Category Archives: People


February 27th, 2017 | 10 Comments »

North is a direction, an idea, an experience. North as designed by the architects Suresh Perara and Julie Charbonneau of the Montreal firm PER.CH is a triumph.

Using familiar materials, PER.CH turns the idea of north on its head. Literally. Thirty-nine fir trees hang upside down from a metal framework, their soft green triangles pointing down to a bare Toronto beach.


All photos courtesy of Suresh Perara.
Photo courtesy of Suresh Perara.


North is one of eight installations that make up Winter Stations, an exhibition on the shores of Lake Ontario. Now in its third year, the project challenges designers to use Toronto’s lifeguard stations as the basis for winter art. This year’s theme, Catalyst, asks them to “disassemble and re-shape our notions of Toronto’s waterfront, with particular attention to the sand and materials strewn across the beach…[to be] a catalyst for change.”

North does this, in spades.

When I saw a photo of North in The Globe and Mail, I immediately thought of an inverted map of the world. Instead of an arrow pointing upwards to the north, the arrow formed by the top of the tree was pointing downwards. North flipped to point south? On a closer view, other reversals and tensions became apparent, between the stark setting and the lush growth of the trees, between the soft, dripping branches and the chopped off trunks. Dead carcasses hanging from hooks in a butcher’s shop came to mind, discarded Christmas trees transformed to sides of beef, swaying slightly as the butcher’s fan rotated.


All photos courtesy of Suresh Perara.
Photo courtesy of Suresh Perara. The ladder of the lifeguard station is clearly visible in this photo.


When I met Perara and Charbonneau at their studio in Montreal late last week, they described the thinking that led to their design: the idea of a northern forest, a quintessentially Canadian landscape, set against the image of an empty, frozen beach that was, at the same time, a place of nostalgia, tinted playfully with childhood memories.

Putting these images together produced a work that speaks to change and alters our perceptions of a familiar landscape.


Photo courtesy of Suresh Perara.


The fir trees they’ve used are re-purposed Christmas trees, two months later still surprisingly green. Other elements are equally surprising. The trees are dead yet they seem alive. As you stand on the beach, they sway gently overhead, mimicking the movement of the water at ground level. As you walk through them, pushing them aside, they rustle gently like a bead curtain. But perceptions really flip when you climb the lifeguard station ladder. Moving through the fairytale forest, you reach a clearing at the top. But instead of seeing out over tree tops, you look out across chopped off trunks. Brutality at one end, fragility at the other.

Suresh and Charbonneau were in Toronto for the opening of Winter Stations. On an unseasonably warm day, the deserted beach they had pictured was full of people. They saw a young girl, 5 or 6 years old, stop and stare. It’s so weird, she said, I love it! They heard a father ask his young son what he thought the installation meant. The boy didn’t answer, or if he did, they didn’t hear.

Neither child was interested in analyzing or assigning meaning to the installation — it isn’t necessary to do that in order to enjoy its surreal quality. And while seeing photos of North makes me smile, the images also raise questions, about the commodification of nature, the brutal disregard we too often have towards our surroundings and the effect our actions have on our environment.


Photo courtesy of Suresh Perara.


PER.CH is founded on the notion that architecture can allow us to experience the everyday world in richer and deeper ways. Art installations like North or Forest SQUARE Sky, a 2009-2010 installation at the International Garden Festival at Métis, Quebec, reinforce this notion. They give the creative team room to experiment and even to fail. For Perara and Charbonneau, part of doing these projects is discovering what will happen. They are interested in the interaction with the public in public spaces. And they wonder, will the canopy of trees provide a gathering spot? Will the space be a catalyst for public debate? Will it provoke changes, in attitudes or behaviour?

Finding the title for the installation gave Perara and Charbonneau the focus necessary to create a project on a very tight budget. For me the title gave entry to a gathering place of ideas. I hope I’m fortunate enough to be in Toronto before March 27 when Winter Stations ends. If I am, I expect that North will once again make me think about what I’m seeing. On the spot I expect it will oblige me to feel what’s going on around me. And that, I believe, is a hallmark of a good work of art.

A Doorstep for Orin’s Sugarcamp

December 12th, 2016 | 15 Comments »
Jacques and Ken are skilled workers who can operate almost any piece of equipment, even under difficult conditions.
On the weekend we installed the granite slab that marks the 'front door' of Orin's Sugarcamp, my latest art installation at Glen Villa. (You can read about the project here.) Doing this was tricky. It involved transporting an 800-pound slab of rock across a snowy field and a partially frozen stream on the back of an open wagon. That takes skill, particularly since the snow is very slippery right now. But Jacques Gosselin and Ken Kelso, the talented men who work for me at Glen Villa, managed the job with ease.   [caption id="attachment_4767" align="aligncenter" width="1000"]


