Expo 67 Features Innovative Architecture Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Millions of visitors to an international exhibition in Montreal viewed futuristic architectural designs from dozens of countries, including a geodesic dome and an innovative, people-focused apartment building.

Summary of Event

In the 1960’s, the civic leaders of Montreal, one of Canada’s oldest cities, made a concerted effort to transform the city into a modern world capital. As a key part of this effort, Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau, known for his creativity and resourcefulness, fought vehemently for the opportunity to host a world exhibition. In 1967, Canada would observe its centennial year, and Expo 67 was intended to mark the beginning of countrywide celebrations. Expo 67[Expo Sixty seven] Architecture;Expo 67[Expo Sixty seven] [kw]Expo 67 Features Innovative Architecture (Apr. 28-Oct. 27, 1967)[Expo Sixty seven Features Innovative Architecture] [kw]Architecture, Expo 67 Features Innovative (Apr. 28-Oct. 27, 1967) Expo 67[Expo Sixty seven] Architecture;Expo 67[Expo Sixty seven] [g]North America;Apr. 28-Oct. 27, 1967: Expo 67 Features Innovative Architecture[09240] [g]Canada;Apr. 28-Oct. 27, 1967: Expo 67 Features Innovative Architecture[09240] [c]Architecture;Apr. 28-Oct. 27, 1967: Expo 67 Features Innovative Architecture[09240] [c]Cultural and intellectual history;Apr. 28-Oct. 27, 1967: Expo 67 Features Innovative Architecture[09240] [c]Popular culture;Apr. 28-Oct. 27, 1967: Expo 67 Features Innovative Architecture[09240] Drapeau, Jean Fuller, R. Buckminster Safdie, Moshe

The first controversy that Drapeau met was in the selection of the exposition site. As a way of giving the exhibition full exposure, an unusual site was selected: the small island of Île Sainte Hélène in the St. Lawrence River. This created an uproar among environmentalists as well as among conservative city engineers. Drapeau’s idea prevailed, but there were less than four years to prepare and build the exposition site, a short time for a project of such magnitude. Beset by the worst winter in thirty-three years, Canadian contractors managed to achieve almost impossible engineering feats in order to allow the Expo to open on time.

The Île Sainte Hélène was joined by a human-made island later named Île Notre-Dame, a reference to the famous island in the Seine in the heart of Paris. The name was chosen to emphasize that Montreal was the “new Paris” and that Canada was a worthy North American host for an exhibition that previously had been European in design and execution.

Officials organizing Expo 67 were quick to emphasize that this was a “first-category” exhibition. In the recent past, there had been smaller, “second-category” exhibitions such as the World’s Fairs held in Seattle in 1962 and in New York in 1964-1965. Expectations ran high within government circles that Expo 67 would be a landmark event, one that would set the standard for all that followed.

“Man and His World” was chosen as the theme for the Expo. The theme was drawn from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s book Terre des hommes Wind, Sand, and Stars (Saint-Exupéry) (1939; Wind, Sand, and Stars, 1939), in particular the following key passage: “to be a man, is to feel that, by placing one’s stone, one contributes to building the edifice of the world.” Three exhibition pavilions were devoted to variations on this central theme and were given the designations “Man the Provider,” “Man the Producer,” and “Man the Explorer.” Designers placed these major structures at the entrance of the exhibition in an effort both to entice visitors and to remind them of the concept and vision behind Expo 67.

Each country participating in the Expo was given complete liberty to build a pavilion that best represented its culture and achievements. While the guidelines for those hosting the expositions were strict, such strictness did not impinge on the exhibitors. Most pavilions were designed with an eye to free-form construction, and geometric shapes with angular sides and pointed tops seemed to dominate the fair. All such fairs serve in some degree as testing grounds for new and innovative architectural designs; Expo 67 thus served to show what buildings might look like in the future—although many of the designs on display would never be built outside the Expo’s environs.

Because the Expo was built on two islands in the middle of the St. Lawrence River, water played an important part in the ambience of the exhibition. Lakes, canals, lagoons, and inlets could be found in every corner of the site. If water was an obvious leitmotif of Expo 67, though, the individual pavilions were rather more difficult to classify. In general, each country attempted to reflect its essence in the design of its pavilion. Pavilions from Ethiopia, Thailand, and Burma appeared to be influenced by the design of those countries’ religious buildings; each seemed to reflect the spiritual side of the country more than any other feature.

