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In the summer of 1926, Elsie Reford, began transforming her fishing camp on the Metis River into a garden. Located 220 miles north-east of Quebec City, at 48.51º N. latitude, the gardens she created over the next thirty years were the northernmost in the eastern half of North America. Known to some as Les Jardins de Métis, to others as Reford Gardens, the gardens have become famous since they were opened to the public in 1962.

Each year, Reford Gardens hosts the International Garden Festival, begun in 2000 as an exhibition of conceptual gardens created by architects, landscape architects and designers from various disciplines. The festival has grown to become one of North America’s premier showcases for garden innovation and experimentation and a launching pad for participating designers from a host of disciplines, a “creative camp where everything is possible and nothing is prohibited,” says Alexander Reford, director of the International Garden Festival and Les Jardins de Métis.

“Around-About,” Talmon Biran architecture studio – Roy Talmon & Noa Biran | photo by Martin Bond

Every summer, about 55,000 to 60,000 visitors attend, as well as emerging design practices and renowned designers such as Diana Balmori, Claude Cormier, Ken Smith, Snøhetta, Topotek 1 or Michael Van Valkenburg.
The festival is unique, he says, in part because it occupies a contained site, but also because it is adjacent to Reford’s historic garden and those of a national historic site (1887). The latter are in the tradition of country estate gardens, but have the additional cachet of abutting the St. Lawrence and Metis rivers, and being situated in a fairly expansive landscape that changes hourly at the whims of rapidly moving weather systems.

Begun as a millennial celebration, the festival retains much of its original enthusiasm for new and novel approaches. Because it is in a garden setting, rather than a public park or accessible space, the installations do not have to be built to withstand users or vandals or even most public security or liability concerns. “This contributes to the open nature of the projects that are built,” Reford explains. “Designers find the festival exciting, and an exciting opportunity to reach out to a broad visiting public that are often not typical contemporary art museum clients or “consumers” of landscaped places.”

“Playsages” theme
The 25 exhibits in the 2017 edition, which runs June 23 to October 8, 2017, revolve around the theme of “playsages,” a lighthearted take on the rigor, technical sophistication, and interdisciplinary collaboration involved in the creation of modern playscapes. The theme has led to diverse interpretations, from sculptural high-wire play canopies to solitary forest tree swings to conceptual installations that invite visitors to reflect upon their relationship to nature.

Featured entries were selected by a jury composed of Amélie Germain, landscape architect with the Ville de Québec (co-designer of Nettoyage à sec for the 2005 and 2006 edition of the Festival); Erick Rivard, architect and urban designer, Groupe A / Annexe U from Quebec City (co-designer of Se mouiller – la belle échappée for the 2015, 2016 and 2017 edition of the Festival); Vadim Siegel, architect, ABCP architecture from Quebec City; François Leblanc, technical director of the Festival; and Alexander Reford, director of the International Garden Festival and Les Jardins de Métis.

With the goal of incorporating play as a means of introducing nature to a generation for whom play is often associated with screens, apps, and other technological devices, many exhibitions show a technological sophistication—carefully configured structural geometries, dislodged trees that move along tracks, large mobile harrows that plow gravel to create a human-scaled, participatory Zen garden.

“I like to move it,” DIX NEUF CENT QUATRE VINGT SIX Architecture – Mathilde Gaudemet & Arthur Ozenne | photo by Martin Bond

“The devices deployed in this year’s festival are all intended to encourage play and foster interaction between the installations and the visiting public, Reford says. “We have a very large proportion of youthful visitors, 10,000 children 13 and under. The festival is all about eliminating the distance between landscape and visitors and creating highly interactive spaces that are at once conceptually strong and visually exciting.”

Immersive landscapes
In some exhibitions, that means recreating sounds and visual patterns found in nature, biomimicry, as it were. In Courtesy of Nature, by architects Johan Selbing, Anouk Vogel, a spruce trunk rises from the floor of a white-walled room and opens its needled canopy above a square aperture cut out of the roof .More enigmatic is Réflexions colorées, by longtime participant Hal Ingerg, in which a semi-reflective equilateral triangle (20 x 20 x 20 ft) provides an intimate, courtyard-like enclosure that both frames and intensifies the perception of the forest.

“The Woodstock,” Atelier Yok-Yok – Steven Fuhrman, Samson Lacoste, Luc Pinsard,  Pauline Lazareff | photo by Martin Bond

Though these exhibitions are interactive in the contemplative, observatory way of museum installations, many more closely resemble playscapes and children’s playgrounds. One of these is La maison de Jacques (or Jack’s House from the children’s fable Jack and the Beanstalk) by Quebec architects Romy Brosseau, Rosemarie Faille-Faubert, Émilie Gagné-Loranger. Divided into a series of small hidden gardens by light wooden structures covered in bean sprouts, the mysterious, labyrinth-like play house invites children to wander inside. Then there’s The Woodstock by Atelier Yok Yok, a tree-shaded topographical playground constructed from a gradient of stump-like pods similar to Goric’s steppers. For a workout fit for a lumberjack, there’s DIX NEUF CENT QUATRE VINGT SIX Architecture’s I Like To Move It, which lets children and adults move tree limbs through wood-framed canals to create their own gardens.

“La Maison de Jacques,” Romy Brosseau, Rosemarie Faille-Faubert | photo by Martin Bond

I asked Reford which of this year’s exhibitions were not to miss, assuming one could make the trip to the far northern Canadian outpost. “Tough to comment; I like to think that all of the gardens are exciting and noteworthy. In short, the new gardens chosen for this year’s edition are all challenging, both for the designers and the public. But given the theme, play is at the heart of the exercise, and each of the gardens is bound to create excitement.” So, if you’ve outgrown Burning Man and find yourself more interested in spruces and playscapes than spirit journeys, it may be a welcome alternative.