Features | Expo 67

Uncovering the legacy of Montreal’s International Exposition

On the morning of April, 1967, Expo 67 officially opened to the public. Over 500,000 enthralled visitors – Montrealers and tourists from across Canada and all over the world – lined up to be first to see the gleaming site of the 1967 International and Universal Exposition.

The site of Expo was not quite like anything seen before: located on two large artificial islands in the Saint Lawrence, the site was car-free, vibrant, and never without a handful of cultural attractions to experience. The opening of Expo saw the concurrent launch of the metro and other state-of-the-art transportation networks, alongside the installation of 113 pavilions.
As is customary with most large international events, however, the government went to great lengths to change the way outsiders saw the city. The tactic of masking social problems with dazzling sights and an idealistic naiveté was in no way unique to Montreal – we saw this not ten years later with the Montreal Olympics in 1976, and more recently at the Vancouver Olympics and the Commonwealth Games in India.

Today it seems that Expo’s legacy lies in the crumbling remnants of the Turcot exchange, Montreal’s metro system, and a dim memory of great hopes for a new and thriving city. Clearly both Expo’s innovators and visitors held the highest of hopes for this young and thriving city, but its legacy hasn’t been much more than an emotional one.

An Age of Modernism

The sixties were a truly unique era, the spirit of which Expo 67 reflects: tradition had been engulfed by modernism and replaced with a deeply-rooted belief in the brilliance of the future. Prime Minister John Diefenbaker proudly declared that Expo 67 “will be an unusually great event in Canadian history.” During the six months that Expo was open, it seemed that Montreal had endless potential.

“The modern movement was essentially about rational building, and buildings that would have no reference to other styles of architecture. [Modernist buildings have] no decoration,” said Pieter Sijpkes, associate professor at McGill’s School of Architecture. “The construction itself is the architecture.”

The Quebec pavilion embodied this with its concrete floors, steel façade, and exterior glass walls – which doubled as an illuminated display case at night. As described by its designers, the pavilion was meant to “make [Montreal’s] presence felt” as a growing and cutting-edge metropolis.

Place Bonaventure, built in the years leading up to Expo, was a practical application of modernist architecture in downtown Montreal. It housed – as it still does – a hotel, exhibition, and office space, comprising the largest building ever built upon its completion in 1967. “It has no front façade, it has no back façade, it has no main floor,” Sijpkes told me. “It’s just a lump of building, like a beehive.”

Innovation: Man the Creator

A group of Canadian thinkers were given the task of coming up with the theme of the Expo in 1963. After mulling over possible concepts for three days, the group selected “Man and his World,” a theme based on Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s 1939 novel, Terre des Hommes.

The theme was meant to encapsulate the world’s progress in industry, science, and culture. Indeed, new technology seemed to confirm that humanity had achieved an unprecedented control of its surroundings. The advent of data storage meant that a new type of building had to be developed to house these massive computers. McGill School of Architecture Professor Emeritus Derek Drummond spoke with me about his experience in designing the operations control centre on the Expo site: “It wasn’t much, but the whole building was designed to be able to have all the computers.” He explained how the floor had to be built up with special materials in order to have the connections run underneath, which was, like the computers themselves, an entirely new feature. “It would be a joke now. We’re all used to having computers this size,” he laughed, pointing to his laptop, “but they were huge!”

Other Expo buildings, including the wooden-framed pavilion, “Man in the Community,” hinted at the new problems connected to population growth and increasing urbanization. But the overall focus overwhelmingly remained on obstacles that humanity had overcome. The American pavilion – a geodesic sphere known today as Montreal’s Biosphere – housed a three-man command module that had been launched into space only a year earlier. After spending a few minutes on the ground floor in the theatre, visitors could ride up the longest escalator ever built at the time.

“It was spectacular!” Drummond said.