A sense of African tribalism could be seen in the African Nations pavilion. Square, hutlike buildings with angular roofs facing inward reflected a sense of unity and togetherness. France’s exhibit resembled a dome with sections that suggested at times the tiered levels of a high-rise apartment block. Great Britain, long known for its conservative architecture, allowed some surprising innovation; its pavilion consisted of square sections layered one on top of another to form a building in a somewhat distorted “E” shape. Near the water’s edge, the British pavilion culminated in a tall cone with its top cut off at an angle.

The U.S. pavilion, designed by the visionary architect R. Buckminster Fuller, was a twenty-story geodesic dome that epitomized experimentation. Fuller’s futuristic creation pioneered the use of a special skin made of acrylic. During the day, the dome glittered in the natural light; by night, illuminated from within, it glowed like a large amber lamp. To maintain its internal temperature, the dome was constructed with 4,700 aluminized slides; as the ambient temperature in the structure rose, shades shifted position to keep the dome cool. Although Fuller’s design drew wide praise, it was also the target of criticism from viewers who thought that the structure was not an appropriate reflection either of American culture or of the United States’ position as a world leader.

While Fuller’s dome was widely discussed, another structure at Expo 67 was receiving even greater scrutiny. Habitat 67 Habitat 67[Habitat Sixty seven] , a collection of more than 150 prefabricated concrete apartment blocks, became the exhibition’s crown jewel. Just as the Crystal Palace of the 1851 Great Exhibition in London and the Eiffel Tower of the 1889 Paris Centennial Exposition became symbols of their eras, Habitat 67 came to represent Expo 67.

In designing Habitat 67, Israeli architect Moshe Safdie was responding to the worldwide need for practical, inexpensive housing. Safdie chose the simple building block as a model. Each block that made up part of the dwelling space weighed eighty tons; special cranes had to be used to lift the blocks into place. The completed structure resembled an enormous ziggurat. Although the units appeared to resemble apartments, no dwelling was ever directly above another, and walkways connected the structure’s various levels. Another important feature was the private terrace that was a part of every home. Arranged asymmetrically, each unit received the maximum view and space.

Expo 67 thus acted as an architectural laboratory for an experiment in living space, an important issue in a world with an escalating population. Habitat 67 opened up the possibility of looking at high-density living in a new way. Previously, large apartment blocks and high-rise buildings had sacrificed privacy for practicality. What Safdie achieved in the Habitat design was the use of precast concrete blocks in a more creative and people-oriented way.

What was perhaps most remarkable about the Habitat design was the infinite number of permutations that could be made from the basic box. Each Habitat dwelling was unique in the way in which the component boxes were put together. This freedom of design was what made the final exhibit so striking. Architectural critics who tried to find a model that Habitat 67 might resemble were unsuccessful; some sought precedent for the structure in such distant sources as the ancient mountain dwellings of the Pueblo Indians. Most, though, agreed that Safdie’s design was both compelling and original.

The design of the West German pavilion also drew considerable attention. Architect Frei Otto Otto, Frei designed the building in the shape of an enormous steel-mesh tent that drew wide praise for its exterior appearance; however, the interior of the tent, which exposed the structure’s heavy supporting beams, was judged to be unimaginative. The overall success of the design, though, was soon confirmed in the summer of 1967, when Otto’s firm won a competition to design a similar structure for a hotel for pilgrims to Mecca. The influence of Otto’s project was also attested by many later large shopping malls that used a variation on the tent shape for roofing. Designs meant to serve only one function—in this case an exhibition—thus often get incorporated into mainstream architecture.


With its wide variety of cultural and architectural offerings, Expo 67 managed to achieve worldwide recognition. This success stemmed both from the fair’s appealing and innovative site on the St. Lawrence River and from the popular and critical acclaim bestowed on many of the individual pavilions. A sense of accomplishment thus marked the closing of Expo 67 six months after the opening ceremonies.

