Welcome to Utopia

Expo 67 was so revolutionary, so fresh, that it was as if a whole new world had been created.

Written by Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoît Nadeau

Posted June 1, 2017

Nothing of the sort had ever been seen in Canada, or in North America, for that matter: five thousand films (thirty a day!), fifteen thousand artists, thousands of works of art. Expo 67 gave the public a chance to discover spaceframe architecture, interactive film, hands-free phones, landscape architecture, and fully agile urban planning.

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Expo 67 was a triumph of modernity in virtually everything it touched. It was an expression of an ambition, an era, and a dream. “The people who built Expo were thinking big,” Robert Fulford wrote in This was Expo. “They wanted it to be beautiful, but grandiose as well; they succeeded.”

In the commemorative book Terre des Hommes/Man and His World, author Gabrielle Roy writes about her visit to the site six months before it opened: “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.”

Fulford agreed: “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 be born; we thought we were seeing the beginnings of a revolution.”

Expo 67 made architectural flights of fancy possible: cubist and traditional, shingles, ceramic, steel, concrete, and logs. The German pavilion was a fifteen-storey plastic tent. The Dutch pavilion was a giant assembly of aluminum tubes. With Habitat 67 and the geodesic dome, architects Moshe Safdie and Buckminster Fuller left Montreal two monuments that would become part of its lasting identity.

Everything was done to convey an idea of the times — real or imagined. Expo 67 proposed the new idea of a carless city, where everything is clean and people get around by foot, bike, gondola, or a half dozen means of mass transit, such as the metro, the Minirail, an aerial tram, a shuttle ferry, and even hovercraft. Street furniture — phone booths, streetlights, even garbage cans — was designed for visual appeal. Even the pictogram signage was new — generating a great deal of consternation around the bathrooms, where people weren’t used to signs representing a man and a woman (an Expo 67 invention).

Expo 67 was such a success in interactivity, design, architecture, and culture because its organizing committee had understood early on that they had to do more than organize — they had to provide artistic direction. Like previous world’s fairs, there had to be a theme. The theme the committee came up with was Man and his World.

Organizers also set the mission of creating a variety of pavilions to illustrate the theme — such as Man the Exporer; Man the Producer; and Man in the Community — that were as popular as the various country pavilions.

The committee tried to impose its educational, humanist vision on every exhibitor, whether they were countries, associations, or private interests. As a result, the Kodak pavilion educated the public about photography, rather than selling Kodak products.

Expo 67 aspired to be a utopia. Expo 67 aspired to be, and was, a window on the “future today.” Moving beyond consumerism, 1967 was a year of optimism, a year when everything was possible, a year when the future was literally within reach.

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To learn more about Expo 67 Mission Impossible, go to Expo-67.ca.

Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoît Nadeau are the award-winning authors of four bestselling books, including Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't be Wrong and The Story of French. The couple's latest book is The Bonjour Effect: The Secret Codes of French Conversation Revealed. Barlow and Nadeau worked as researchers on the Productions de la Ruelle documentary, Expo 67 Mission Impossible. The couple is based in Montreal, where they live with their twin daughters.

This article originally appeared in the June-July 2017 issue of Canada's History.

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