "that will create a sense of place for the neighbourhood," he said. "We're interested in quality and creating a magical place."

Across the street, its developers are meeting a city requirement by adding a new public park. Mr. Cormier will design it. The theme: a classical promenade, accented with sculptures of cats. "Dogs for the east side, cats for the west side," Mr. Cormier said. If any Torontonian designer suggested this, it would sound like a joke. But Mr. Cormier is serious – and so are his clients. The new Toronto is already going to the dogs; now the cats will get a piece, too.