How Landscape Architecture Makes A Brand

Apr 4 • Best of 2015, Landscape Architecture, MONTRÉAL • 2177 Views • No Comments on How Landscape Architecture Makes A Brand

By Phil Roberts…

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We all identify with something or someone. That is how we make our mark on society. Contemporary landscape architecture is taking ownership of its role in developing the urban landscape, leaving its own mark and being used to make a mark. As I waited for Claude Cormier in his Montreal office, he catches me examining a pink model of one of his more familiar projects from almost 15 years ago. It’s the Lipstick Forest at the Palais des congrès de Montréal, a reconstruction of an artificial forest ( a winter garden ) on the interior that fits the guiding principle of the firm, Artificial, not fake.

“The idea is that when we do landscape design we’re giving off the impression that we are building with natural elements, ” he says. “To build a natural landscape within a building would be fake. To me, that is a false idea of something that is authentic.” He recalls that during the construction of the Lipstick Forest, he was concerned that there wouldn’t be enough funds, so they approached cosmetic company MAC to become the sponsor of the installation, allowing them to infuse their brand on the project. “For me, it is truthful because it is artificial. It does not pretend to be real.”

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Creating projects that resonate years after completion, from small interior installations to large scale landscape projects, has helped landscape architects like Claude gain respect within the building disciplines. “The profession is developing, because of improved construction techniques and an increased comprehension of landscape,” he explains. “In the last 20 years, we have seen some colossal urban landscape projects. If we don’t do it, the engineers will do it, the architects will do it and the urbanists will do it. So the onus is on us to take our place and do that work.”

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That work can at times be classified as fun, like at the three beachfront projects in Toronto and Montreal, known as Sugar Beach, HTO and Clock Tower Beach. All three are recreational projects in formerly industrial locations. “It’s the celebration of summer in the city and is in keeping with sustainable development. No need to leave the city in a car. You can stay in the city, take your bike or public transit.”

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Projects like these give the neighbourhoods that surround them a brand to relate to. For example, the 1-km long Pink Balls installation in Montreal’s Gay Village, is not only an exercise in branding, but also in social improvement.  “In the Village there are social problems, such as homelessness, street violence, drugs and prostitution. Many people think that law enforcement is what such an area needs, but I don’t believe that policing can bring order.” Like the late Jane Jacobs , he believes that residents must be engaged in their neighbourhoods, by taking ownership of its well being, thereby increasing the safety and eventually forcing out the negative social ills.

“The Pink Balls reflect the identity of the Gay Village, simultaneously welcoming others from throughout the city and tourists. The Pink Balls open the neighbourhood and brings in new life.” The installation, going into its 5th year this summer, has changed the perception that people had about that part of downtown Montreal. “Neighbourhood residents take evening walks, 2-4 times a week. It is a positive experience.”  This one kilometer long pink urban installation is suspended above the street on an free standing system of poles and cables, which takes about 10 days to install.

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Neighbourhoods in transformation seem to be a favourite of Claude’s, particularly in Toronto, where his firm’s work can be found in several places around the downtown core. Many of those projects are marked with a distinctive paved motif, extrapolated from different meanings.

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At 117 Peter St, a 37 storey development called Tableau,  the motif comes from the overlay of 2 different angles of the grid at Richmond and Peter Streets (below top). At the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts, it’s the angle of Yonge and Front Streets (below right and left). At 300 Front Street, a 50 storey residential development, the motif came from a fashion brand (further below), while the motif for Berczy Park’s plaza was derived out of accommodation (further below).

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Berczy Park’s triangular plan is anchored on the east by the famed Gooderham Building, and will have a paved plaza on the south for dog owners, surrounded by grass to the north. “This is a public space with two personalities, an urban plaza that can welcome a lot of people and a green area that is softer,” he explains. “You don’t want to send hundreds of people on the grass because eventually the lawn will die. So we balanced those two sides of the park.” In recent years, many residents with kids and dogs have moved into the neighbourhood, which has placed competing demands on the tiny park.

“There are parents who wanted that park for their kids, others who wanted it for their dogs and the business improvement organization who wanted it for office workers,” describes Claude. “That’s why we had to balance the park with both a paved and grass section to accommodate the demand.” Due to the amount of construction activity in preparation for the 2015 Pan-Am games and the short time period left before the game, the city has chosen to schedule construction after the games. The dogs will just have to wait to make a splash.

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A few blocks to the west, the private-open-public space of the 300 Front Street condo tower, has even more demands placed on it. If you’ve ever been at the corner of Front & John Streets in Toronto on an weekday evening, with rush hour traffic, a convention going on and a Blue Jays game about to begin, then you know the mass of humanity that corner is forced to handle. The plaza was built up from the street to accommodate parking below. The granite pavers form paths which cross in the centre, but on the outside, 8×8-inch granite pavers create a numerical rhythm with the civic number 300, using the same language as the motif of a Fendi purse.

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Though the fashion origins for some of these motifs might seem odd to others, they are significant design tools for Claude. “We’re working with space. For me, it is another way of defining space. It’s an aesthetic that demarcates the ground.” It’s the idea of creating a contrast between spaces on a horizontal surface that informs the user like at Berczy, signifies direction like at 117  Peter, make them feel at home like at 300 Front or gives them the expectation of being entertained like at the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts.

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With the recent discussion over the proposed Memorial to the Victims of Communism near the Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa, I asked Claude about the National Holocaust Monument that he is working on with Daniel Libeskind, not too far from there. How will he and Libeskind find the balance between commemoration and context? “The need to fit in is not as important as the need to commemorate when building a monument,” Claude explains. “A monument should be somewhat autonomous, quietly addressing its immediate context, otherwise it will integrate too much into the surroundings and may diminish the act of commemoration. A monument has to be outstanding, outspoken and different. In the case of the National Holocaust Monument, it is located in front of the National War Museum. There is an immediate programmatic relationship between the two projects.”

A positive impact is what any designer wants. If you plan on leaving a mark on the landscape, it better be for a good reason and come from a place of meaning for someone or some brand. It is serious work that Claude Cormier+Associés seem to execute with fun.

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