Photo: Hulton Archive/ Getty Images.

Dystopian City

How Expo 67 Made and Unmade Montreal


One crucial installation at Montreal’s 1967 Expo showcased the legend of Theseus fighting the minotaur in a labyrinth. Projected onto five different screens in 70mm, surrounding the audience, the work also happened to foretell the city’s future: though no minotaur-sightings have been reported, as of yet, Montreal is still lost in a labyrinth of its own creation. The city’s complicated modern identity was decisively influenced by Expo 67, which helped make Montreal an International City, but also predicted its slow demise from political and economic conflict.

Quebec stepped into the modern world late, emerging from the darkness of overbearing Catholicism in the early 1960s. As secularism quickly took hold of the province, the so-called Quiet Revolution spawned rapid political and aesthetic progress, with the establishment of a welfare state, the growth of the French Sovereign movement, as well as the emergence of great Quebecois artists spurred by nationalist impulses, such as Michel Tremblay and Roch Carrier. All of this quickly turned Montreal into Canada’s most advanced city. It brought the construction of the city’s legendary metro system, and next to it, the development of an underground city (a series of malls and underground tunnels connecting a large portion of Montreal’s downtown area), along with a sudden burst of major architectural structures over ground, all of which have come to define Montreal’s urban identity.


Montreal Biosphere. Photo: Abdallahh/CC.

These developments came to a head after Moscow dropped out of hosting the 1967 Expo, and Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau jumped at the opportunity, promising to help bring Quebec and Canada international recognition. Faced with political naysayers, and new computer technology, which calculated the event could never be completed on time, Drapeau dragged a reluctant Montreal into the modern era with the goal of proving them all wrong. And he succeeded: with over 62 participating countries, Expo 67 broke attendance records, remaining, to date, the most successful World’s Fair of the 20th Century. The preparation would give the city some of its defining landmarks. And the developments were not limited to the mainland. The city of Montreal artificially constructed Notre Dame Island and expanded Saint Helen’s Island, in the St, Lawrence River, using discarded earth from the Montreal Metro system, for hosting purposes.

The expo included nearly 100 pavilions representing different countries, themes, and industries. They featured radical architectural styles, which abandoned the forms and shapes of the past — curving slopes, concrete, and domes. The most notable structure, which still stands, is the American Pavilion, now known as the Montreal Biosphere. A geodesic dome designed by Buckminster Fuller, it formed an enclosed structure of steel and acrylic cells. In 1976, the year of the disastrous Montreal Olympic games, the American Pavilion’s outer casing was destroyed in a fire, and the building remained closed and unused until the Nineties.


Habitat 67. Photo: Shawn Nystrand/CC.

A housing complex that, similarly, never lived up to the idealism of its creation is Habitat 67, a pioneering prefabricated residential home designed by Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie. Built with the not-entirely modest goal of revolutionizing housing, it was composed of 354 pre-fabricated concrete forms of identical size, arranged in various combinations, incorporating ideals of modern suburban life, such as privacy and green spaces. Before the 1960s, Montreal, like the rest of Canada, had struggled with its own identity, and much of it resembled a generic European city without any distinctive architecture or design. Habitat 67 sought to correct this, and reduce the pressure resulting from the 50s baby boom, but it didn’t quite work out that way. Designed to make architecture more accessible, cheaper and more economical in space, today it is among the most expensive real estate in the city.

While, at the time, the 1967 Expo looked like a new high for Montreal, it now stands as a temporary peak before a steady descent. With its international reputation assured, political instability due to rising Quebec Nationalism began to temper its advances. Legislation meant to protect the French language pushed businesses to set up headquarters in Toronto and Vancouver; referendums in 1980 and 1995 as to whether Quebec should secede from Canada reportedly motivated up to 99,000 residents to move away from the province into other major cities. Montreal was the biggest city and the economic centre of Canada until Expo 67, but by 1980 it had been overtaken by Toronto. While Toronto and Vancouver have since seen steady economic and population growth, Montreal has barely stayed afloat. Toronto and Vancouver continue to grow; Montreal suffers from crumbling infrastructure, issues with corruption and economic stagnancy. The 1976 Montreal Olympics became a signpost of this decline. The event well-exceeded its budget, despite Jean Drapeau’s reassurance that “The Olympics can no more lose money than a man can have a baby,” and wasn’t entirely paid-for until 2006.


‘L’Homme’ by Alexander Calder. Photo: art_inthecity/CC.

There’s something almost apocalyptic about Montreal’s transformation from city of the future to one so squarely stuck in the past. Within a few years of Expo 67, most of the pavilions were left to rot. Structures built in tribute to the future were abandoned. A number of post-apocalyptic films capitalized on this crumbling vision of the future. American film director Robert Altman decided to shoot his winter Apocalypse film Quintet in the disused buildings (including the Biosphere) in 1979. The unusual architecture and, most importantly, its decay, complimented the dystopian ice age he tried to bring to life on screen. Critically panned, Quintet’s greatest asset is the production design and its hazy imagery. The film offers glimpses of the interiors of these buildings, rotting under ice sheets and disrepair. The futuristic nature of the pavilions and the clinical coldness of the ruined architecture suggest that, before the environmental Ice Age had settled on the world, humanity was already numbing.

Other apocalyptic films like The Day After Tomorrow, The X-Men franchise, Death Race and Battlefield Earth have also appropriated Montreal’s crumbling infrastructure as a backdrop for their dystopian futures. In Hollywood, Montreal never gets to play itself, instead standing in for any generic metropolitan area wrought by devastation.

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Montreal underground. Photo: Axel Drainville/CC.

Many of the constructions and elements of planning from the 1967 era look unlike anything that came before them — or after. And yet, some of these constructions have proven incredibly functional to residents. The underground city might not live up to the underground skyscrapers imagined in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, but in Montreal’s unforgiving winters its practicality and mobility seem almost utopian. Similarly, the Expo 67 behemoth Place Bonaventure occupies an entire city block downtown. Part commercial complex, it exemplifies modern brutalism with its bare, unadorned concrete. Its imposing appearance has been controversial throughout the decades, but as one of the largest malls and most used metro stations, it is still crucial to the city’s well-being.

The frustrated beauty of pot holes, sink holes and concrete corrosion sometimes makes Montreal seem like a city of ruins, though unlike the Coliseums and Pyramids, our crumbling infrastructure is barely fifty years old. But Montreal represents neither the past, present or future. Like the architecture of Expo 67, it is outside of time, and it is in this charming decay that the city found its true self, never to be referential again.