Canadian Architect

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Learning From Expo

A new generation of architecture students explore the legacy of Montreal's Expo 67, rediscovering its significance in today's world.

August 1, 2007
by Canadian Architect

TEXT Annmarie Adams

Expo 67 shaped a generation of architects. Toronto architect Bruce Kuwabara, who began his architectural education at the University of Toronto just weeks after visiting Expo, remembers vividly the interiors of the Bell Pavilion and the Labyrinth. He especially admired how the design of the two buildings was driven by film projection systems. “The cyclorama of the Bell Pavilion was amazing because visitors entered a circular space with a continuous surface for projection on the perimeter. A series of parallel handrails was located in the centre of the space. The handrails were necessary because the effects of moving images of the Canadian landscape surrounding the viewers were very powerful and people often needed to stabilize their bodies as they responded and moved in relationship to the images,” he recalls. Forty years later, the KPMB partner and RAIC gold medalist remains fascinated by these interiors. “I have vivid memories of these two pavilions, whose exteriors I cannot remember at all,” he admits.

This year I devised an assignment in the core architectural history course I teach at McGill’s School of Architecture to try to recapture the power of Expo for Canada’s next generation of architects. Focusing on postwar design in North America, the class is taken by mostly second-year students, but a handful of third years take it too. The assignment asked each student to “adopt” an Expo photo from a unique McGill collection and to interrogate it according to a particular theme. Students were then expected to move beyond this visual evidence by interviewing Montrealers who had attended Expo. The final product was a ten-page research paper.

What happened next was completely unplanned. Toronto’s Design Exchange got wind of the student research and asked for posters summarizing the findings. Twenty-five architects-to-be designed stunning posters to show at the DX this summer. The posters celebrate Expo’s 40th birthday and express what their creators see as the fair’s legacy. The students tap a wide range of Expo hallmarks, from Minirails to mini-skirts and everything in between. Teenage liberation, Israeli politics, graphic standards, and the Chatelaine home were some of the more innovative topics covered by McGill students.

Interviewees varied from the students’ own parents to the famous architects, artists, and politicians we associate with the fair’s success. Some of these interviews were truly outstanding. For example, Laurie Damme Gonneville met with 74-year-old composer Gilles Tremblay for two-and-a-half hours in the corner study of his century-old home in Outremont to discuss the score he composed for the Quebec pavilion. Their recorded conversation covered a critique of Mirabel Airport, the role of Iannis Xenakis at Le Corbusier’s La Tourette, and Martin Heidegger’s perspective on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The climax of the interview was Tremblay showing the 24-year-old architecture student the handwritten score of his new opera, L’oiseau qui dit la vrit, to be performed in fall of 2009. “Afterwards, we talked for a long time about the difference in creative integrity that exists between a musical piece and a work of architecture,” Damme Gonneville recalls. The power of Expo to inspire young architects continues: “The whole process of the design of the pavilion was also particularly illuminating for me, as I am thinking of focusing my Master’s thesis project on the notion of the contemporary concert hall and what it requires to best serve the music performed in it.”

Third-year student Tania Delage discovered the significance of Expo for her parents in her study of the open spaces between buildings on the Expo site. Her poster includes a photograph of her father in 1967 and today. “Both my parents stated that Expo was the best time they ever had and for this reason, the interviews were emotionally charged. There was constantly a sense of nostalgia in their stories. This was why the context in the photograph is monochromatic and only the flags and the people remain coloured. My essay argues that it was the leftover spaces (the Between Pavilions in the poster title) that encouraged a profound interaction among people at Expo. The poster tries to convey this by highlighting what my parents have carried with them to this day.”

The McGill photo collection from which my students chose their images is remarkable on several counts. Soon to be available on a publicly accessible website, the 400 images are digitized copies of 35-millimetre slides that McGill alumnus M.F. Dixon took between April and August 1967. Delighted when his native city was chosen to host a world’s fair, Dixon carefully planned his 30 or so visits to Expo. His photographs capture the dynamic relationships between and inside the pavilions. Each slide was labelled and all were alphabetically organized with extensive and often humourous notes accompanying them.

