Expo 67: Back to the Future

Expo 67: Back to the Future

by Sinisha Brdar

They didn’t know it was impossible, so they did it.

– Mark Twain

The best way to predict the future is to create it.

– Peter Drucker


Fifty years ago, the future was thinkable. Montreal was diving head first into modernity with a sense of euphoria, and Expo 67 aspired to open the city to the world, asserting its place in the constellation of world’s leading modern metropoles. Beyond the spectacle’s pervasive, cheerful optimism, Expo 67 was a carefully crafted pragmatic utopia and a shrewd political tool. The exhibition brought the world and the future to Montreal, offering a form of joyful, multicultural shock therapy to a society breaking out of a long period of domination by the Catholic Church and voluntary introversion. It was a “Yes We Can” moment, reflecting the daring spirit that had built Canada and that was to propel the country into a collectively constructed future. Expo 67 was a laboratory for the fabrication of the future and of the Canadian national project. Today, much of the spirit of Expo 67 seems to have evaporated, along with the ambitious ideals that were to guide Canada into its second century and Montreal into new modernities.

Image 1: Expo 67 - Brave New World

The Stage

In 1962, Montreal stepped in to replace Moscow as the host of the 1967 International and Universal Exposition. Celebrating Canada’s centennial, along with Montreal’s 325th anniversary, Expo was given a spectacular stage in the middle of Saint Lawrence River: the artery that enabled the foundation of the city and of the nation. Expo 67 showcased national pavilions representing 62 countries; thematic pavilions showcasing everything from paper, steel and polymer to science, religion, health and brewing; public amenities like the Place des Nations and an impressive collection of public art; and extensive infrastructure including the Minirail monorail and Expo Express train as well as a network of promenades and canals. With 50 million entries, Expo put Montreal on the map at the epicentre of the new world. It was an event, but above all, it was a state of mind.

Expo 67 was one of the major undertakings in Mayor Jean Drapeau’s ambitious drive to transform Montreal from an industrial river port city into a world metropolis. It included a constellation of architectural landmarks that have since claimed a prominent place in the history of modern architecture and that still define Montreal’s identity abroad—namely the US Pavilion’s geodesic dome, Habitat 67, and the French pavilion (which later became Montreal’s Casino). The momentum of Expo 67 was synergetic with the construction of an array of modern civic amenities in the city centre: Place Bonaventure, Théâtre Maisonneuve in the Place des arts, and Alexis-Nihon Plaza shopping centre, together with the Château Champlain and a flurry of other modern hotels.

Construction of major infrastructures also coincided with Expo, equipping the city for the challenges of large-scale metropolitan modernity and, for better or worse, fast-tracking it into the future. The construction of the metro system provided most of the infill that allowed for the expansion of the Expo islands. The Décarie and Bonaventure expressways, the Turcot interchange, and the Louis-Hippolyte-Lafontaine bridge and tunnel, all opened to coincide with Expo, are still among the main lines of Montreal’s metropolitan structure.

Montreal was momentarily projected to the forefront of a new urban and architectural avant-garde. It became a fertile testing ground for the emerging urban imaginaries and paradigms of early the 60s, most notably for megastructure and megaform. Synthesizing the city into large-scale, infrastructure driven topological and topographic systems, megastructure and megaform models found a variety of manifestations in Expo 67’s Montreal.  These concepts were embedded in the islands as territorial architectures, in many of the pavilions, in Place Bonaventure and in the unique symbiosis that merged metro infrastructure and urbanity into an ever-expanding underground city. 

Expo 67’s most significant impact was on a social level. It opened the city to the world and brought the world to the city, with a fast-forward emancipatory effect. A part of the world stayed in Montreal, creating a wave of diverse and highly qualified new Canadians to a new, emerging multicultural model of Canada. Expo 67 was the catalyst of modern design in Quebec, fostering new practices in object design, graphic design, exhibition design, fashion and media. Most importantly, an entire generation was enlightened by the Expo.

