Claude Cormier

Appreciating Claude Cormier

“Montreal is richer today because of Claude Cormier, who passed away on Sept. 15 at the age of 63. He created whimsy — and over the course of his career helped transform our urban environment in ways that will likely, and hopefully, last for many more years.”

It is rare for a city to be physically altered by the vision and work of an individual, particularly when they’re not a member of a city’s elite, be they old money or political juggernauts. We’ve had plenty of those. It’s rarer still for a city to be physically transformed by the work of an artist or architect. 

Montreal has many landmarks that constitute some of the best work of some of the world’s most important architects. Think of I.M. Pei’s Place Ville-Marie, Roger Taillibert’s Olympic Stadium, Tower and Park or Buckminster Fuller’s American Pavilion, today known as the Biosphere.

Similarly, there are many important architects and architectural theorists who have molded and shaped the design of the city. Phyllis Lambert and Melvin Charney stand out for their Canadian Centre for Architecture (and its extensive and highly symbolic gardens), though their even greater contribution is reminding Montrealers of the city’s great architectural history and heritage. Many buildings that are important both architecturally and for their historical significance were saved thanks to their life’s work.

But what Claude Cormier provided Montreal was different. He created whimsy — and over the course of his career helped transform our urban environment in ways that will likely, and hopefully, last for many more years.

I sincerely regret never having interviewed Cormier, who passed away on Sept. 15 at the age of 63, as I would have loved to have asked him about what it was about Montreal that inspired him, particularly its public spaces, and what aspects of the city, its planning and its future he hoped his work would change. I have my theories, but it would have been nicer to hear it from him directly. 

I didn’t like all of Cormier’s works, nor did I like that he and his firm sometimes seemed to be the only game in town and had carte-blanche to transform public spaces in ways that were almost exclusively pleasant and safe. There were also some important missed opportunities, though the city administration bears more responsibility for that than he did.

Regardless, Montreal is richer today because of him. And even if you can’t think of an example of his work off the top of your head (read on, I’ll inform you), you’ve likely already appreciated his work.

A piece of Melvin Charney’s Corridart

Cormier joins a very small club of landscape architects who had profound impacts on the design of the city. This may be controversial, but I think the group really only includes Frederick Law Olmsted (the designer of Mount Royal Park), Frederick Gage Todd (Canada’s first resident landscape architect, responsible for upgrades and improvements to many of the city’s parks in the early part of the 20th century, as well as creating Beaver Lake and the landscaping of Île Sainte-Hélène), Moshe Safdie (who played an integral though perhaps under-appreciated role in developing the master plan of the Expo fairgrounds), the van Ginkels (Blanche Lemco van Ginkel and her husband Sandy, who were involved in Expo 67 as well as the preservation of Old Montreal and the conservation of Mount Royal) and Melvin Charney (who designed the CCA’s gardens and Place Émilie-Gamelin, and likely inspired generations of local architects and artists with his Corridart project, infamously destroyed by Jean Drapeau).

Cormier may be one of the strongest links to Charney and the philosophy behind Corridart, namely small interventions that can have a transformative impact on the built environment. His 2016–’17 project Ballade pour la paix was a one-kilometre long installation along Sherbrooke Street that featured a number of monumental artworks along its route, tied together conceptually with the flags of all the nations of the world hanging overhead. Some of his artistic interventions, like Solange, Blue Tree, the TOM installations on Avenue du Musée and Pink Balls are excellent latter-day demonstrations of the ideas first expressed by Charney and the artists who participated in Corridart.

Dorchester Square North Montreal Claude Cormier
Dorchester Square North

Cormier’s work in Montreal includes some of his very best, and it’s been a joy to watch his work mature over the years. I had some initial reservations about his rejuvenation of Place du Canada and Dorchester Square, but they’ve since grown on me, particularly the considerable reforestation of the former (all the trees now seem to be maturing nicely and feel almost as if they’ve been there all along), as well as the fountain and bridges at the north end of the latter. The addition of crosses on the ground to indicate that these spaces were formerly cemeteries adds a nice historical dimension, as did the extension of Dorchester Square north, as it restored some of the park space lost to road and parking infrastructure developed around the middle decades of the last century. Both of these city squares were looking pretty tired and beat up prior to Cormier’s rehabilitation, and now they shine. One need look no further than to Dorchester Square and Place du Canada to see how much Montreal values public spaces, green spaces and its considerable history.

Parc Hydro-Québec, located between the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde and the Maison du développement durable, seems like an excellent demonstration of two constants in Cormier’s body of work: first, that you really can’t have enough plant life in urban environments — particularly downtown Montreal — and second, that even small interventions in nondescript places can make a big difference. The park was inspired by the irrigation grates that frame many of the trees planted along downtown sidewalks — those on Ste-Catherine are a good example. At Parc Hydro-Québec, the entire space is composed of permeable grates that allow rainwater to be absorbed by the ground underneath. As such, the park allows for greater groundwater retention even though most of the space isn’t uncovered open ground. It’s a clever intervention that maximized the natural element in a space that had heretofore been little more than a gap between buildings.