Though on the one hand the pavilion was an ostentatious celebration of American technological ingenuity – the structure itself was built with a bright acrylic skin that automatically responded to changes in sunlight – on the other, its decorative pop art, giant posters of Hollywood starlets, and collection of Raggedy Ann dolls promoted a more wholesome vision of the American Dream.

The Soviet Union naturally attempted to upstage their American competitors. Their massive pavilion featured great glass walls, an upswept roof and an enormous bust of Lenin – but most agreed that they fell short.

“The U.S. pavilion, without question, won this battle,” said Sijpkes.

Despite all the pomp and circumstance, most of the Expo’s buildings – and perhaps even most of its concepts – did not last. “The day Expo finished, the whole concept died with it,” Drummond lamented. “[The American pavilion] was innovative, but not something that was transferable really.” In terms of other innovations, Drummond stated quite assuredly, “virtually everything had been tried before.”

Habitat 67

Habitat 67, a ten-storey apartment complex on the Marc Drouin Quay on the Saint Lawrence, may be the only standing legacy of Expo 67 currently used as a residential space. When I saw Habitat on my first visit to Old Montreal last year, I was beyond confused. I felt as if I was in a dream, staring across the channel at what appeared to be enormous concrete Lego pieces stacked unevenly on top of each other.

Hoping to find an efficient and innovative way to house a large number of families as an alternative to the standard apartment complex, Moshe Safdie designed Habitat 67 for his thesis project at McGill’s School of Architecture. With the striking reality of poverty in and around the city, the building was meant to be a creative solution to affordable urban housing, incorporating Safdie’s community ideals. The visionary architect designed external walkways – essentially pedestrian streets – to provide direct access to each of the 158 units of residence.

“It was certainly an interesting idea that one house would have a terrace on top of the unit below,” said Sijpkes, but he did not hesitate to mention its structural problems. “The site here…was very cold and windswept, so [the design] was very inappropriate for Canada… because it exposed as much light as [possible].” Since the Expo, Habitat has had to go undergo annual maintenance because its concrete surface is completely exposed to Montreal’s harsh winter conditions.

Although designed to house 1,000 units, shops, and even a school to create a real sense of community dynamics, this objective has proven far too expensive. Now, Habitat is owned by its tenants, who together bought it from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation in 1985. Despite all this, however, Sipjkes told me that “as an experiment, and as an attention grabber, [Habitat] really was a big success.”

Transportation: The underground network, metro, and the Turcot Interchange

The Metro was built quickly to open in time for Expo 67 and survived well beyond the other transportation networks built for the event. There were many transportation options for visitors, including the Expo-Express, a rapid transit system; a monorail that allowed visitors to see the pavilions from above; the cable cars at La Ronde (the on-site amusement park); the vaporetto, which navigated across the canal; and even a hovercraft. None of these innovations, ever spread to the mainland after Expo closed.

The Turcot Interchange and the Bonaventure and Decarie Expressways all opened on time for the Expo as well. The Turcot, at a cost of $24.5 million, officially opened in 1966, despite opposition in the neighbouring community of St. Henri.
Although designed to facilitate Montreal’s growth, the aging and crumbling interchange has not been able to withstand the city’s harsh winters, partly due to poor construction.

Today, with talk of reconstructing the Turcot, the controversy surrounding the interchange has again reared its head. Quebec’s Ministry of Transport intends to reconstruct and expand the Turcot starting this year – an endeavour that would encompass the demolition of a loft building with roughly 100 housing units. Meanwhile, those in the community who aren’t facing expropriation are seriously concerned about being exposed to increased levels of pollution. (The neighbourhood has already been found to suffer from unusually high levels of respiratory disease.)

While Expo 67 may have left us with a few effective transportation networks, we have still not been able to overcome traffic problems in and around the city. “Simply stated, [there are] way too many cars,” Drummond said. “The experience of being on the site was absolutely marvelous [because] it was car free. It was a pedestrian world.” Simply looking at the influx of pedestrians crowded on the small sidewalks of Ste. Catherine’s, it is clear that the stress-free, car-free environment of the Expo site in no way recreated itself on the mainland.