Often, such government-sponsored events receive criticism. While society continues to evolve and change, actual discussion about such changes is often controversial. An event such as Expo 67, which displayed innovation in a wide variety of fields on a worldwide scale, thus invites cynics to lament progress and even invention. Such criticism was particularly directed at what were otherwise widely hailed as two of the Expo’s most successful exhibits, the U.S. pavilion and Habitat 67. While most pavilions received only cursory mention by the media, both of these caught the imagination of the public and the critics; both, though, also prompted expressions of indignation from conservatives.

Habitat 67 would inspire architects to design with people in mind and would open up the whole question of people living in high-rise apartments. In its wake, public housing, particularly in Europe, began to incorporate different sizes of dwelling, meaning, for example, that a family of four might live next to a single retired senior citizen. Although experts pointed to some details of Habitat 67’s design as flawed—for example, it was noted that much of the structure could have been built from materials lighter than the heavy concrete used—its overall success and influence on other public housing was undeniable.

More than fifty million visitors attended Expo 67. Prior to the opening, it had been predicted that the Expo would prove to be a financial loss for the Canadian government; instead, income generated by increased foreign tourism in Canada doubled the original investment. Much of this success resulted from the popularity of the fair’s free intermixing of art and culture. One international pavilion in particular emphasized this view of accessible art; more than two hundred paintings from museums and art galleries around the world were hung in the main art building. There, for example, a work by seventeenth century Dutch painter Rembrandt hung near the stark work of twentieth century American abstract artist Willem de Kooning; a sculpture by nineteenth century French sculptor Auguste Rodin was placed opposite a piece of abstract sculpture by American modernist David Smith.

Sculpture intermingled with buildings. Open-air dramatic performances and freestanding art allowed all who visited Expo 67 to get the distinct impression that culture was something to be experienced in the world at large and was not the exclusive property of museums and theaters. Expo 67 managed to offer a glimpse of what the world might be like if the arts were made accessible to everyone. The need for humanity to see itself as one was the strong theme that rang out from the many pavilions of the exposition.

Expo 67 lived up to the expectations of the Canadian government and the people of Montreal. The fifty million visitors were exposed to innovative architecture, and the exhibition as a whole served as a useful reminder that architecture must serve human needs first. Expo 67[Expo Sixty seven] Architecture;Expo 67[Expo Sixty seven]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Billard, Jules B. “Montreal Greets the World.” National Geographic 131 (May, 1967): 600-621. Montreal has been a major French enclave in Canada for many years. Those who live and work in Montreal are zealous advocates for their city. This article puts those characteristics in the context of Expo 67. Includes a clear and well-labeled pull-out diagram of Expo 67.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chamberlin, Anne. “Expo 67: The Big Blast Up North.” Saturday Evening Post 240 (April 22, 1967): 30-37. What is most striking about this article is that Chamberlin is able to convey the human side of the building of Expo 67. With wry humor, she discusses in detail the obstacles that were overcome in building the Expo.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jacobs, David. “What It’s Like to Live in an Experiment.” Times Magazine 6 (June 4, 1967): 50-81. A firsthand account of life inside the experimental Habitat 67 structure. Much of the article deals with the philosophy behind the project.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“Man and His World.” Time 89 (May 5, 1967): 48-49. Despite the brevity of this article, the photographic display more than makes up for what is lacking in content. The approach is photojournalistic, and the choice of pictures is excellent.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miedema, Gary R. For Canada’s Sake: Public Religion, Centennial Celebrations, the Re-making of Canada in the 1960’s. Ithaca, N.Y.: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005. An interesting perspective on religiosity in Canada. Uses the nation’s centennial celebrations and Expo 67 as case studies on how religion and the celebrations helped shape Canadian nationalism in the 1960’s. Includes the essays “Negotiating a Religious Presence on the Expo Isles” and “The Christian Pavilion, the Sermons from Science Pavilion, and the Pavilion of Judaism: Varying Constructions of Public Religion in 1967.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stagg, Anne. “Discoveries at Expo.” House and Garden 132 (September, 1967): 192-197. Much of the space is devoted to photographs of the exhibits in each pavilion. A useful record of the artistic approaches adopted by the participating countries.

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