Some other excellent examples of Cormier’s small projects with big impacts can be found at NDG’s Benny Farm housing project. Public housing efforts have a bad history of providing either insufficient or underwhelming green spaces; Cormier’s landscaping additions gave Benny Farm green space superior to what’s available at most condo projects. Another would be UQAM’s science pavilion, which had been lacking in intimate green spaces and a genuine campus feel.

Place d’Youville

Place d’Youville is another important highlight of Cormier’s additions to Montreal’s urban environment, bringing a lot of much needed greenery to a small part of Old Montreal that had been used as a parking lot for far too long. In a part of town that can occasionally feel congested and cramped, Cormier’s rehabilitated Place d’Youville created an intimate public environment that managed to revive some of the charm of our Victorian-era city squares, albeit with a tasteful contemporary design. That’s no easy feat in a neighbourhood defined by primarily 19th century buildings set on a 17th century street grid. That Cormier’s reimagined Place d’Youville further bridges the edge of Old Montreal with the heart of the Old Port — creating a new axis from which the transition between the two develops seamlessly and coherently — was another success. 

Cormier developed at least two other proposals I wish had been realized. 

His proposal for the redevelopment of the Parc & des Pins interchange wasn’t that different from what was ultimately accomplished, though his plan included two elevated vantage points from which people would have been able to admire Mount Royal, an innovative idea that asks an important question of our urban environment, namely: Mount Royal is the city’s defining physical characteristic, so why is it that we don’t have a prominent location from which to view it?

I think his masterplan for the redevelopment of Parc Jean-Drapeau, which aimed to re-establish important links between the key remaining Expo 67 features (including a major redevelopment of Place des Nations, something that seems to be in the works anyway, so many years later), was far superior to what was ultimately realized. Not only did Cormier anticipate a renewal of Place des Nations, he also imagined increasing accessibility to the riverfront, such as through the development of a new quay for ferry access. I feel his proposal would have given Parc Jean-Drapeau something of a new ‘town square’ and better integrated it into the rest of the city — particularly the Old Port, Old Montreal and the Cité du Havre, whereas what we have now seems more focused on the seasonal festival crowd.

I’m still not sold on the Ring, however, and I’m not sure if it will age well. If McGill College gets the extensive redevelopment promised by Mayor Plante, perhaps it will appear to have a different content, or mean something different. To me the Ring feels unnecessary, namely because the curve of Mount Royal already provided a visual bridge linking Place Ville Marie buildings 3 and 4. I feel the Ring obscures this effect. I’m also still not sure what exactly it’s saying or doing, though I’ll admit it’s impressive in how it seems to float in space. Time will tell.

The Royal Victoria Hospital plan for McGill

Projects to look out for: Cormier’s firm won the contract to revitalize the old Royal Victoria Hospital as it transitions into becoming a new addition to the McGill University campus. His plan will also extend the ‘mountain domain’ in form and function, first by extending ideas developed by Frederick Law Olmsted for Mount Royal Park, and then by increasing the site’s green footprint by a considerable degree. New semi-public spaces will be integrated onto the roofs of some of the buildings as well, though these seem well balanced with an overall scheme that respects the distinct Scottish Baronial institutional style of the former hospital. It’s more integration of the new into the old while respecting the latter and giving otherwise intimidating old buildings and spaces a new lease on life. I’m quite excited for this one.

Cormier has also planned the new National Bank headquarters, which will involve the creation of a new city square in a modern interpretation of the Victorian Era town squares found here and there throughout our city. Cormier proposed a fifth-floor rooftop garden, though I’m not sure whether this will be genuinely public space or not. Either way, these are potentially two new exciting urban spaces in the rapidly redeveloping ‘southern portal’ area along the former Bonaventure Expressway, well-rooted in Montreal’s past as much as pointing towards its (hopeful) future as North America’s most exciting and innovative city.

The final question: How best to honour the man who has left such a remarkable and positive impact on our city?

Unless he specifically stated otherwise, I would propose permanently reinstalling one of his oeuvres, and I think 18 Shades of Gay, Cormier’s multicoloured update of the iconic Pink Balls, is the very best project to choose. The Village could use it — grand public art projects tend to have a positive effect on the urban environment — and if timed right and integrated into a broader rejuvenation effort, it could become the centrepiece of a post-pandemic Village relaunch program for the next major tourist season. 

This piece hits a number of key marks, namely that it’s a relatively simple idea with an outsized impact, that it’s already iconic (not to mention highly photogenic) and it points to Corridart, which I’m quite certain was a project that inspired much of Cormier’s work if not his overall aesthetic sensibilities. It is stunningly beautiful, and these days, actually a bold statement, too, so all the more reason to do it.

II think Cormier understood this better than most: Montreal is a stunningly beautiful city, a perfect blend of bold statements and subtle, almost understated whispers, working together in unison and equilibrium.

Tu nous manqueras Claude. Que ton esprit continue de vivre dans cette ville pour toujours.

This article was originally published in the October 2023 issue of Cult MTL.

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