Quebec’s Cult of Destruction and Ugliness

Reading Time: 10 minutes

Slightly past midway through, Marie Hélène Voyer drops the crippling hammer-blow, or ear-splitting keynote, of her volume: “in Quebec, in regards to culture, either due to ignorance or incomprehension, we prefer to cry about the removal of a crucifix or lament the disappearance of ham in the pea-soup of our favorite sugar-shack rather than fight for the survival of our works of arts; so long as our beans still feature ample lard and Claude Henri Grignon’s “séraphinades” still run daily on television, our culture remains protected and intact.” 

A native of Rimouski and currently a CEGEP professor, Voyer’s work L’Habitude Des Ruines: Le Scare De l’Oubli et De La Laideur au Quebec, published in 2021 and still untranslated into english (until yours truly has done so, in parts, for this article), seeks to denounce Quebec’s “anesthetic habit of destruction” that has resulted in, what she diagnoses as, a widespread and “excruciating ugliness” in its towns and villages and suburbs, near Montreal and Quebec City especially, which, she claims, has been caused by a “blind greed for newness merely for the sake of newness.” 

(photo courtesy: radio-canada)

Above all, Voyer’s hope, which she renders in often elegiac and lyrical prose that illuminates her side-vocation as a published poet, is to “produce a work of literature that will permit to sanctuarize these locations that form the wonderful ordinary, that will rehabilitate these discrete and modest architectures that should form the canvass of our hopes and dreams and solidarities.” For, as she suggests, “we too habitually confuse or equate apparent banality with a lack of importance or transcendence. Ordinary life most often roots itself in such undistinguished locales, far from all monumentality. Our banal houses are richer than they appear, since they encompass the complex assembly of our unions and ruptures, our hopes and our deceptions. They’re the syntaxes of our lives, gnarled, shaded, inside which they are drawn.”

Although upon first glance Voyer’s exploration of the changes that have defaced these locations might seem hardly relevant to Royal Montreal or Islemere or Beaconsfield or Royal Quebec or Ki-8-Eb, the social factors to which she brings our attention and the conclusions she draws are nevertheless highly pertinent, I would suggest, to elucidate, at least in part, what transpired over the course of the second-half of the 20th century to so many of Quebec’s historically noteworthy golf courses, from Aylmer to Rouyn-Noranda, Val-D’Or to Shawinigan, Ile-Bizard to Sept-Iles. As Keith Cutten so astutely asserted in his study, The Evolution of Golf Course Design, “the game did not evolve in isolation, having been profoundly influenced by social and economic factors over time,” yet “precious little (if anything) has been published about the evolution of golf course architecture and the reasons why these changes occurred. Understanding the relationship between the various design movements and trends, both positive and negative, is crucial to the advancement of both professional and public knowledge of golf course architecture.” 

Now, I don’t dare propose that this article is exhaustive or complete, neither in regards to Voyer’s work, nor to the history and evolution of golf in Quebec, since such a project would require a P.H.D. scoped exploration; rather, I simply sought to pick-out some of the more pertinent of Voyer’s claims and conclusions, then attempted to tie them, in an albeit broad manner, to some of the factors that, in my view, precipitated and subsequently fueled Quebec’s especially long-lingering “dark age of golf course architecture”. This dark-age out which the province is finally and thankfully emerging just now. 

Glimpses of Jeff Mingay’s wonderful, soon-to-be-completed work at Rivermead, in Aylmer

Quebec’s “cult of destruction”, Voyer notes, is far from a phenomena born recently; in fact, as far back as 1972, a “manifest for the safeguarding of Quebec’s cultural heritage” was signed by hundred of artists and intellectuals and published in Le Devoir. This manifest decried the “negligence on the part of the provincial government and local authorities” and was instigated by the recent destruction of more than fifteen 18th and 19th century churches, along with plans to destroy further dozen in the coming years.

Unfortunately, drunk on “cocktail of ignorance, negligence, and administrative ineffectualness,” Quebec’s cultural landmarks and buildings continued to be sent to the slaughter house with the benedictions of the authorities; yet far too few voices were raised to oppose this systematic slaughtering.

Voyer singles out Jean Francois Nadeau, a columnist for Le Devoir, as one of the ardent protectors of the province’s heritage. In 2019, Nadeau wrote that these cultural artifacts, be they religious, monumental, symbolic, etc, “constitute a “sincere harbinger of dreams and aspirations that substantiated a collective existence” and that “maintaining links between the past and future assures that not all is ceaselessly crushed into an empty present, mushy and sad. A society persists healthily only so long as it does not knock its edifices to the ground, that is to say, it persists by being unafraid of facing its past rather than feeling the constant need to erase it.” 