The man who made it happen

Mayor Jean Drapeau is often seen as one of the most influential figures in Montreal at this time. First elected as Montreal’s mayor in 1954, Drapeau lost in 1957, but spent only three years out of office before being re-elected in 1960. He initiated, and successfully accomplished, his ambitious pursuit of bringing Expo to Montreal.

While sharing with me his personal experience with Drapeau, Drummond told me that “the design and the building [of the operations control centre] had little to do with the mayor because he was a man with grandiose ideas and he was not an engineer, [nor was he] an architect.” Drapeau’s one particularly grandiose idea – to have the site of Expo on an artificial island in the river – was one that required a lot of technical expertise.

When I spoke with Dmitri Roussopoulos – publisher, writer, editor, and representative of the Student Union for Peace Action in 1967 – he did not hold such high regard for mayor Drapeau. He explained how Drapeau tended to skirt important issues, such as public housing, city planning, and pollution control. “Montreal had a lot of visible poverty [so] there were neighbourhoods that were really slummy,” Roussopoulos said. “When the Drapeau government undertook to do Expo, they went to great lengths to cover up these types [of problems].”

In different areas of the city, the government installed fences to hide things they felt should remain unseen. Some people were simply removed from the city for the duration of Expo. (The same thing was done in Vancouver last year, when the government relocated thousands of homeless from the Downtown-Eastside, Canada’s poorest region, after failing to increase social housing.)

Recalling his experience as a prominent member of the youth community, Roussopoulos explained how Expo was isolated from the city – from the real world – in more than one way. “Expo was supposed to be a big bubble, in which everyone was closing their ears and their mouths to anything that was of a critical nature.”

What we see here is a great discrepancy between the harsh realities and the idealistic dream world envisioned by Expo’s creators. Montreal, particularly in the southeast and southwest, faced immense poverty and deteriorating housing conditions. Drapeau’s “beautification process,” as Roussopolous called it, concealed these problems temporarily, but others surfaced nonetheless. The city’s bylaw against demonstrations, for instance, did not stop an anti-Vietnam War rally from taking place at the opening of Expo. As a member of the anti-war movement, and an organizer of that very protest, Roussopolous concluded, “It’s all very well to have a universal exposition, but we have to remember at the other end of the planet…people were dying and fighting.”

In a similar fashion, Montreal was quick to eject the gay community from downtown in order to “clean up” the city. Drapeau had many of the gay establishments closed down, in both the downtown area between Peel and Atwater, and The Main (or Red Light district), at St. Laurent and Ste. Catherine’s. The slow revival of the gay community in what we now call the Village can essentially be traced back to these police raids on downtown gay bars in the lead up to Expo.

Perhaps the most exciting moment in the modern history of Montreal, Expo 67 remains just that: a fleeting event that did not survive after its concluding firework display on October 29, 1967. The city did try to keep the spirit of Expo alive, making the site a permanent exhibition, but it was not successful enough to remain open past 1981. Sijpkes compared the remaining exhibition to a table where the dinner had already finished. “It never had the same number of people, [and there was never] the same budget to maintain [it]…so it started to look ratty.”

The American pavilion, after Expo, was given to the city of Montreal by President Lyndon Johnson. In 1976, however, the American pavilion caught on fire, burning the transparent acrylic bubble. After going through a structural appraisal, the city banned access to the site, which lay deserted in Parc Jean-Drapeau for over ten years.

The site was purchased by Environment Canada in 1990 and converted into an environmnetal museum now called the Biosphere.

The French pavilion was also left abandoned for well over a decade, until it was inaugurated as the Casino de Montreal in 1993.
If the Turcot in any way reflects present-day Montreal, it seems that the close of the Expo, and the debt accumulated by Expo 67 and the 1976 Olympics, has placed a serious burden on the city. “The trouble is, after Expo 67, there was a drop in the economy here in the city. You know the party was held, and the hangover was long,” Drummond said.


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