Far more people came to Expo 67 than expected, at a time when Canada’s entire population was just 20 million, and the islands were more than just a fairground. They were a cosmopolitan pleasure garden, a place to see and be seen. The swankiest Expo denizens were the 1,800 or so pavilion hostesses, kitted out in polyester or lamé uniforms and hired for more reasons than just bilingualism. (“Montreal is generally known for its attractive women,” a male CBC broadcaster intoned in 1967, “but this year the situation has become ridiculous.”)
Expo 67’s subtitle was “Man and His World,” an English approximation of the title of Saint-Exupéry’s “Terre des Hommes.” The place of women at the fair, and the expression of modernity and national ambitions through clothing, is the subject of “Fashioning Expo 67,” on view at the McCord Museum downtown. Mannequins display Bill Blass’s mod uniforms for hostesses at the American pavilion: a white tent dress with a red-white-and-blue head scarf, plus a killer striped raincoat. At the Quebec pavilion, the attendants wore bulbous cloches, while the Brits toted Union Jack handbags; newly independent African nations went for more traditional designs and wax fabrics. Throughout the Expo, hostesses wore pale blue A-line skirts, blazers and pillbox hats. (Over at MAC, the artist Cheryl Sim wears one of these sky-blue uniforms in a contemplative three-screen video, in which she sings a melancholy remix of the Expo theme song “Un Jour, Un Jour.”)
The futuristic fashions had a counterpart in the Expo’s architecture, entrusted to young, experimental engineers and backed by budgets unimaginable today. Many made use of industrial materials and modular construction techniques — above all, Frei Otto’s West German pavilion, whose swooping tensile roofs were reprised at the 1972 Munich Olympics. The Expo’s most lasting architectural project was not a pavilion at all, however, but an experimental housing development. The Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie, then just 28, proposed a new mode of living that married urban density and suburban spaciousness, in the form of concrete cubes stacked like building blocks. Habitat 67 was initially imagined as a self-contained community, similar to the “superblocks” of Brasília, which could be endlessly repeated. It became upper-middle-class condos, and when I walked past Habitat this week, residents were sunning themselves on the balconies while gardeners buzzed the grass. (Mr. Safdie’s designs and models are now at the Centre de Design de l’UQAM, a university art gallery downtown.)
Many cities have gained an iconic structure from their days hosting the world: the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Space Needle in Seattle, the Atomium in Brussels. Montreal’s legacy, along with Habitat, is a massive geodesic dome on Île-Sainte-Hélène, designed by Buckminster Fuller, which served as the American pavilion in 1967. Inside were paintings by Warhol, memorabilia from Elvis and Hollywood, and space capsules from the Apollo and Gemini programs, but it was Fuller’s pavilion itself, pierced in two spots by a monorail track, that enthralled fairgoers most.
At MAC, the Canadian artist Charles Stankievech has assembled a bulging archive of materials that limn the contradictory aims of Fuller’s dome, as indebted to American military ambitions as to “Spaceship Earth” environmentalism. But I decided to head out to the island, where Fuller’s dome gleams beneath the sun. The acrylic panels went up in flames in 1976, and the dome sat vacant for years. It’s since been rechristened the Biosphère, and the museum inside hosts exhibitions on the natural world and climate change — though, for the summer, a temporary exhibition, “Echo 67,” includes testimonials from Expo visitors and a small display on environmental impact.
As the clouds went by, and the maple leaf flag fluttered beneath Fuller’s awing, column-free expanse, I found myself overcome with a feeling I don’t often confront when I look at the art of the recent past. That feeling was envy — an envy of the certainty in cultural and social advancement felt by the millions who passed across this island, and an envy shared, I think, by many of the artists in MAC’s exhibition. It’s one thing to identify the gaps in Expo 67’s narrative, to call out its sexism and nationalism. Harder, and more urgent, is to admit why artists are still infatuated with past visions of the future that didn’t come true. We would give anything to believe in progress again.
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