Voyer notes that between 3 000 and 4 000 “historical buildings” continue to be destroyed in Quebec every year. 

Royal Montreal’s now n.l.e. South Course at Dixie

In 1960, taking merely a tiny sliver of the province, both Royal Montreal and Elm Ridge moved from Dorval to their current locations on Ile-Bizard. Originally an A.W. Tillinghast design, Elm Ridge’s pair of new courses were designed by the father and son team of David and William Gordon and were modified afterwards by Robbie Robinson, Graham Cooke, and Doug Carrick. Meanwhile, Royal Montreal’s Dixie courses (amalgamations of the work of Willie Dunn, Harry Colt, Willie Park Jr., and Charles Murray on one course; and Willie Park Jr. and Charles Murray on the other) made way for courses by Dick Wilson and Joe Lee, practitioners of the penal style of architecture made prevalent by Robert Trent Jones after the 2nd World War. 

Now there were obvious social and economic reasons for these moves; however, these new golf courses, as evidenced by the aerials taken when they just opened, bore a very “of the period” look: in essence, prototypical northeastern championship tests. Unlike their discarded renditions which were crafted during golf’s golden-age by some of the greats of the era, these new builds became increasingly detached from their native environments, as construction technology improved, the zeitgeist of the cold-war period promoted a certain ethos of ideal masculinity and strength that manifested itself as well in the golf courses that were built (long, difficult, penal), and images poured in from the United States thanks to the spread of television that propagated the idea of what an ideal golf course was supposed to look and play like – i.e. “the Augusta Syndrome” that spread like a wildfire following the first airing of the Masters Tournament, in 1956.

Signs of Wilson’s work underway at Royal Montreal’s Ile-Bizards site (photo courtesy: The Royal Montreal Golf Club)

Voyer claims that to live in “Quebec, is essentially to live elsewhere.” In the wake of “the grande noirceur” and the subsequent onset of the “quiet revolution” of the 1960s, builders, architects, artists, and much of the popular-consciousness of Quebec turned abroad for inspiration, for a path forward, away from the repressive and stagnant state of their homeland. In turn, in the eyes of many, Quebec’s past, its monuments, became something to eschew rather than to cherish, a source of embarrassment even. As Québécois historian Claude Bélanger has observed of the time of the “quiet revolution”, “of all the values associated with the past, only nationalism continued with any vigor in the period.”

Moreover, the minority, albeit economically dominant, English culture within the province also had a tendentious, precarious, and often openly hostile relationship to the French majority and Quebec’s changing society. Before the 1950s, very few French-Canadians played golf, and the major golf clubs nearly all bore English, or Jewish, origins. Voyer, however, does not really address the French/English divide at great length in her volume, so I will also leave it admittedly undercooked in this article.

Obviously, there’s a delicate balance here, and I am coming at this from the sobering clarity of hindsight. For the generation of Canadian architects following Stanley Thompson, whose shadow over them is as great and as looming and even, I would argue, as smothering as William Faulkner’s was over each subsequent generation of writers from the American south, for example, like their brethren in other forms of architecture and art, America, RTJ in particular (and in turn Thompson, too, then, by osmosis, if you will), became very much the model to follow in Quebec, the city on the hill to which their eyes were drawn. In fact, co-author Ben is currently working on a piece that will delve deeper into Thompson’s “Dark Legacy” in Canada.

Le Mirage (photo courtesy: Golf Canada)

Take, for example, the once Celine Dion-owned and Graham Cooke designed Le Mirage, in Mirabel, which features the simulacrum, both in title and in style, “Carolina” and “Arizona” courses. Or Le Falcon, in Hudson, with its sprawling, ever-present “American-style” waste bunkers and tall pine trees framing its fairways. Or Les Dunes de Soreil-Tracy, with what “dunes” is meant to invoke.

The very noticeable Carolina simulacrum of Le Falcon (photo courtesy: golfpass)

Highly manicured golf courses forced into rather than co-operating with the landscape, tree-lined fairways, lush-green turf, clovered bunkers flanking the lines of play, artificial water-hazards, and containment mounding all became staples of the next plethora of golf courses that sprung up across the province. Howard Watson, a protege of both Thompson and Trent Jones, would design or redesign 67 golf courses in Quebec, alone, over the course of his career.

