history of the Roerich Garden Project

The Roerich symbol was first used during World War II to protect buildings of historic, scientific, or cultural significance from aerial bombing. The cultural equivalent of the red cross, it was painted on the rooftops of museums, churches, and universities. Russian artist, mystic, and peace activist Nicholas Roerich (1874–1947) designed the symbol: three red circles on a white background, enclosed within a ring. The circles represent the three dimensions of human life to be protected in times of war: religion, science, and art. The symbol gained international recognition on April 15, 1935, when representatives from 21 countries came together at the White House in Washington, D.C., to sign the Roerich Pact — an international pact for protection of artistic and scientific institutions, historic monuments, missions, and collections. The treaty stated that historic monuments, museums, and scientific, artistic, educational, and cultural institutions should be protected in times of peace and war, and identified by flying a distinctive flag, the Banner of Peace, bearing the Pax Cultura emblem (the Roerich symbol).

The Roerich Garden Project began in November 2007 and thrived for three years. A community-collaborative earthwork located on lot #2334609, the garden was a 312-square foot Roerich symbol made up of plants, rocks, and mulch — providing an impressive aerial view from the twelve-story industrial and imposing buildings overlooking the field.

The project was created to

  • Draw attention to the future of the largest undeveloped space in Montreal’s Mile End (and the civic process by which that future would be determined)
  • Reclaim the commons through creative activities that enrich city life
  • Raise awareness about the many ways people used and were attached to the space
  • Create a living gathering place
  • Promote critical reflection about the role of urban biodiversity.
  • Re-enchant citizens with the natural world and landscapes that surround them

The symbol was fitting because the city had posted a $9 million revitalization plan that would destroy the field. Saint-Viateur street was to be extended further east to connect to Henri-Julien, which meant cutting through the field. Slated to begin in 2009 or 2010, the plans also included expropriating and demolishing several homes along de Gaspé street, building a holding lot for city vehicles, and turning the remaining green space into a formal park.

The field is a marginal space. That’s a big part of why it is so important. Outdoor spaces where the rules are unclear and ambiguous are crucial to our wellbeing. Natural, subtle, hard-to-explain, generous, gradual, sometimes-dangerous spaces. Spaces that give us a place to be free, to throw rocks, to gather around a fire. Spaces where fun happens. Where our presence need not be justified. Where we don’t need to buy anything or be out by a certain hour. Our cities are becoming overly structured and hyper-regimented. Children are constantly chaperoned or on lock down. Fear of the other becomes stronger, trust weakens, and the world becomes a scary place full of surveillance cameras, alarm systems, and gated communities. Collectively, do we have the ability to accept the marginal? Can we be citizens that are not controlled by the very things we are trying to resist?

To create a rich, vibrant, open city, citizens must pay attention, ask questions, skip the movie for the community our the council meeting, and elect representatives who respect and use participatory and consultative practices. They need to remind municipal government decision-makers of their needs and priorities. Bridging culture, language, and disciplines are essential to participatory democracy. We need more encounters between single-minded roles and identities. We need to continue bridging more of the gaps that occur in our social reality: where languages can meet; where imagination meets city planner; where artist meets scientist meets activist, politician, mother, entrepreneur, elderly, historian, programmer, herbalist, blue-collar worker, photographer, junkie, the list goes on. Our quality of community life will only improve if we strive to efface distinctions between identities or disciplines.

Emily Rose Michaud

Emily Rose Michaud is an artist and activist working at the intersections of community development, civic participation, and urban ecology. In recent years, her experimental, participatory, and socially driven approach has resulted in a series of performances incorporating living ‘sproutfits’, a guerilla gardener’s ensemble, an electronic book designed to be reproduced and remixed by others, and the Roerich Garden Project, a three-year land art project in a post-industrial railyard turned urban meadow.

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