Reford Gardens at 60

Created by urban designer Eadeh Attarzadeh and architect Saroli Palumbo, Forteresses is a set of modular systems intended to protect trees from humans. Photo Jean-Christophe Lemay

It’s a summer of anniversaries for Reford Gardens, located on the Lower St. Lawrence River, east of Quebec City. 2022 marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Elsie Reford, who designed the gardens adjacent a salmon fishing lodge built by her uncle, CPR railway magnate Sir George Stephen. And it’s the 60th anniversary of the gardens being opened to the public, after they were acquired the Quebec government as a rural counterpart to the Montreal Botanical Gardens.

It’s also the 60th birthday of another pivotal person in the story of Reford Gardens: Alexander Reford, the great grandson of Elsie Reford. In the 1990s, when the Quebec government was revisiting its portfolio of parks, the Reford family became involved in talks with the community about how to preserve the gardens as a public destination. Alexander Reford was ultimately responsible for creating the non-profit organization that purchased the property from the Quebec government in 1995. That year, he left his position as Dean of St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto to become the director of Reford Gardens. “It’s a pretty unusual history of private-public-private,” says Alexander of the property’s history.

Estevan Lodge and the formal gardens are nestled in a spruce forest alongside the Lower St. Lawrence River. Photo Jean-Christophe Lemay

Alexander’s plans for the property were grounded by maintaining the historic gardens and buildings on the site. But they quickly extended much further, and contemporary architecture has been integral to realizing that vision. In 2000, the garden launched the International Garden Festival, one of the first contemporary garden design events in the world. Since then, architecture and landscape design luminaries including Claude Cormier, Michael van Valkenburgh, Hal Ingberg, and Atelier le Balto have contributed gardens alongside student and emerging professional winners of the annual garden design competition. The 25 plots designated for the contemporary gardens, which rotate out periodically, follow a masterplan developed for the site by landscape architects VLAN paysages and architects Atelier in situ, chosen through a 1998 ideas competition. The accompanying visitor’s pavilion, designed by Atelier in situ, garnered a Governor General’s Medal in Architecture in 2006.

Like establishing deeply rooted plants, the process of developing the site has demanded a gradual cultivation of relationships and financing. One piece of the VLAN and Atelier in situ entrance sequence designed 24 years ago—a series of panoramic images about the bioregion that will affix to a long entry wall—is just being completed this summer.

Gravity Field is floating cloud of upside-down sunflowers, which will change over the summer months as the plants grow upwards towards the sun. The installation was designed by New York City landscape and public art studio Terrain Work. Photo Jean-Christophe Lemay

Numerous other architectural partnerships have also added to the site over time, as well as to the broader reach of Reford Gardens. A few years ago, a group of McGill architecture students, led by professor Michael Jemtrud, built a demountable stage on the site, to a design developed jointly by the Faculty of Architecture and the Faculty of Music. They intended to transport it to Montreal for use during McGill’s 200th anniversary celebrations in 2021. The university’s plans were waylaid by the pandemic, and the stage has now been gifted to the Gardens. Many other university groups and institutions have also partnered with the site, using it for design-build workshops, experimental performances, or as a testbed for landscape design and horticultural research.

Architectural interns Melaine Niget, Pierre-Olivier Demeule, and Antonin Boulanger Cartier designed forêt finie, espace infini? as a labyrinthine path in the woods. Photo Jean-Christophe Lemay
Les huit collines, designed by Paris-based architecture and design collection ONOMIAU, is conceived as eight landscaped puzzle pieces that can fit together in a variety of ways. Photo Jean-Christophe Lemay

Reford Gardens’ partnerships are also tied to the local community. They are currently involved in a shoreline restoration project in the nearby town of Saint-Flavie, working with landscape architect and scholar Rosetta S. Elkin to identify edible native species with erosion control properties. The larger goal: to develop a landscaping prototype to protect the larger shoreline in the face of extreme weather, such as the unusually high tides in 2010 that ravaged the area’s landscape and devastated over 60 waterfront homes.

Architect Kim Pariseau was commissioned to design the Elsie Chair to celebrate Elsie Reford’s 150th anniversary. Photo Félix Michaud

The International Garden Festival has helped bring both global and local talent to the broader work in the Gardens. Montreal architect Kim Pariseau’s firm APPAREIL designed a garden for the Festival in 2019; this summer, the foyer of Estevan Lodge—the building now hosts exhibits and a farm-to-table restaurant—is graced with Pariseau’s solid red oak Elsie chairs, commissioned by the Garden for Elsie Reford’s anniversary.

Just east of Reford Gardens, the Maison des stagières, designed by architect Pierre Thibault, hosts participants in the annual International Garden Festival. Photo Maxime Brouillet

One of Reford Gardens’ longstanding collaborators is Quebec architect Pierre Thibault, who first contributed a garden to the International Garden Festival in 2001. He’s since designed two more gardens for the festival, along with an open-air stage for performances nestled in the spruce forest and a guesthouse for festival participants.

Thibault’s most significant contribution to the site is now nearing completion: the conversion of a 1970s workshop into an event space called the Great Hall. The building will be flanked by a new carpentry workshop, an improved gardener’s workshop, and a new greenhouse. It’s part of a strategy to open the garden’s back-of-house spaces to visitors, and to enable year-round activities on the site. “We’re transforming the entire workshop area so that it will be available and amenable to the public,” says Alexander Reford. “People have increasing interest in the back end as well as the front end.”

Atelier Pierre Thibault’s Great Hall, a multi-purpose event space, is nearing completion. Rendering courtesy Atelier Pierre Thibault

The inaugural event for the space will be an exhibition of Geoffrey James’ photography of Frederick Olmsted’s parks. That marks another duo of anniversaries: James’ 80th birthday, and the 200th anniversary of Olmsted’s birth.

It’s also yet one more instance of how contemporary and historic mix in every aspect of Reford Gardens—a hard-won pairing in this rural location. Alexander recalls how some of the first visitors to Claude Cormier’s Blue Stick Garden, a playful take on the historic garden’s signature of Himalayan Blue Poppies, were outraged, demanding their admission fee back. Now, contemporary sculptures dot the historic gardens, and visitors are on the whole delighted by the Festival’s offerings. Says Alexander: “We’ve taken the attitude that historic and contemporary can fit together.”

Reford Gardens, including the 23rd edition of the International Garden Festival, is open until October 2, 2022. It is closed for the winter season and reopens in early June 2023.

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