The chief appeal for me of the assignment was that it gave students the opportunity to use primary sources in research. I want students (and architects) to value visual evidence that surrounds us, rather than simply to swallow textbook interpretations of faraway places. A guide to the assignment took students through four easy steps: selection, description, contextualization, and analysis. I urged them to think about their history papers as design projects, as vehicles to help them to communicate a particular view of the world. I want architecture students to come to their own conclusions about the ways architectural spaces work (or don’t), not just paraphrase what architectural historians think. But mostly I wanted this year’s class to evoke the experience of Expo (which I, like them, couldn’t get first hand) by linking architecture and people. I thought they might learn more from each other by using a single photo collection than in a traditional, library-based research assignment where they each work on isolated topics.

Particularly exciting, too, was the opportunity for students to look at non-traditional themes like movement, crowd control, politics, nationalism, futurism, transportation, technology, ethnicity, transnationalism, heroic architecture, gender, and/or the problem of theme cities, topics inspired directly by the photographs. A more traditional assignment in architectural history would have privileged designers or individual pavilions, ignoring the everyday experience of the place by ordinary visitors. Kuwabara remembers the people: “I also remember being astonished by the flow of people and events, and the incredible organization of the people who were staffing Expo to make it work in terms of moving people in and out of the various pavilions.” Likewise, Michelle Lepage’s research explores how the seemingly open geodesic dome was actually comprised of a series of highly controlled movements. Her poster has no words at all. Its oomph derives from six View-Masters that cover glimpses of the American pavilion by Buckminster Fuller.

People on the move interested incoming architecture student Currim Suteria, who used Dixon’s photo of the Minirail to show how layering inspired Expo visitors to see hordes of other happy visitors. Nadege Roscoe-Rumjahn’s poster focuses on a pile of red Expo passports, a marketing gimmick that encouraged visitors to rush from pavilion to pavilion in an effort to collect stamps. Grace Lin, a second-year student, juxtaposed the ultra-modern Japanese pavilion with a traditional Japanese village, reconciling progress and history by comparing concrete and wood construction. Several students, including Christine Djerrahian, explored gender roles at Expo and some even interviewed former hostesses. Djerrahian’s poster features a wonderful image of the Kaleidoscope, a pavilion dedicated to colour in daily life, which was sponsored by six Canadian chemical companies. All the guides were former Miss Canada contestants, illustrating that exuberance at Expo was not limited to the buildings.

I’ll likely use the assignment again, even between significant Expo ann
iversaries. For students born in the 1980s, it has made the architecture of the 1960s that much easier to understand, and helped them to discover the joy of writing about architecture. “What I especially liked about this project was the selection of the slide,” writes Lin. “I automatically wanted to write about it. So many themes and questions followed from a single image. It has truly been one of the most enjoyable essays I have ever written.” And for those lucky enough to have visited Expo, it has awakened powerful memories.

Meredith Dixon’s photographs of Expo 67 capture the perspective of an individual through about 30 visits to the world’s exhibition in Montreal. Dixon’s family gave the slide collection to the School of Architecture at McGill University in the 1990s. Blackader Lauterman librarian Marilyn Berger and architecture student Troye Carrington digitized the slides in 2006, thanks to a grant from the Canadian Library Association’s Young Canada Works in Heritage Institutions program.

The exhibition Man and Whose World? Revisiting Expo Through Words and Images is at the Design Exchange in Toronto through December 21, 2007 (www.dx.org). For the posters, please visit www.arch.mcgill.ca/prof/adams/ arch355/winter2007/. The course outline and assignment guidelines are under “Courses Given” at www.mcgill.ca/architecture/faculty/adams/

Annmarie Adams is William C. Macdonald Professor at the School of Architecture, McGill University.




Canadian Architect

Canadian Architect

Canadian Architect is a magazine for architects and related professionals practicing in Canada. Canada's only monthly design publication, Canadian Architect has been in continuous publication since 1955.
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