The landscape of an urban campus

The words “art” and “science” frequently appear in definitions of landscape architecture signaling, as with architecture, a duality of creative expression and functionality. Robert Holden (New Landscape Design) calls it “an all-embracing activity, part art form, part scientific, part totally practical and part political.” Wikipedia also adds “the design of human-made constructs” to its definition, contributing a broad if ambiguous component that is proving the source of an ongoing schism among practitioners.

The “manifesto” of a cheekily named group, Transgressing Our Severely Stunted Environmental Design/Secret Association of Landscape Architects Deconstructing, or T.O.S.S.E.D. S.A.L.A.D. for short, “raises a blatant call to think and design beyond the dogmatic, pastoral tradition of comrade Olmsted and his ‘design with nature’ decedents who hold factions of landscape architecture hostage today.”

This is not a criticism one would level at Montreal landscape architect Claude Cormier whose work has included a lipstick pink fibreglass forest in the Palais des Congrs in Montreal, a diseased tree densely coated with 70,000 blue Christmas balls in Sonoma, Calif., and recently, a floating, sky-blue synthetic forest suspended in Nissan’s atrium at its Detroit design offices. All these projects followed on his widely travelled installation of a blue and pink pixilated garden of stakes first done at the Mtis Gardens on Gasp, Que. As he told the web magazine MoCo Loco recently, “Nature is certainly not my source of inspiration. I like to define our work simply by saying that what we do is artificial but not fake!”

Indeed, a recent critique dismissed Cormier as an important reference point in Canadian landscape architecture precisely because of his interest in “human made constructs.” Yet his work, however much it may employ artificial constructs and is perhaps at times more sculpture or even performance art, is always about inhabiting a landscape molded by a society whose relationship to the environment is increasingly tenuous and artificial. It is a sensibility he probably owes in part to beginning his career with the irreverent Martha Schwartz.

But this is not to say Cormier, whose first intention was to be a plant breeder, turns his back on the botany-side of landscape architecture. His Place D’Youville in Montreal’s Old Town delightfully marries the natural with the constructed to create outdoor space nuanced by a deep sense of history. Most recently, his large project for the Complexe des sciences Pierre-Dansereau at the University of Quebec in Montreal works to integrate a massive double block of architecturally strong buildings by balancing a sliced-up “urban forest” with three signature courtyard gardens. Not incidentally, Pierre-Dansereau’s reputation, states Cormier, originates from work to bring together “the “two solitudes” of human and natural sciences by applying natural ecological laws to man-made rural and urban environments.”

The new complex includes three buildings on the eastern side of the block and the restoration of two historic structures in its centre. Mario Saia of Saia Barbarese Topouzanov/Tetreault Parent Languedoc et associs was the partner-in-charge. These buildings join three others. Two, the large boat-shaped President Kennedy Pavilion (1997) and the 1909 Beaux-arts Sherbrooke Pavilion (1996 and 2005) were designed or restored by Saia while the Chemistry and Bio-Chemistry Building (1994) is by d’architectes Birtz Bastrien.

The new TELUQ distant learning facility boasts an undulating faade of yellow fritted glass curtain wall along Sherbrooke but morphs into a yellow brick wall (the block’s unifying material) whose windows form an abstract tree trunk pattern. Immediately to the south and forming a U-shaped perimeter block with TELUQ is a new student residence building that is clad in a “swallow’s nest hatch” window pattern. The third building for Biology Sciences is sheathed in panels whose abstract pattern is based on DNA strands. It is clear that even the architecture has its roots, so to speak, on a landscape that in the 19th century accommodated the Guilbeault botanical garden with its many pavilions for exotic plants and animals.

Cormier’s task was to tie these diverse elements together into a legible campus landscape that is both in and accessible to the city. Between the buildings and along the central pedestrian boulevard that now slices north-south replacing decommissioned Kimberley Street, he has planted a 160-tree “city forest” of five species. These trees – gingko, honey locust, elm, Kentucky coffee and magnolia – were researched in concert with plant biologists and selected based on their indigenous origin, botanical and ecological interest as well as their tolerance to Montreal’s soil and climatic conditions.

Throughout this forest, a crisscrossing network of paths anticipates the shortcuts students inevitably impose and creates triangular spaces lined with stone benches for informal collective gatherings and individual reflection. This geometry, says Cormier, “works both with and against the overriding rectilinear grain of the campus’ super-block.” The pedestrian street space is also envisaged as a venue for such events as the Montreal Jazz Festival.

A broad porte-cochres in the Biology Building, signaled by Saia’s use of dazzling yellow glass, leads to a courtyard filled with raised planters that form the “petals” of two magnolia flowers when viewed from above. Each planter is centred by a honey locust tree rising above a hardy perennial base including Canadian wild ginger, carex sedge, creeping dogwood and woodruff. Within the open U-shaped courtyard of the northern complex, flowing vine-like pathways are interrupted by hard paved, leaf-shaped squares with similar shaped planters, brimming with cutleaf Stephanandra, a deciduous shrub.

More contemplative is a Zen garden encircled by the east wing of the Sherbrooke Pavilion. A stockade of bamboo defines a landscape of crushed stone traversed by a path patterned as two large ginkgo leaves that focuses on a single honey locust tree. While each court, according to Cormier, has a different visual and spatial personality, all share the trait of offering as much visual imagery to those inhabiting upper floors of their surrounding buildings as to those at ground level.

With the competition-winning HTO Park on Toronto’s much maligned harbour front opening in May and the start of work on the second phase of Place D’Youville scheduled for this spring, Cormier will hopefully continue to influence the design agenda of urban Canadian landscape architecture.

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