Renowned Quebec landscape architect Claude Cormier dead at 63

“Claude was a visionary, a builder and a great Montrealer,” Mayor Valérie Plante tweeted Friday. “His influence on the city’s icons and public squares can be counted by the dozens.”

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Renowned Quebec landscape architect Claude Cormier, the creative force behind such Montreal landmarks as Place Ville Marie’s The Ring and the revamped Dorchester Square, has died. He was 63.

Cormier died of cancer early Friday, his firm CCxA said in a message on its website.

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Over the course of his three-decade career, Cormier helped design critically acclaimed urban parks and public squares in Canada’s two biggest cities — a long list that includes Toronto’s HtO urban beach; Montreal’s Place D’Youville; the Old Port’s Clock Tower Beach and 18 Shades of Gay, the network of multi-coloured balls strung along Ste-Catherine St. through the Village for close to a decade. His work also graces public spaces in China, France, the U.K. and the U.S.

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“Claude was a visionary, a builder and a great Montrealer,” Mayor Valérie Plante tweeted Friday. “His influence on the city’s icons and public squares can be counted by the dozens. … His architectural work is a legacy that will live on in our memories forever.”

She called his death “a shock and an immense loss.”

Cormier “was probably the most famous landscape architect in Canada, someone with an international reputation,” Michael McClelland, a principal at the Toronto-based firm ERA Architects who worked with him on several projects and defines himself as a close friend, said in an interview.

“He contributed greatly to public spaces in both Montreal and Toronto, and the contributions are almost equal in that they’ve had such a big impact on both cities,” McClelland added. “People in Montreal and Toronto probably don’t realize that he was equally important in both cities. He maintained his office in Montreal, but he had a very strong relationship with Toronto as well. He was definitely a Montrealer, with the heart of a Torontonian.”

Cormier grew up on a dairy farm in the central Quebec town of Princeville, according to a 2021 story published in the Montreal Gazette. He lost his father when he was 17, and spent the next two years caring for their 50 cows and sugar shack with help from his then-15-year-old brother.

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The family eventually decided to sell the livestock, which allowed Cormier to pursue university studies in agronomy to fulfil his father’s dream. After completing a bachelor’s degree at the University of Guelph, he enrolled in the University of Toronto’s landscape architecture program, which he would later describe as “love at first sight.”

Following graduation, Cormier stayed in Toronto for seven years. He worked on a variety of projects — some locally, some in Montreal, which allowed him to meet Canadian architecture icon Phyllis Lambert.

“She became a mentor and greatly influenced my professional development,” Cormier said in the 2021 interview. “Among other things, she taught me about rigour.”

Cormier subsequently moved to Montreal, where he worked for Groupe Lestage, an architecture firm, before being admitted to the History and Theory of Design master’s program at Harvard University.

He returned to Montreal in 1994 and launched Claude Cormier et associés, which would go on to win multiple design awards. The firm, which now has 15 employees, recently rebranded itself as CCxA to mark the passing of the torch to longtime associates Sophie Beaudoin, Marc Hallé, Guillaume Paradis and Yannick Roberge.

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“Claude was not only a brilliant designer, but an amazing entrepreneur and businessman,” McClelland said. “He made sure that he maintained the quality of the work, that he took on just the right amount of work. That’s a real skill. In the world of landscape architecture, especially with many municipal clients who want to cut corners and make things cheaper, he was able to ensure that everything was very high quality. That is quite exemplary.”

Cormier’s adaptability also stood out.

“In the design phase, he would propose something and if people didn’t like it, he could flip the whole design on its head and it would still come out remarkably well,” McClelland said. “Many people think great designers are very rigid, but he was able to be very flexible and continually generate an abundance of beautiful ideas. This is rare.”

“We’re artists, but we also have a problem to solve,” Cormier told Azure magazine in a 2021 interview. “We’re not doing anything just because it looks pretty — there are always functional elements to resolve. We’re up against issues of safety, liability, social inclusion, environmental considerations … we have so many questions that we need to answer. And if it doesn’t fit, of course, it’s rejected. But we bring a creative flavour, and that’s often more than what’s being asked of us.”

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Cormier’s work often contained surprises.

“There were always signs, coded messages that appealed to your intelligence and made you smile,” Philippe Lupien, an architect and professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal’s design school, said Friday in an interview. “Sometimes this made you think about the contradictions of the contemporary world. He treated us as accomplices.”

Humour was an integral part of his arsenal. McClelland recalls the time Cormier wrote a report on the history of dogs in fine art just to convince Toronto parks department officials that his playful design of the Berczy Park fountain, which pays tribute to canines, was appropriate.

“He won everyone over because it was just so funny to do something like that,” McClelland said. “So while he was very serious, he would use laughter to make a convincing story. He was always laughing.”

Lupien, a longtime Cormier admirer, is particularly fond of Dorchester Square’s Victorian-inspired fountain, a quirky iron structure that appears to have been chopped in half.

“Everyone likes old fountains, but this one is cut in half to underline the fact that in the 21st century, you need to leave space for trucks,” he said. “What this fountain tells us is that we have contingencies today we didn’t have two centuries ago. But even though it’s cut in half, it’s actually prettier than a banal 19th-century fountain would have been. This is Claude Cormier.”

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