50th anniversary of Expo 67 opening in Montreal.
The world’s fair, Expo 67, ran throughout the summer of 1967 and was an unexpected success. It became an iconic event for the city and produced a legacy for the city’s tourism industry that continues today.
The event was Canada’s main celebration to mark its centennial year, and its preparation to host the world was an accomplishment. Montreal had initially lost to Moscow to host the 1967 World Fair. The Soviet government wanted to use the World’s Fair to mark the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, but ended up backing out and giving Montreal a second chance to take on the event. However, by then there were only 1042 days left before the big day. Everything had to be built and be functioning by April 28th, 1967.
After some debate about where to house the event, the then Mayor of Montreal, Jean Drapeau, who never disappointed with his ambitious plans, decided that the man-made islands on the St. Lawrence River between Montreal and its southern suburbs would be the site. Ile-Sainte-Helene was reshaped and made larger, and Ile-Notre Dame was forged in part from rubble dug out during construction of Montreal’s new subway system.
The theme of the event was “Man and His World” and 62 countries participated. In addition to the nearly 100 pavilions, the “La Ronde” theme park was built as a permanent Montreal attraction that would last beyond Expo. The only attraction not ready on opening day was “Habitat ‘67,” a unique experiment in residential building design and construction, made up of 354 identical, prefabricated concrete forms to create 146 cost effective residential units.
Organizers used the delay as a feature of an exhibit under development.
Within the first two days of Expo 67 more than a million visitors had passed through the turnstiles. It set the single-day attendance record for a world’s fair, with 569,500 visitors on its third day. By closing day on October 29th, more than 50 million visitors attended and Expo 67 remains the fourth best attended world’s fair ever, crushing the 22 million visitors to the New York World’s Fair in 1964. The top spot for visitation is Expo 2010 in Shanghai, with 73 million visitors.
The population of Canada in 1967, however, was about 20 million. This means that Expo 67 has the other distinction of being the best attended fair on a per capita basis. This record that remains. One brilliant stroke of the organizers was providing “Expo 67 Passports” instead of tickets. These enabled visitors to come and go as they pleased – the modern equivalent of the theme park season’s pass.
The Conquest of Space
The unprecedented and enduring success of Expo 67 was timing and circumstance. Visitors experienced a collection of exhibits that were products of the 1960s. This was a time of great technical and political change in the world. As examples, these included exotic displays from India and 19 newly decolonized countries from Africa, as well as the US pavilion boasting the “Conquest of Space” (I still remember the space food on display!). The Soviet Union was able to showcase the apparent success of its planned economy as an alternative to western free market economies. This was in the heat of the Cold War and nuclear brinkmanship, after the Cuban missile crisis and building the Berlin Wall. The Iranian pavilion demonstrated the positive benefits to society of a gushing, oil-based economy under the bejeweled Shah, with his military on full display. That story would soon unravel post Expo but I digress.
Another factor in bringing in visitors was the increasing affordability of air travel. This brought in visitors from western Canadian provinces, western US states, and from overseas.
In respect to technology and exhibit design, Expo 67 would serve as a laboratory of sorts for multi-screen cinematographic projections. One of the results was the inauguration of IMAX technology at the Expo in Osaka, Japan, in 1970.
Expo 67 forever changed the tourism industry in Montreal. Many of the 50 million visitors were Americans who had never been to Montreal. Most of these had never been to Canada or even outside the US, for that matter. For years after the event, while travelling in the US, I would often hear an American say that they’ve visited Montreal “during Expo 67”.
Today, the biggest single weekend of visitors to Montreal is now in June, for the Canadian Grand Prix. The permanent Formula One track is on Ile-Notre Dame. This man-made island was built for the Expo in the middle of the St-Lawrence River. The Montreal stop on the circuit is one of the most popular with the drivers. This is because of the actual proximity of the event to downtown Montreal, and the easy access for fans.
Until Canada’s Wonderland opened in 1981, “La Ronde” was Canada’s biggest amusement park. On opening day in 1967, the park was described as a mixture of “Coney Island, Tivoli Gardens, and Disneyland” by reporters. “La Ronde” became the most popular section of Expo 67, attracting 22.5 million visitors in 1967. In 2001, Six Flags purchased the park from the City of Montreal, and continues to this day to invest in its success.
50 years later, few evidence of the pavilions remain from the Expo, besides the iconic US pavilion. The geodesic steel structure is 80 meters in diameter. It was designed by American architect Richard Buckminster Fuller for Expo 67. It was one of the most visited places during the event. The plastic covering burned away in a 1976 fire, but the structure itself still functions as home to Montreal’s Biosphere Museum. The only still functioning buildings are the former pavilions of France and Quebec, which now house the Casino de Montreal – Canada’s largest casino.
“Habitat 67”, the experiment on new ideas for cost effective residential development, is now a highly desirable luxury address. Units command high-end prices on the rare occasion that a unit becomes available on the real estate market. For the tourist interested in architectural icons it’s a must see in Montreal.
The Expo 67 story is an amazing one. It tells of the ambition of a Mayor who would later bring the Olympic Games to Montreal in 1976; a city and organization that delivered an event at a scale that nobody believed possible in the time available; a showcase of the world captured at a unique time of technological advances, new experimental ideas and geopolitical power plays, and all while at a nascent time for travel and tourism. The best part of the story is the enduring positive legacy to the Montreal tourism industry. There will never be another world’s fair like Expo 67.