Claude Cormier Montreal

Photos by Meunierd/Shutterstock, Will Lew, J-F Savaria

The power of playful: Claude Cormier’s quirkiness matched Montreal’s

“While his peers readily acknowledged his work’s ‘queer sensibility,’ it’s equally important to point out how much Montreal and Quebec’s joie de vivre also influenced his visual choices.”

I spend so much time biking and walking this city and revelling in its many architectural and landscaping details that I would be remiss if I didn’t add my own voice to the many others honouring Quebec landscape architect Claude Cormier, who passed away last week from cancer at the young age of 63. What a beautiful and joyful legacy he left behind!

From the whimsical fun of “18 Shades of Gay” — a playful canopy of colourful balls along Ste-Catherine in the Gay Village evoking the rainbow LGBTQ+ flag — and before that, les “Boules Roses,” where visitors flocked to see 200,000 pink resin baubles draped over the street, we saw la vie en rose because Cormier insisted that we do. For many years, the canopy’s ball installation signalled the start of summer for Montrealers and I was sad to see them go. A humble suggestion? Perhaps they can be re-installed as a permanent seasonal tribute to his vision.

Montreal’s playful nature mirrored in his work

18 Shades of Gay by Claude Cormier
18 Shades of Gay by Claude Cormier

Honestly, Cormier’s work was all very gay. And flamboyant. And quirky. And always, always fun. 

While his peers readily acknowledged his work’s “queer sensibility,” I think it’s equally important to point out how much Montreal and Quebec’s joie de vivre also influenced his visual choices. This is, after all, a province that birthed two street performers who in turn birthed Cirque du Soleil, the largest circus entertainer in the world. Our city is a year-round creative hub and despite its increased gentrification and unaffordability, we still attract a large number of artists, painters, musicians and writers who rely on its anything-goes attitude for their inspiration. In other words, we thrive on imagination, and we’ve taken silly and playful to new heights. We like to count our unicycle sightings. Clowning around works for us. 

I think that laissez faire attitude when it comes to creative self-expression also allows people to follow their own path here. Montreal just lets you be. There’s something really beautiful about the audacious trajectory of a young man born in a small Quebec town to a farmer and a teacher who was initially supposed to study agronomy to take over the family farm and who, with the help of Montreal architecture icon Phyllis Lambert, changed the trajectory of his entire life. Instead, he went off to Harvard University Graduate School of Design and spent the next few decades reinjecting fun and colour and delight into our urban spaces.  

I love public art that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Art that allows pedestrians, flaneurs and kids to just soak it all up, crack a smile, snap a pic. Chicago’s the Bean, Barcelona’s Gaudi Park, the Maman spider outside of the National Gallery of Ottawa, the Clothespin near Philadelphia’s City Hall… It’s all memorable, light-hearted and fun. Art for art’s sake. 

My favourite Montreal park, René-Lévesque, in Lachine, with its 22 sculptures by Quebec artists, offers up that playful atmosphere. Every time I bike by, kids are always climbing all over them, experiencing art on a profoundly playful level. These are the spaces we live in and walk by and sit at and read next to, so they should be uplifting and quirky and smile-inducing and, yes, even a little silly. Life is serious enough. 

Simple is pretty hard 

Love Park Toronto Claude Cormier
Love Park by Claude Cormier

Cormier’s designs were often accused of being too simple. The thing about being really good at something is that you make it look easy. Whether it’s that perfect lay-up by an NBA athlete, that uncomplicated yet heart-shattering sentence in a Cohen poem or an obnoxiously giant steel hoop placed smack between two stark modernist office buildings in downtown Montreal, people can look at all these things (the result of a lifetime of study, practice, effort and endless repetition) and believe — for that one, dumb, self-unaware moment — that they, too, could do that. 

Spoiler alert: they can’t.

Pablo Picasso said: “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” Simple, succinct, sparse is the opposite of easy.

One of the most outlandish public projects Cormier designed was a dog fountain for Toronto’s Berczy Park. It’s a gorgeous cast-iron fountain patterned after a late-19th century design with a dog bone perched on top. The fountain’s ornamented with dog heads and 27 canines (representing 27 different breeds) look towards the fountain, their mouths spouting water back into the basin. Amidst all the dogs, there’s one solitary cat, which stares at another nearby sculpture of two perched birds on a lamppost. It’s all very tongue-in-cheek. 

His latest and final project for Toronto was Love Park, a giant heart-shaped pond with red-tiled seating all around it. It’s so simple as an idea. But so complex and beautifully detailed and so visually striking as a final result — especially seen from above. 

Silly art is serious fun

Dorchester Square North Montreal Claude Cormier
Dorchester Square by Claude Cormier

His work in Montreal was equally playful. His revamp for Dorchester Square in downtown Montreal, which won excellence awards from the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects, took a stuffy square that features the stuffy trio of Queen Victoria, a military horse and Wilfrid Laurier — across from the gorgeous but equally stuffy symbol of Montreal’s finance glory days, the Sun Life building with its neoclassical architecture — and made it modern and fun. 

Again, Cormier decided to throw in some quirky elements, including half of an ornate Victorian-style fountain sliced in half. The original design called for a complete fountain, but it was cut it in half when Cormier realized it was too big and would block access to the sidewalk. Unbothered, he just sliced it in half. 

Cormier was also responsible for the Palais des congrès painted-lipstick pink forest, which, again, is just the weirdest design for a space that welcomes a year-round rotation of serious conventions. It’s almost like he was reminding professionals from around the world that they were allowed to loosen their ties, let their hair down, relax and have a little fun. 

Cormier didn’t do stuffy. He liked joyful and humorous and over-the-top. Many of his projects, he once revealed, would be rejected or disliked initially, only to be appreciated later.  

He put a Ring on it

The Ring by Claude Cormier
The Ring by Claude Cormier

That’s exactly what happened with Montreal’s The Ring — Cormier’s final project during his lifetime for the city he lived in and loved so much. When it was first introduced in June 2022, everyone suddenly became an art critic. So many people complained, I was compelled to write about it. 

In “One Ring to annoy them all” I explained how these types of reactions to public art are very common, and that there would most likely come a time when we couldn’t imagine Montreal without it. Barely a year later, many are telling me that they were too harsh and they’ve now “grown to love it.” 

My biggest revelation surrounding The Ring has been how amazingly it photographs, no matter the season or time of day. Often, with architectural and landscape design mock-ups, the anticipated result is depicted far more nicely than the end result. It’s often an idealized, airbrushed image, which reality can rarely replicate. In sharp contrast, The Ring looks far better in real life — and this from every possible angle. I am unable to walk past it without snapping a picture. 

There has understandably been an outpouring of love and appreciation for Cormier’s work since his passing, especially from his peers, but ordinary folks who know nothing about landscape architecture design (like me) loved him and his work, too. 

He may have left this world with many projects unfinished and still unimagined, but in the time that he had, he made his joyful mark on our city’s shared spaces. Merci, Claude. ■

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis.