Remembering Claude Cormier (1960–2023)

A portrait of Claude Cormier.

Claude Cormier. Photo: Will Lew. Courtesy CCxA

I first met Claude Cormier (MDes ’94) when he approached me about being a teaching assistant position in my core studio course, in 1993. What impressed me most in our first meeting: his excitable voice, with an upward-sounding pitch, along with his genial and upbeat manner, which made me feel like I already knew this man. A quick wit, a quizzical intensity. I liked this about him. This was the convivial and always curious guy with whom I enjoyed a warm friendship over the past 30 years.

Claude passed away on September 15 this year, at age 63, after a four-year fight with a rare and uncurable form of cancer. His was a life too short, though it was filled with great drive and remarkable success. Claude was a rare landscape architect whose take on common design problems was nothing if not uncommon.

I will admit that fun has perhaps only rarely been a design motivation for me, but it was almost always this way for Claude. Once he established his firm in Montreal, he immediately made his mark with projects that came to him in the form of the typical kinds of urban problems we face everywhere—but his design solutions always defied expectations, and he was persuasive with concepts that were at times far-reaching though always precise in execution. Painted or wrapped trees, blue sticks, balls and cones, pink lights, umbrellas, fake stones—often ordinary things made dramatically unordinary. His admiration for and friendship with Martha Schwartz surely influenced this way of working, but Claude made it his own. He rather famously used to say he imagined himself as the love child of Martha Schwartz and Frederick Law Olmsted—another of his great influences, and a very different one at that.

Because of the sustained popular appeal of Claude’s work, he accumulated attention, enthusiasm, and recognition from far beyond the design community—including being appointed a knight of the Ordre National du Québec. But while he enjoyed peer recognition much like the rest of us, these things had little effect on Claude’s persona or his ego. What animated him the most was talking about the work, along with the jubilant embrace of his work by those who use the public realm spaces he and his partners and staff designed. Those of us who knew him will remember his love of fashion and design, his uncanny passion for art—high, low, fake, or real—and his unbending joyfulness in life. Amen. Yet his far larger legacy will remain those life experiences by the citizens who inhabit his comic, playful, and highly intelligent parks and squares every day.

A comprehensive account of Cormier’s life and career was written by Beth Kapusta and can be found at The Cultural Landscape Foundation’s website.