Image 2: The Expo and the City, 1967. (National Archives Canada)

The Aftermaths

Rather than a spectacular beginning to a long-lasting passion between Montreal and modernity, Expo 67 proved to be a mere one-night-stand. Over the following decades, the Expo 67 archipelago gradually fell into neglect. This world of tomorrow had no plan for the day after, and no sustainable legacy strategy. (1) Following Expo, the site was given an extended lease on life by remixing the Man and His World theme into a lighter, permanent exhibition. This afterparty lasted until 1981, drawing millions of visitors, but failed to sustain its viability without continued, active political backing. Throughout this period, some of the pavilions were dismantled, some damaged—the US Pavilion partially burned in 1976—and others struggled with permanence and climate. Although the 1976 Olympics, 1978 Canadian Grand Prix racetrack, and 1980 Floralies Internationales gardening show injected new life into the site, a significant part of Expo 67’s built legacy was demolished in the process, collateral damage of an ever-evolving idea of modernity. In the early 1990s, a redevelopment plan imposed a generic naturalistic park on the islands, a simulacrum that reneged on the site’s modernist aesthetic and obliterated a significant part of remaining traces of Expo 67.

Since the early 2000s, the archipelago has been both revived by a constellation of events—Osheaga, Picnic électronik, Winter Fest and the International Fireworks competition—and surrendered to the dictates of promoter-driven festival culture. The archipelago, like the adjacent city, is now “planned” by events. Most recent proposals for the islands do little more than clear the site to set the stage for private sector mega-events, offering an amphitheatre for 65 thousand partygoer-clients. Over a thousand trees and much of the picturesque character sought by the 1990s plan are to be swept. As a metaphoric nail in the coffin, in 2015 Cirque du Soleil’s Guy Laliberté chose Saint Helen’s Island as the ideal site for his Pangéa project, a commemorative spectacle seeking to redefine society’s relation to death and to the deceased signaling the death of the dream that was to bring man and his world into a better tomorrow.

Image 3: Saint Helen's Island, 2017. (Photograph by the author)

The Context

The fate of Expo 67 is symptomatic of larger social, economic and political processes and predicaments that have conditioned the evolution of Montreal over the last five decades. While Expo 67 offered a common ground for the raprochement between English and French Canada, French president Charles De Gaulle proclaiming « Vive le Québec libre! » (Long live a free Quebec!) during his Expo 67 visit to Montreal added fuel to the separatist movement that had been gaining momentum in Quebec since the late 1950s. Much of the remaining optimism and naivety was crushed by the tanks brought to the streets of Montreal by the invocation of the War Measures Act during the 1970 October Crisis. The ensuing political instability fostered a demographic and economic shift in Montreal that significantly limited the means required to sustain the momentum of experimentation.  

This process coincided with the gradual deindustrialization of Montreal’s economy since the 1950s. The opening of the Saint Lawrence Seaway, bypassing Montreal, contributed to this structural shift. By the mid-70s, the frenzied exuberance of the society of abundance, characteristic of the Expo years, was deflated by the energy crisis and the political crisis. The 1976 Olympics’ massive cost overruns cemented Montrealers’ disenchantment with any potentially adventurous undertakings and architectural bravuras. Homo economicus triumphed over homo ludens.


The Legacies

More recently, publicly driven civic planning and strategy have gradually been superseded by haphazard private initiatives, such as the much criticized transformation of Griffintown, and entertainment spectacles including Montreal’s 375th commemorations. At the metropolitan scale, ambition and advances have been modest on major fronts, especially in public transportation and public space. (2) Aside from the Old Port regeneration project, there has been little audacious or strategic development of Montreal in relation to the river or to its extensive deindustrialized areas: the Lachine Canal revitalization is best described as timid. There has also been little vision or opportunism in seizing the potential of legacies such as Mirabel airport (demolished), the Olympic Stadium (virtually abandoned), or Fuller’s Dome (stagnating).

