Recently, before I made a 12-hour drive east from Toronto to Grand-Métis, Que., I was warned by several people that cell signal would be scarce. The tiny village – population 237 – sits at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River and has many amenities for summer tourists, including clapboard cottages and quaint inns along the coast (the Centre d’art Marcel Gagnon is a nice auberge). But a surfeit of cell towers isn’t one of them.
Rather than being a point of frustration, though, the lack of digital connectivity is something that the area’s main attraction, the enchanting Reford Gardens, seems to be revelling in. There is no WiFi in the park (whose French name is the Jardins de Métis), all the better to appreciate the groves of purple lilacs and fields of blue poppies.
Moreover, every year, the horticultural centre hosts the International Garden Festival, where seven of the world’s top contemporary design teams are selected from around 150 applicants to build theme-specific, avant-garde landscapes. This year, the theme, Go Outside and Play!, challenged the designers to erect something that would make visitors put down their phones, unplug the earbuds and see if it’s still possible to have fun in nature (spoiler: it is).
One of my favourite installations renders incessant e-mail checking impossible by necessitating that you use your hands (and both feet) to experience it. Called Le rocher très percé, it’s a to-scale replica of the iconic Percé Rock off the coast of Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula. Instead of brown stone, though, it’s composed of bright blue steel bars, effectively turning the solid mound into a giant, airy jungle gym.
On a purely experiential level, it’s giddy-making to dangle from the peak of the sculpture, about four metres off the ground, especially, if, like me, the last time you were on a set of monkey bars was decades ago. But there’s a deeper idea within the work.
The actual Percé Rock is rapidly eroding due to the effects of climate change. For the past seven years “fragments have been falling off, and people can’t access it any more,” says Stephanie Cardinal, whose Montreal architecture office Humà design + architecture created the pavilion with landscape architect Vincent Lemay. The piece, then, raises the question: In the future, will we only experience these natural phenomena by proxy, in museums, art shows and festivals such as this one?
Another hands-on piece that has layers of meaning is La ligne de 100 ans, by Quebec City architecture and design studio Hatem+D. A short wharf sits at the edge of a shallow pond, where three mini-kayaks (each with a mini-paddle) are moored. Goldfish flutter under the kayaks and the water is dotted with mini-clapboard cottages painted in bright blue, red and yellow, similar to real ones in the area.
Kids in particular love paddling around – the kayaks are perfectly sized for them, as are the little life jackets – but the design is, unmistakably, an allusion to our possible water-logged future. Some of the cottages have detritus floating from them, like Mason jars and pipes. Despite the bright colours, it’s an eerie reminder of so many post-hurricane news photos.
“It’s not meant to be dark,” architect Étienne Bernier of Hatem+D says. “But on some level we are also asking people to think, with climate change, what will the new landscapes be?”
The installations aren’t all so cerebral, though. One simply called Carousel, by Vancouver-and-Montreal design collective ISO, is exactly what its title says it is, albeit a singular version.
Nestled into a pine and birch enclave, the carousel is a Isamu Noguchi-esque composition of angular metal handles poking out of a black terrazzo disc inlaid with bits of marble (each team is given $25,000 to cover material costs and construction). “We were inspired by playground equipment,” designer Maxwell Schnutgen says, “but we wanted to make it special.”
aMAIZEing, by Barcelona team Marta Milà Pascual and Marc Torrellas Arnedo, is also fairly straightforward. It’s a celebration of all things corn (hence the name), with a straw path that wends through a maze of stalks, opening onto a series of circular, corn-centric enclosures.
The first has a pit with dried kernels. It’s fun to sink down into the pool of pale yellow grains, which suck your feet in slowly like some kind of benign quicksand. The last has a built-in trampoline that is surprisingly springy, rocketing you up over the stalks to get panoramic views of the gardens.
aMAIZEing is right next to a piece called Les hélicoptères, which attempts to recapture the moment when many Canadian children first become curious about nature – the moment they first see a maple key (also called a helicopter, or more properly, a samara) flutter down to the ground.
Les hélicoptères, designed by Halifax native Caron Isenor and Oklahoma native Anna Thomas (they met while studying landscape architecture at the University of British Columbia, where they both recently graduated) recreates the joy by suspending nearly 3,000 pastel-coloured, replica maple keys (each made of plastic) on near-invisible fishing wire that is placed among a series of maple saplings.
The design for Les hélicoptères was largely done over Facebook messenger and e-mail, because Isenor and Thomas were not in the same city as they were conceiving their idea. The piece, however, is mainly handcrafted as each samara had to be strung individually, and Isenor and Thomas had to plant the maple saplings themselves. “We originally wanted to put the piece in a maple forest,” Isenor says. “But there wasn’t one at the gardens, so we just said, ‘Let’s make our own.’ ”
Standing amidst the maple keys dancing in the breeze, part of me felt like I was in a Photoshop fantasy. The colours are surreal, as is the sheer volume of samaras (which are an odd thing to see in early summer, as opposed to fall). But part of me was undeniably reminded of childhood innocence, and sticking helicopters on my nose while playing in piles of leaves.
The whole thing made me linger for a while, mesmerized by the twirling motion. Eventually, of course, I took a photo of the design with my phone. But I still haven’t posted it to Instagram yet.
This piece originally appeared in the Globe and Mail on Friday July 12, 2018.