Montreal is still living the dream of Expo 67
Most of the pavilions are long gone, but the legacy of the World's Fair is felt – sometimes in ways that run counter to its very spirit
"Montreal will probably never get over Expo 67." That remark, from a New Yorker magazine article written while the world's fair was happening, turned out to be a remarkably good forecast of how some Montrealers would cling to an event that is being feted all over again 50 years later.
With nearly all of its 90 pavilions and hundreds of other buildings long vanished, the six-month fair has become a permanent theme park of the mind. It's a baby-boomer memory object, like Woodstock and the Summer of Love, and anyone under the age of 40 has the right to be sick of hearing about it. But the shiny optimism of Expo seems to have sunk more deeply into Montreal's collective consciousness than most boomer touchstones. It launched Montreal's idea of itself as a forward-looking media town, and as a centre of large-scale spectacle. It's seen by many as a time when everything seemed to come together, but also as a wistful reminder of a future that didn't quite happen.
Official celebrations of Montreal's 375th birthday feature more than a dozen significant markers of the Expo half-century, which was also a favourite theme of this year's Nuit Blanche. The McCord Museum has on an ongoing display of Expo fashions, mainly of the prim and playful uniforms worn by pavilion hostesses. The Design Centre of the University of Quebec at Montreal (UQAM) opens an exhibition on June 1 of drawings, photos and models of Moshe Safdie's Habitat 67 housing complex. The Musée d'art contemporain has a show of 16 new Expo-related works by artists who had "no direct experience" of the fair itself, as well as technologically updated recreations of pieces shown at Expo, opening June 21.
Mainstream media in Montreal have gone a little crazy about the fair and its legacy. Le Devoir devoted nearly four full pages to it last weekend, including a quiz called "How well do you know Man and His World?" – a reference to Expo's organizing theme.
As journalist Tom Hawthorn writes in his forthcoming The Year Canadians Lost Their Minds and Found Their Country, Expo presented "a utopian vision in which innovation promised a future free of scarcity." That could be said of almost every international fair since London's Great Exhibition of 1851. What was different in 1967 was the truly utopian dream of Mayor Jean Drapeau, who saw the fair as the start of series of extravaganzas that would make Montreal "the first city of this continent."
A lot of the innovation at Expo was architectural and perversely ephemeral for a discipline that usually leaves traces for decades. But there was also plenty of audiovisual experimentation. Screens were everywhere, and included a two-way audiovisual address system that sounds like a precursor of Skype. The Labyrinth viewing room had huge immersive screens running down one wall and across the floor, a Disney film was shown on a display surface that surrounded the spectators and the Canada pavilion's theatre had seats that moved in front of an array of five screens – "which gives the guides the rare opportunity," The New Yorker quipped, "to intone, 'Please remain seated until the theatre has come to a complete stop.'" IMAX and virtual reality were definitely on the horizon at Expo, which anticipated the city's future as a major North American hub for visual software development, video special effects and animation.
The astounding thing was that this was all presented in a province where some rural areas had been plugged into the electrical grid only a few years earlier. Expo was not just about Montreal showing off its new modernity, as many have said, but about the city and the province dreaming in three dimensions about a final escape from the stagnant parochialism of the decades before the Quiet Revolution.
Perhaps the defining impact of Expo for Montreal was to get the city hooked on large spectacles. Montreal has been a festival town ever since, with a notable taste for street extravaganzas in all seasons. There has also been a drive to concentrate the hubbub geographically, as it was when Expo's pavilions were packed onto three small islands in the St. Lawrence. The current downtown equivalent is the Quartier des spectacles, a long-term effort by public and private players to establish a central locus for arts and entertainment.
Not everyone is thrilled about that part of the Expo legacy, which has led to confrontations about how much control private presenters should have over public spaces. This week, protesters gathered at the old Expo grounds – now called Parc Jean-Drapeau – to vent their anger over the city's decision to close an aquatic centre and cycle path for the entire summer, while a publicly funded amphitheatre is being built for concerts staged by Evenko, producer of the Osheaga Music and Arts festival.
That's a perverse trade-off to be happening on the site of the city's most inclusive spectacle yet. Expo was a world's fair, open to everyone and relatively inexpensive to visit. Sixty-two countries and 50 million visitors took up the invitation. Curbing public access on the Expo site for the sake of splashy concerts with high ticket prices runs counter to that welcoming spirit. Expo 67, meet Man and His Hustle.