Symptoms of the same syndrome, Expo 67’s scarce, scattered remnants currently form a decaying constellation of memories and potentialities waiting to be activated. Rather than a palimpsest, the site is a patchwork of disparate initiatives and enclaves. The Expo hardscape has been all but obliterated, the pastoral alternative has neither been fully implemented nor, in recent years, maintained, (3) and festival programing has turned significant portions of the islands into a mere back-stage, sidelining recreational and civic use. Located at the very centre of the metropolitan area, the islands were a new urban canvas open to multiple futures and freedoms—a generous opportunity that very few cities get. Surrendered to entropy, the current derelict landscape of the islands presents the dystopia of a future in ruins.

Image 4: Notre-Dame Island, 2011. (Photograph by Hussein Abdallah)

Still, Expo 67’s waning, forgotten archipelago is an ideal canvas and laboratory for a renewed engagement with the future—both the future of our past and the collective project of possible futures ahead. Fifty years after Expo 67, the archipelago is awaiting a renewed imaginary able to recognize and activate its legacy, its potential, and its pertinence.


Back to the Future

Progress is the realization of Utopias.

– Oscar Wilde


Learning from the spirit of the 1960s, today’s challenge is to rediscover the taste for the future—a taste for thinking, dreaming, prospecting, and proposing a direction for a different world, a different society, and a different city, offering possible answers to today’s challenges. Amidst fears that the future of our cities and of our planet is getting out of hand, strategic prospecting for possible paths forward and positive models of the world ahead is needed more than ever.

What still resonates as the perceived spirit and legacy of Expo is the idea of an open society courageously engaging in bold, collective, forward looking projects. It was the promise of a progressive society and its political project confidently expressing themselves through architecture and design as relevant mechanisms for engaging significant social, political, and environmental questions. It was the hope for potent public projects and for a renewed civic realm fostered by high quality, resolutely modern architecture, design, and art. While Montreal has made advances in this direction, particularly over the past decade, the Expo spirit and legacy seem distant from Montreal’s current dynamics and realities. Arguably, we are not a society that genuinely expresses itself through architecture and city building, nor a society led by politicians willing to risk audacious, direction-changing projects. However, the challenges ahead of us, including the predicament of climate change, will require that courage and the capacity to coalesce around significant common projects that can stand as legacies to future generations.

While memories of Expo 67 still raise excitement and admiration, the relative absence of a tangible built legacy reveals its Achilles' heel. Reversing this model, event and city planning ought to begin with envisioning a future legacy as a generative framework for projects. Events and buildings are thus not the ends in themselves, but rather means and tools in the process of achieving the common project of the city. This project is predicated on optimism, ambition and action—all echoes of Expo’s spirit. Architecture is inherently a practice of critical optimism and a workshop of the future.


(1) Jasmin, Yves. La petite histoire d’Expo 67. (Montreal: Quebec Amerique, 1997) 283.

(2) In public transportation, notable exceptions are the Metro Green line extension (1976/1978) and Blue Line construction (1986).  In public space, notable exceptions are the Quartier international (2004) and the Quartier de spectacles (2009).

(3) The planting scheme proposed by the 1993 plan proved to be technically unviable in many areas because of the fill ground conditions.

Sinisha Brdar is an architect and a professor at the École de design UQAM in Montreal.  He has worked with design firms in Canada and abroad, including OMA, Maccreanor Lavington, Daoust Lestage, NIP and EKIP. Residing at the intersection of urbanism and politics, his current research focuses on the emerging paradigms of lite urbanism and the notion of urban catalyst. He holds degrees from the Université de Montréal and Harvard GSD, where he studied on a Fulbright Fellowship. 

Montreal’s islands were a meeting and trading place for First Nations prior to the arrival of Europeans. In 1874, propelled by utopian and picturesque visions of nature as a redemptive antidote to industrialization, Saint Helen’s Island, the eventual anchor of the Expo site, became Montreal’s first grand public park. Bathers and promeneurs accessed the island by ferry. Two decades later, the archipelago was portrayed as a set of enchanted dream islands in a proposal to host the 1896 International Exposition, rivalling the imaginaries of grand exhibitions in Chicago, Paris, and London. (2) By the 1950s, St Helen’s had been transformed into Montreal’s playground.