Canadian Architect Versus Expo 67
TEXT Inderbir Singh Riar
The 1967 Universal and International Exhibition, popularly known as Expo 67, promised to bring global hopes and dreams to host city Montreal. It also shone a spotlight on Canada, a nation in the throes of celebrating its centenary. With the world’s fair came a wealth of architectural talent, homegrown and international: from the heroic inverted pyramid of the Canadian pavilion designed by the Toronto office of Ashworth, Robbie, Vaughan and Williams to Buckminster Fuller’s spectacular geodesic dome enclosing the United States’ display.
Expectations of visionary architecture filled The Canadian Architect. An incisive critique of Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67 was published soon after its first iteration in 1964. Similar “cellular” forms (an aesthetic ideal initially promoted by the Expo 67 authorities) appeared in portfolios on pavilions under construction. The changing master plan for fairgrounds on reclaimed islands in the St. Lawrence River was routinely discussed. Leading architects’ views on the exhibition were considered newsworthy. Yet following the opening ceremony—and all the accompanying pomp and circumstance, fraternal sentiment and nationalist bombast, blown budgets and financial sleights of hand, gee-whiz delight and even some avant-gardism—The Canadian Architect refused to devote a single issue to Expo 67.
Perusing their magazine of record, architects across the country could only wonder why, after the fact, so few pages were given to arguably the single most prominent event of world architecture at the time. International journals —The Architectural Review, Architectural Design, Progressive Architecture, Japan Architect, and many more—quickly produced special issues on the fair. Architecture Canada, representing the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, similarly spilled much ink. Celebrated architects and critics arrived to formulate their observations and comments.
Yet The Canadian Architect would only invite a then little-known Montreal architect, Jerry Miller, to pen its response. “Expo 67: A Search for Order” appeared in May 1967. Left unmentioned was a simple fact: Miller belonged to the group of young architects responsible for the original Expo 67 master plan. His “search” was hardly an appraisal, but actually a rebuttal.
Miller was among the handful of freshly minted urban design graduates from Harvard—including Adèle Naudé (later Santos) and Stephen Staples—recruited by Daniel (Sandy) van Ginkel, the first chief planner of Expo 67. Adamantly opposed to the typical model of competing national pavilions, van Ginkel and his staff fashioned a radical alternative. The architects proposed a massive open-ended circulation system where all nations could “plug in” along various thematic zones comprising the totality of “Man and His World” (as the exposition officially became known). Steeped in notions of architectures accommodating growth advanced by Team 10 (the postwar group that van Ginkel had done much to shape), the remarkable scheme remained short-lived. It was quickly forgotten after van Ginkel’s departure from the planning team in December 1963.
Still, remnants of the idea were found in the transportation networks and thematic pavilions distributed throughout the overwhelming spectacle of national pavilions occupying the islands. Thus, when it came to describing the world’s fair, Miller curiously retreated to the unrealized 1963 plan, couching it in the rhetoric of the era. He drew on MIT planner Kevin Lynch’s influential theory of urban “imageability”—an experiential approach to navigating the sensory overload of postwar life—to suggest that the fair, as built, had fallen short in its ambition to anticipate a future city. Writing exclusively in the past tense, Miller deftly situated his team’s original scheme, redolent of contemporary wishes for “flexible” structures and “open” environments, as the source of Expo 67. In other words, he implied, the untainted 1963 plan was far better than the resulting Expo.
Photographs of the fair’s most creative gestures accompanied Miller’s article. Tensile nets, space frames, geodesics and clustered geometries evoked a megastructural world attuned to the optimistic large-scale thinking of the 1960s. Miller undoubtedly admired this kind of architecture—as a McGill undergraduate, he had invited Fuller to Montreal to lead a geodesic workshop in 1956—but he refused to mention it. The images, floating independently alongside his text, seemed like the editors’ last-ditch attempt to show something, anything, of Expo 67 before it disappeared from subsequent issues.
There was justification for the photographs. Introducing Miller’s piece, The Canadian Architect noted, “Again, as with the Crystal Palace, the Gallerie [sic] des Machines, the Eiffel Tower, it is [in] the realm of significant structure that the Expo Fair foreshadows things to come.” The turn to these behemoth constructions of the past echoed the interests of Swiss architectural historian Sigfried Giedion. Influencing several generations of architects, Giedion described such iron-and-glass constructions as ushering in entirely new sensations of the “interpenetration” of space-time, thereby foretelling a new emancipatory social reality. In October 1966, The Canadian Architect had similarly illustrated an Expo 67 preview entitled “Anatomy of an Exhibition” with evocative photos exposing the skeletal profiles of still unfinished modular prefabricated complexes. Hope remained for a lightweight dematerialized utopia.
Yet in this narrowly prescribed vision of a technologically sophisticated future, a large part of the world stood neglected. Those nations erecting historicist pavilions, or otherwise expressing eclectic tastes, were simply omitted from the panorama in Canada’s national magazine. The apparent triumph of Modernism, carefully fashioned in The Canadian Architect, made it impossible to understand the totality of the Expo 67 experience.
Notwithstanding Miller’s unwillingness to address the reality of Expo 67, The Canadian Architect promised another assessment. It was waiting, the editors wrote, to see the exhibition as “a working organism.” Habitat 67 justly received further monographic treatment in October; a contributing writer’s brief “last word” on the fair was printed in December.
The expected full appraisal never came. None of the 1967 Massey Medals, announced in June, would honour the world’s fair. Only one Expo work—Habitat 67, again—showed up in The Canadian Architect’s annual roundup of “significant architecture.”
Perhaps the magazine was already looking ahead to Expo 70 in Osaka, with Arthur Erickson and Geoffrey Massey’s competition-winning pavilion. It published renderings of the project, alongside critical commentary on the five finalists, in August. Perhaps the magazine believed that societal needs lay elsewhere. Other issues that year examined Irving Grossman’s Flemingdon Park housing estate, Arcop’s Place Bonaventure, Mies van der Rohe’s Toronto-Dominion Centre, and Ron Thom’s Trent University—projects that, according to the magazine, went hand in hand with fundamental changes to everyday life.
Or perhaps The Canadian Architect was quietly expressing what others may have felt: an Expo fatigue, a weariness with so much pretense to nation-building when, indeed, the very real tasks of constructing the country—new universities, museums, civic infrastructures, housing projects, and, indeed, countless Centennial works—were underway everywhere. In Montreal, the aftermath of Expo 67 was left to the machinations of Mayor Jean Drapeau, who schemed to reopen it as a permanent attraction the following spring. This time, The Canadian Architect sensibly kept its distance.
Inderbir Singh Riar is an assistant professor at the Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanism, Carleton University.