Viewpoint (August 01, 2007)

Forty years ago, Canada was under the spell of Expo 67 and brimmed with the optimism of its 100th birthday. 1967 defined a point of cultural maturation where several important lessons emerged: embracing risk, understanding the value of infrastructure, and building efficient and affordable housing in our expanding communities. Forty years later, we have to ask the question: “Are we on the right track?”

Running from April 27 to October 29, 1967 in Montreal, Expo is considered one of the most significant postwar events in Canada–a turning point that showed the world what it means to be Canadian. With over 50 million visitors, 113 pavilions and 62 participating nations, Expo 67 led us to believe that ambitious architecture and design can trigger a sense of optimism, confidence and creativity.

When construction for the Expo site began in 1963, Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson pulled a lever that signalled a front-end loader to dump the first batch of fill to enlarge le Sainte-Hlne. The 25 million tons of fill needed to construct the islands came from the Montreal Metro’s excavations, a great public works project already under construction–and one that stirred new debates about the potential for a contemporary city to operate underground as well as at street level. “Human experience must be the determining factor in solving the problem of urban transportation,” wrote Victor Prus, the architect of the elegant Place Bonaventure Metro station in the August 1967 issue of The Canadian Architect, as it was then known. Prus believed that society must always dominate over technology. With a brand new subway coursing its way through the life of Montreal, bringing visitors directly to the site of the World’s Fair, a confidence regarding the importance of an advanced infrastructure was firmly established. Today, the concrete infrastructure of Montreal is crumbling, subway lines in Toronto are being threatened with closure, and a national commitment to mass transit remains uneven.

As for the ways in which we should occupy and intensify our cities, 1967 was the year that brought criticism and acclaim to Moshe Safdie’s Habitat. While the original scheme called for 3,000 modular units, due to the skyrocketing costs associated with building such an experimental project, only 354 modular units (forming 146 residences) were built. Hans Elte, a notable architecture critic at the time, remarked that Habitat attempted to ambitiously tackle five important goals: develop an economical model for producing mass housing; achieve higher density; develop a model of apartment living with comparable benefits of single-family housing; avoid the monotony of mass housing being built during the late ’60s; and finally, create a social spontaneity similar to a Mediterranean hillside village. Whether Habitat achieved any of these goals is debatable. The fact that Habitat provides an invaluable contribution to these goals and aspirations is undeniable.

Beyond Expo and during that same year, Toronto architect Jack Klein (of Klein & Sears Architects) completed a cross-country study in an attempt to increase the number of high-density developments. Klein designed a significant number of townhouses in southern Ontario during the 1960s and was disappointed at the general lack of multiple housing developments across Canada. He was also able to read the writing on the wall: suburban-style housing was becoming too expensive for the average homeowner and the quest for urban intensification was imminent. The increasing numbers of “house-poor” middle-class earners was already becoming apparent in 1967. This phenomenon is certainly true in 2007. Nonetheless, in today’s marketplace, there remain several good examples of housing projects–some found in this very issue–serving to promote higher densities in our cities at a variety of income levels.

Optimistically, the current generation of architects has not entirely forgotten the lessons of 1967. Architects continue to embrace the challenges of incorporating and expanding upon ideas involving infrastructure while finding innovative ways of building high-density and affordable housing.