The next dominant architect in the province, Graham Cooke, would contribute as many, if not more, and his style would be very much cut from the same cloth as Watson’s, as would that of his own protégé, Darrell Huxham. Thus occurred and lingered a kind of Foucauldian power/knowledge channel that shaped and structured the outlooks and tastes and prejudices of a few generations of the province’s golfers, really, I would suggest, until Ian Andrew’s startling work at Laval-Sur-Le-Lac’s Blue Course, which opened for play in 2013 and kickstarted the wave of restoration and renovation that is currently on-going.

In addition, as Yanick Pilon proposed in a wonderfully informative thread on G.C.A. regarding “the seignorial system and bad golf courses”, golfers from Quebec also tended to primarily vacation to Florida, South Carolina, and Arizona, where they were exposed to more of these kinds of golf courses. 

(side note: such a lack of worldliness, in terms of seeing great works of golf architecture in the U.S. and abroad, particularly on the private-side, isn’t, of course, isolated to golfers from Quebec; rather it is a Canadian-wide issue, one which has greatly harmed our golf courses.)

Hollywood, Florida’s “little Quebec”, a hot-spot for French-Canadians vacationers for more than 70 years (photo courtesy: myfrenchcanadianfamily)

In effect, inspired by Isabelle Hayeur’s project Une Vie Sans Histoire (A Life Without History), in which she extensively documented all of the former farmland that had been transformed into indistinguishable suburbs north of Montreal and Quebec City, a tour of Quebec’s golf courses, between the 1960s and about 2014, would have given a sense quite similar to that which Voyer claims she experiences when she travels throughout Quebec’s vast lands of “nowhere and everywhere,” its urban sprawls where “we’ve abandoned vast territories to chauvinistic real estate men whose commercial strategy rests on “amalgamated identities and imaginary patterns.”” In effect, a plethora of golf courses without distinctive a local or regional flavor, essentially simulacrums of American “country clubs” or “southeastern” style resort golf courses. (What exactly constitutes a distinctly “Québécois” golf course, is a loaded and difficult question. I would suggest Grand-Mère and Montebello, formerly The Seignory Club, as being possibility the two most distinctly “Québécois” golf courses in province, although both were designed by foreigners, at least in large part).

Much of Quebec’s heritage, its culture, Voyer notes, would be sacrificed to the greed of callus builders and planners, the cult of newness solely for the sake of newness, those “mean spirits for whom works of art and architecture are viewed merely as indistinct utilitarian objects, interchangeable and destructible blocks like we can knock-down and rearrange like Lego structures.”

“In Quebec,” the mindset went, “we need new, always new. The cult of destruction celebrates newness for the sake of supposed progress,” highlights Voyer. Such supposed “progress”, in terms of golf course architecture, being, of course, the desecration of supposedly “too easy” or “outdated” golf courses in the name of defending par, of the keeping up with the Joneses, if you will; or, otherwise, their remodeling for the sake of instilling a “modern” aesthetic that would look clean and proper in advertisements.

For new builds, often it was with an eye turned towards real-estate, with the golf course primarily being a kind of decoration, a ploy, first and foremost. Note, here, how many of Quebec’s newer golf courses are part of larger real-estate developments (La Tempete; Le Challenger; Le Champetre; St-Raphael; Rosemere; Le Falcon; Hautes Plaines; Le Blainvillier).

Grand Mere, one of the rare fairly well-preserved golden-age gems in the province

Thankfully, though, as we enter, what I will boldly term here and now as, a “second golden age of golf in Quebec” (the first being the subject of my book-in-progress), a number of enticing projects, some already completed, some in progress, some proposed, and some potentially in the works, with a respectful eye towards the past, towards the maintaining or recapturing the cherished heritages of these clubs, have and will continue to reinvigorate the province’s wonderful and historic and fascinating golf-scene, one that is far, in fact totally the opposite, from being “the wasteland” that it is so often claimed to be. It’s a great shame that it is still under-covered nationally and too-little appreciated by most, but that, slowly and surely, will change in the coming years.


4 thoughts on “Quebec’s Cult of Destruction and Ugliness

  1. Great article. Reads very well. Consequently; I’ve order the book, as I’m curious, insofar, as her modus operandi in terms of investigation. Thanks again. Regards Luc

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