Utopia in the Real World

By Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoît Nadeau

We’d never seen anything like it in Canada or North America: 5,000 films (30 per day!), 15,000 artists, thousands of artworks. At Expo 67, people discovered architectural spatial structure, interactive cinema, hands-free telephones, but also landscape architecture and unprecedented urban planning.

Practically every aspect of Expo 67 was a modern triumph. It was the expression of ambition, of an era, of a dream. “The makers of Expo were visionary,” Robert Fulford wrote in Portrait de l’Expo. “They didn’t just want it to be beautiful, they wanted it to be magnificent; they succeeded.”

In the commemorative book Terre des Hommes/Man and His World, author Gabrielle Roy recounts her visit on site six months before the grand opening: “It was the highly developed outline of a city, partly emerging from the water, partly surrounded by water, a unique city not to live in but to visit. … As soon as I set foot there, I was transported to another place. A thousand details, a thousand perspectives that were striking, captivating and enchanting. … It formed a landscape in the image of modern man like I had never seen before.”

Robert Fulford agrees: “There was so much that was new and never seen before, so much daring even, that it was like seeing a new world of architecture emerge; we thought we were seeing the beginnings of a revolution.”

Expo 67 permitted every architectural extravagance, whether cubist or traditional, in shingles, tiles, steel, concrete or logs. The German Pavilion was a 15-storey plastic tent. The Netherlands Pavilion, a gigantic assembly of aluminum tubes. With Habitat 67 and the geodesic dome, architects Moshe Safdie and Buckminster Fuller left Montreal two monuments which are now inextricably linked to the city’s identity.

Every detail was meant to paint an image of the times – real or imagined. A new vision of the city, without cars, where everything is clean and everyone travels on foot, bike, gondola, or in a half-dozen modes of mass transport such as the subway, mini-rail, cable car, taxi boat, and even the hovercraft. The street furniture – telephone booths, street lights, even the garbage cans – had to be appealing. Even the pictograph signaling was somewhat of a novelty – which caused some confusion over the bathrooms as no one was used to male/female signs (invented for Expo).

Expo 67 was a resounding success in terms of interactivity, design, architecture and culture largely thanks to its organizing committee, who understood very early on that they needed to do more than simply organize – there needed to be a legitimate artistic direction. Like all preceding universal exhibitions,it needed a theme. They chose:

Man and His World

It was the first time organizers dedicated pavilions to illustrate this theme, such as Man the Explorer, Man the Producer, and Man in the Community, which were as popular as the national pavilions.

Photo credit: Library and Archives Canada (1/3/4/5) and Rocher La Roche (2/6)

The committee also imposed their educational and humanist vision on all exhibitors, whether national, private or representing associations. This is how the Kodak pavilion came to educate the public on Photography, rather than sell Kodak products.

Expo 67 was to be a utopia. Expo 67 aspired to be, and was, a window to the “future today.” Beyond consumerism, 1967 was the year of optimism, the year everything seemed possible, the year the future was literally at your fingertips.

Meet the man who built Expo 67