Melvin Charney’s Garden in the City

November 28th, 2016 | 10 Comments »
A grassy meadow abuts a busy Montreal street.
Melvin Charney’s garden made for the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal is firmly and unequivocally a city garden. It is surrounded by traffic on all sides, rising up from a piece of land lost between the entry and exit ramps of a busy expressway. It is composed of elements found in many gardens -- plants, sculptures and the fragments of buildings -- yet it combines them in a way that makes this garden unlike any other I know.   [caption id="attachment_4713" align="aligncenter" width="1000"] A grassy meadow abutting a busy Montreal street


Orin’s Sugarcamp

November 21st, 2016 | 12 Comments »
The distorted the shape of the leaf to suggest how the shape changes in the fall. l
Just over a year ago I began work on a project in the woods at Glen Villa, my garden in Quebec. I was inspired by an exhibition I saw at The Mount, Edith Wharton's home in western Massachusetts. One piece in particular caught my eye, a collection of oddly shaped pieces of wood that contrasted in an interesting way with the straight vertical tree trunks around them.   [caption id="attachment_4682" align="aligncenter" width="1000"] Cognito, a sculptural installation by William Carlson[/caption]   I knew almost immediately that I wanted to do something similar and


Remembering the Dead

November 6th, 2016 | 22 Comments »
My father's post is in the foreground, my brother-in-laws in the background.
With Remembrance Day fast approaching, I'm remembering people who were important in my life and looking at how the Memory Posts I painted in their honour are faring. The inspiration for my Memory Posts came from a visit to the National Gallery of Australia and its Memorial Hall.  Created by indigenous artists from Central Arnhem Land in Australia's Northern Territory, The Aboriginal Memorial is an installation of 200 hollow log bone coffins.   [caption id="attachment_4600" align="aligncenter" width="1600"] Photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia. The curving path represents the Glyde River in


The Big Meadow in August

August 25th, 2016 | 19 Comments »
The mown path makes this work. Showing a human intervention is essential.
  This summer I've been watching what used to be a manicured lawn turn into a meadow.  Seeing the changes month to month has shown that what pleased me in June ...   [caption id="attachment_4073" align="aligncenter" width="1200"] The view from the driveway gives some idea of the size of the Big Meadow.[/caption]   became even better in July.   [caption id="attachment_4203" align="aligncenter" width="1000"] Grasses on the prairie used to be called oceans of grass. Now I know why.[/caption]   I was thrilled. Was the transformation from lawn to meadow going to be as


The Gibberd Garden

June 6th, 2016 | 8 Comments »
A bust of Gibberd by Gerda Rubinstein site is viewed comfortably through a house window.
  Sir Frederick Gibberd was an English architect, landscape designer and town planner. His design for Harlow New Town, generally regarded as the most successful of Britain's post-WWII developments, is his greatest achievement. His garden is his most personal. Located in Essex on the outskirts of the town he designed, the garden is little known and little visited, despite being called by BBC Gardeners' World one of the most important post-war gardens in the country.   [caption id="attachment_4032" align="aligncenter" width="3888"] A bust of Gibberd by Gerda Rubinstein is viewed comfortably


The Kennedy Memorial at Runnymede

May 30th, 2016 | 13 Comments »
A river of cobblestones surrounds an uneven, curving path.
Memorials are tricky things to get right. In the past, when heroes were celebrated and the power of rulers was exalted in monuments that forced ordinary people to crane their necks skywards, understanding a memorial was easy. A man on horseback was a triumphant military leader. A statue elevated on a Greek-style plinth was a politician, or perhaps a king or queen. When the statue was part of a fountain or surrounded by figures of reclining women in various stages of undress, the message was probably one that celebrated the achievements of a country


Madoo Conservancy: A Garden Review

January 11th, 2016 | 20 Comments »
Red circles, yellow benches, green foliage: a colour combination very much at odds with the Chinese style pavilion.
The Madoo Conservancy is a garden created over a period of almost forty years by the artist Robert Dash. Located in Sagaponack, New York, at the eastern end of Long Island, it is a destination garden, described as a magical oasis that evokes delight. It is a garden praised by many, including Rosemary Verey, the former doyenne of British gardening who designed gardens for Prince Charles, Elton John and the New York Botanical Garden. I've even heard it described as a masterpiece. So why did I find it a disappointment?


Naumkeag, Then and Now

October 25th, 2015 | 6 Comments »
The shingle house was designed by McKim, Mead & White, one of the premier design firms of the Gilded Age.
Naumkeag is one of America's finest gardens. Located in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and designed over a period of 30 years from 1925-1956, the garden reflects the desires of the last owner, Mabel Choate, and the skills of her friend and collaborator, the landscape architect Fletcher Steele. Pushing the boundaries of the old Beaux Arts traditions, together they took ideas culled from many trips abroad, from the Italian Renaissance to French modernism, and wove them into new forms to create an American masterpiece. In 2007 I visited Naumkeag for the first time. I loved the place --