Julie Margot of Julie Margot Design and Peter Soland of Civiliti discuss their process working on an unconventional wayfinding project “Escales découvertes (Discovery Halts)” in Mont-Royal Park (Montréal).
Mont-Royal Park (Montréal) is a cherished public space and a tourist destination. The goals of Escales découvertes (Discovery Halts) were to make the larger Mont-Royal Heritage Site more accessible and to further public awareness of important natural and cultural characteristics of the area in celebration of the city’s 375th anniversary. Julie Margot and Peter Soland led the design process.
Margot is the creative director and founder of Julie Margot Design (Montréal), an experiential visual design practice where she is known for frequent multidisciplinary collaboration and her focus on design research, testing and prototyping. Prior to establishing the firm, she was an art director at several award-winning firms in Minneapolis, Paris and Montréal.
Soland is an urban designer and co-founder of Civiliti, a Montréal firm that specializes in urban landscapes and public spaces through the use of a range of design disciplines including architecture, urban planning and civil engineering. He holds a master’s degree in environmental design from Yale University and has over 20 years of experience in the field of urban design and landscape architecture.
We recently caught up with them to discuss their process and prototyping for Discovery Halts.
What role do prototyping and testing play in your practices?
JM: In my profession, it’s one of the super-important phases that can make or break a project. We use it to see how people understand the perceived path or information.
It can be done on a low budget using paper or by building out in the material itself. It is the test to find out if what you’re doing is integrated into the space—the visibility of it, the performance factors. It’s when we as designers can make our adjustments.
PS: In the case of urban design, we prototype and test materials, but we don’t typically do as much assemblage. If we are designing large urban spaces, it’s more of a process that’s built through the construction of the work itself.
And its role in the Discovery Halts project?
PS: When Julie came on, we were working more specifically with objects, so her insistence on not only prototyping but actually testing components in space and at scale was where her professional background came together with ours.
We went out of our way to make sure the scale of the objects was correct in respect to the landscape, visibility in large visual fields, and how they were perceived, approached and used. That’s not always done in urban public space design.
JM: With Discovery Halts, we were working with volumes down on the ground and each location was a different environment. There was the issue of finding the synergy between the shapes but also how they fit into the surroundings and how people would interact with them.
There were a lot of elements to take into consideration, so we did three sets of full-scale models that we trucked around the mountain, trying them out in different locations.
How many installations are there and how long have you been working on the project?
JM: Currently, only 75 percent of the project has been installed. There will be 25 sites with place markers, each consisting of two to three several-ton stones, 10 ‘halts,’ which are smaller belvederes and 12 topographical maps at entrances. So about 90 pieces in all.
PS: The city put together a group to discuss how to celebrate the mountain for the anniversary and we came in at the end of that process, in 2011, to help them with imaging and ideation.
We were then hired to do the design and the stakeholder group came back to follow us through the process. That was about 18 months and the production process was about 18 months, typical for an urban landscape design project.
Walk us through your early process on Discovery Halts.
JM: A lot of first concepts included vertical signage, so a lot of testing was done using photo-montaged images of different environments where we were expecting to integrate these elements.
Fairly quickly, we removed that aspect because it was too directive. The concept became more intuitive in terms of understanding where you are in space. We wanted to move away from ‘direction’ and ‘directing’ and encourage an organic experience of finding different spaces and places.
PS: We started talking about objects, rather than signage. Objects appearing in the landscape would be enigmatic and attract people to them. Then the question: Once someone gets there, why are you marking the site? How do you interact with them?
JM: By then, we were looking at elements that were lower to the ground. We liked the circular shape of truncated cones, because they could work as groups of three, they could turn and relate to one another.
PS: If you have a word on a truncated cone it becomes a bit like the needle on a compass and points you to the next cone.
How did you perform full-scale testing?
JM: From the beginning, it was about accommodating a variety of sizes of people and ways of using the markers.
PS: Industrial designers built the wood prototypes for field testing. The family group has five shapes and three had to be redone several times just to get the right dialogue between them.
JM: You couldn’t lay or sit on them comfortably, so we had to rethink them.
PS: Once the object scale was figured out, each of the 47 sites required several visits to identify the basic site of the intervention, and then draw and describe for the contractor where each of these markers was going and their exact orientation.
It was specified that the implementation and location of each one would be approved by the landscape architect to verify that the markers were placed perfectly.
What were some specific challenges that came up in terms of prototyping?
JM: I found the choice of materials to be complex. I was doing research and trying to imagine what the objects would look like in five years. On the 3D maps, we’re hoping the three summits will become shiny because of the way people interact with them. How will they patina? Hold up to vandalism or other obstacles?
PS: With the stone, there were a lot of questions about the appropriateness of materials to use from the stakeholder group. Couldn’t we just use natural boulders? Montréal is built with a lot of local limestone, but the quarry is at the end of its life, so we couldn’t get the quality and size of the stones we wanted.
About a third of the mountain is made up of cemeteries and some markers are installed in them. We didn’t want the stone to look like a grave marker. So, getting the right language in terms of material was a big part of it.
This meant meeting with the stone representatives to find the right color, finish and what would work best with the bronze. Though this was an unconventional project, it went through the conventional process of public bidding.
JM: It was quite a new experience for me working with bronze maps. A local sculptor played a really important role in guiding us.
PS: We found that to get the map to ‘look accurate,’ and create a visual sense of the topography, we needed to create a vertical distortion. The X-Y scale is one-to-one, but the Z is one-to-two.
JM: We simplified the three landmark elements so they could be cast in bronze—but they had to work in 2D as well. From the beginning, we pushed for no cardinal directions. We wanted visitors to focus on the geography—the three distinct summits—for orientation.
What are your takeaways as a team that will inform your future projects?
PS: We try to teach our clients that one finds public space at all different scales— at an infrastructure scale or at the scale of a small object. For us, this was a beautiful occasion to demonstrate how a significant landscape project does not need borders or a tightly defined site.
JM: What I love about the project is that it is a very passive, different sort of wayfinding. This project and many other projects that I see on SEGD.org are opening the mindset about this approach.
I hear visitors say, ‘oh it’s fantastic, you don’t have to go there with your phone,’ which is wonderful; I hope this project and others can inspire people to better connect with and appreciate the world around them.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Project Name: Escales découvertes (Discovery Halts)
Client: City of Montreal, Service des grands parcs, du verdissement et du Mont-Royal
Project Area: 80,586,000 sq ft
Open Date: June 2017
Experiential Graphic Design: Julie Margot Design, Civiliti, Vlan, Luu Nguyen
Design Team: Peter Soland (lead landscape architect, project manager), Julie Margot (lead visual designer), Julie St-Arnault (landscape architect), Luu Nguyen (landscape architect), Fannie Duguay-Lefebvre (urban designer)
Fabricators: Rock of Ages (stone cutters), Artcast (bronze foundry), Pontbriand joaillier-orfèvre (bronze finish), Premier Jet (bronze insets into stone)
Collaborators: Les Services Exp (civil engineering); Messier Design (industrial design); Jules Lasalle (sculptor); Stéphane Aubin (graphic designer); Eric Filion (IT consultant); Paul Bélanger, Geneviève Blais, Daniel Canty, Denise Desautels, Suzanne Jacob, Erin Moure, Chantal Neveu, Pierre Nepveu, Dominique Robert, François Turcot (poets); Kyra Revenko, Marc Guastavino (additional literary content)
Photos: Adrien Williams, Frédérique Ménard-Aubin, Manya Margot (photography)