Day 6

We're now living in the retro-futurist world that Expo 67 imagined

This week marked the 50th anniversary of Expo 67. Sixty countries contributed their most futuristic architectural and technological marvels to Expo pavilions, all imagining an ambitious vision of the future. Historian and urbanist David Leonard assesses what Expo 67 got right and what it missed.
Buckminster Fuller's geodesic dome, home to the American pavilion at Expo 67. (Ron Case/Getty Images)

This week marked the 50th anniversary of Expo 67 in Montreal. One of the biggest —  and most successful — World Fairs of the 20th century, the event brought together 60 countries to showcase their most futuristic architectural and technological marvels in more than 60 pavilions.

By the time Expo closed in October 1967, it had welcomed more than 50 million visitors from around the world.

As we look back on its legacy five decades later, are we living in a very different future than Expo 67 predicted?

As historian and urbanist David Leonard explains to Day 6 host Brent Bambury, there's a lot Expo got wrong about the future — but it had its prescient moments, too.

The 'People Tree' (which represented a maple tree in autumn) stands at the entrance to the main exhibit area of the Canadian pavilion at Expo 67. (Canadian Press)

Big moment for Canada

Leonard, who's currently doing his PhD on memories of Expo 67 and the historical geography of the former site, first became interested in Expo during one of his walks through Montreal when he was an undergrad at McGill, stumbling across bits of sculpture and other remnants from the old site.

These "indicate that something spectacular and significant happened there, and they revealed that these islands were the staging place for the most significant event of the Canadian centennial project — one of the most, if not the most, significant international events Canada has ever played host to," Leonard says.

He notes that Expo was more than simply a collection of buildings and displays — under the theme 'Man and His World', the event was something of an exercise in international relations, with dozens of national pavilions, and exhibits touting international cooperation.

"['Man and His World'] was a examination of a theme of progress in society up until that point … Expo 67 was was looking at the human condition," Leonard says. "It was very much an educational project, according to its planners' desires."


A vision of the future

When it came to Expo's vision of the future, there were some things it got right, Leonard points out, including its focus on technology and mass media as the means to a better, more connected society.

"Expos' planners were particularly well aware of the extent to which we would come to live in a digital mass media society … and the role of technology in our lives," Leonard says. "In a way, that premeditated a lot of the discussions we're still having about the role of technology [today]."

That said, Expo's outlook was far more utopian than how we've come to view our relationship with technology today. Leonard notes that we now look at it with a far more critical — perhaps even wary — lens, as opposed to the bright-eyed optimism of the '60s.

We certainly don't all live in geodesic domes like Buckminster Fuller might have considered.- David Leonard

Given that Expo was wearing rose-coloured retro-futuristic glasses at a time when the space race, the Cold War, and the civil rights movement were all taking place, it's safe to say it also missed a lot of things — or simply got some wrong, Leonard says.

"We certainly don't all live in geodesic domes like the Americans and Buckminster Fuller might have considered," Leonard quips. He argues that even architect Moshe Safdie's now-famed Habitat 67 project missed the mark when it came to its model for social housing, and much of the concrete architecture on the Expo site wasn't built to last and began to crumble and fall out of favour only a decade later.

'Habitat', designed by architect Moshe Safdie, one of the features of Expo 67 that still stands to this day. (Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Building a Utopia

One of the few remaining structures is the outside shell of the American pavilion, the large metal dome instantly recognizable in Montreal's cityscape. Today, it's the Biosphere, an environmental museum open to the public.

Much of the remaining site (the original islands were created out of the St. Lawrence river) has now been turned into parkland, with little trace left of the space-age structures that once graced the area during Expo 67.

Montreal is currently marking the 50th anniversary of Expo during the city's 375th birthday celebrations, with a special passport for special events similar to the one handed out at Expo, and other exhibits looking back at what is still seen as Montreal's big moment on the world stage.

"The interesting thing about Expo is the nostalgia for it," Leonard says. "It's a powerful thing in the city of Montreal where the event really maintains a lasting cultural influence."

Now that we're living in the future that Expo 67 imagined, can an event of that magnitude, or large-scale architecture, express a similar optimism about what's to come?

"The borders of our imagination have perhaps shrunk drastically since Expo," Leonard says. "But these sorts of imaginings about the capacity of architecture or an exhibition to change the world, or a country, I don't believe these are possible in the present-day condition."

To hear Brent's full conversation with David Leonard, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.