4 immigrant architects and an ashtray: How Expo 67's Canada Pavilion was born

The contract for designing the pavilion that would represent Canada at Expo 67, the focal point of the country’s centennial celebrations, was the "biggest and most important architectural commission to come along in a hundred years," says Caroline Robbie, daughter of Canada Pavilion co-designer Rod Robbie.

With its inverted pyramid called Katimavik, the Canada Pavilion loomed like a giant cosmic funnel

The Canada Pavilion is pictured during Expo 67 in Montreal. (Library and Archives Canada)

If there was a source for the otherworldly inspiration that seemed to course through Expo 67, the Canada Pavilion was a prime suspect.

With its nine-storey inverted pyramid called Katimavik, the pavilion loomed like a giant funnel over Expo's 365-hectare site in Montreal, ready to channel cosmic vibes directly into the exhibition grounds.

The inspiration for Katimavik, it turns out, wasn't so much rooted in the cosmos as it was in a team of immigrant architects with a profound love of Canada — and who found inspiration in the shape of a simple ashtray.

The immigrant architects

The contract for designing the pavilion that would represent Canada at Expo 67, the focal point of the country's centennial celebrations, was the "biggest and most important architectural commission to come along in a hundred years," says Caroline Robbie, daughter of Canada Pavilion co-designer Rod Robbie.

Enid and Rod Robbie, photographed here with their three daughters in 1965, moved to Canada in 1956. Caroline Robbie is the first daughter on the left, with Nicola, middle, and Karen. Their son Angus was born in 1965. (Caroline Robbie)

Rod Robbie, who together with his wife, Enid, emigrated to Canada from the United Kingdom in 1956, was a partner in the Toronto architectural firm Ashworth Robbie Vaughan and Williams. His three co-partners — Fred Ashworth, Colin Vaughan and Richard Williams — were also foreign-born. Ashworth and Williams were from the U.K. and Vaughan from Australia.

Caroline Robbie said her parents left the U.K. in 1956 to escape postwar rationing and the country's rigid class system, and wasted no time embracing the freedoms and opportunities they found in Canada.

"There are usually two immigrant experiences — 'I am still where I'm from' or 'I am very, very much about where I am now' — and they were firmly in that latter camp," she says.

Lovers of history and culture, the Robbies joined the emerging "Ban the Bomb" movement to resist the existential threat atomic weapons posed to the human achievements they cherished.

Rod Robbie works at his drafting table. After Expo 67, Robbie went on to design Toronto's SkyDome, now the Rogers Centre. (Caroline Robbie)

"Both described themselves as humanists," says Caroline. "They had completely rejected religion in all of its organized forms and really thought that the value of life was the quality you get on a day-to-day basis — things like family, a social system that values a people's health, that values education, and values quality of life."

Cigarettes and pyramids 

Such ideals also lay at the core of Expo 67's "Man and His World" theme, and Robbie and his partners set out to distil them into architectural form in their bid for the Canada Pavilion.

"They were all workaholics," Caroline says. "A prize this big would have turned them into machines. They would have spent every waking moment that they possibly could thinking about how to win the competition."

Working around the clock as they waited for that moment of inspiration was all part of the process, as were cigarettes — lots of cigarettes.

Rod Robbie, second from right, and co-architect Colin Vaughan, right, stand in front of the Canada Pavilion during its construction. (Caroline Robbie)

Caroline first got the backstory of the inverted pyramid's genesis when she was 10 and inquired about an "ugly" green glass ashtray that had pride of place among other, more interesting family heirlooms in their home.

"That's the Canada Pavilion," her father replied.

Robbie and his partners were smoking up a storm one night as they grappled with ways to create a visually impressive vantage point for the pavilion without impeding the flow of foot traffic on the ground below.

The overflowing, four-sided ashtray with its sloping, upside-down pyramid design suddenly caught their eye.

The ashtray that inspired the Canada Pavilion now resides in a box full of items Rod Robbie filed away over the years. (Caroline Robbie)

"They started looking at the form of this ashtray on the table, and it was perfect," Caroline says. "It would touch the ground as little as possible and therefore not impede the flow of people around it, but it would also offer the greatest amount of vantage point for those who work their way through the pavilion and up to the top."

"You could look out all the way around that pyramid all over the grounds."

Like 'a futuristic movie'

Caroline was six when Expo 67 opened and the time came to see the building that her father and his partners had conjured into reality.

Rod Robbie's Expo 67 identification card. (Caroline Robbie)

She still remembers the thrill of getting her Expo 67 passport and seeing the multiscreen film projections from which IMAX technology sprang. A harbinger of things to come in Quebec, the Canada Pavilion also included a free daycare that allowed her parents to sneak off for a cocktail at the end of the day.

"I just remember it being like I was in a futuristic movie," Caroline says. "I remember this very distinct impression that it was like a sci-fi movie. I'm looking at these fantastic forms, fashion shows with people wearing paper clothing — that kind of thing happening all over."

The Robbie girls are pictured at Expo 67. They all wore yellow so they could be found more easily in the crowds. Caroline Robbie, far right, was six and hated the outfits, and says she still can't wear yellow. (Caroline Robbie)

An accomplished interior designer today, Caroline says Expo 67 opened her six-year-old eyes to new possibilities.

"It gave me a sense of visual freedom," she says. "That you can make things colourful, you can make things wild and unexpected. It doesn't have to be what people are telling you it has to be."

'More proudly Canadian than anybody'

Years later, at her father's memorial service in 2012, Colin Vaughan's son Adam made a comment that helped her see the Canada Pavilion and Expo 67 from yet another vantage point.

"He said by awarding the architectural contract to Ashworth Robbie Vaughan Williams, they were giving the biggest and most important architectural commission to come along in 100 years to four immigrants," she says.

"It's so true and so important now in the context we're seeing south of the border."

Caroline says being an immigrant never stood in the way of her father's sense of belonging to his adopted country, which eventually granted the future SkyDome designer the Order of Canada.

"He was probably more proudly Canadian than anybody I can think of," Caroline says.