Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Memories of Expo 67

Expo 67 was the 1967 World's Fair that was held in Montreal.

Montreal's mayor at the time, Jean Drapeau, had ambitious plans for Montreal's future.  He single-handedly put Montreal on the world map, first with Expo 67, then with the 1976 summer Olympics.

His administration shepherded Montreal from city to metropolis: the 1960's and 70's in the run-up to the fair and the Olympics were frantic times.  Incessant construction brought us soaring expressway interchanges and bridges, the Metro, Place des Arts, Place Ville Marie, Place Victoria, and the Olympic stadium.  Those buildings and public works define Montreal today;  they are prominent among the landmarks that are the signature of this city.

Political turmoil soon followed and the financial markets and institutions that gave Montreal its pre-eminent place in Canada soon fled to the relative peace and tranquility of Toronto.

Montreal eventually got over that economic hump, and growth returned early in the new millennium.

The challenge Montreal faces today is renewing all the infrastructure that was built in the 1960's and 70's.  Bridges, tunnels, and those soaring expressway interchanges that were so daring and futuristic in the late 60's, are now falling apart bit by bit, and chunk by chunk, as the government scrambles to repair and renew.

One way to forget what the future wrought, is to take a trip back to those magical days of the late 60's.

While most of the fairgrounds were recycled for other uses, some landmarks remain.

My Vespa allows me the luxury of lunch-hour ventures.  So I took off south through the downtown bustle, down to the port, past the Port Authority HQ, and headed to Ile Ste-Hélène, one of the two islands that made up the fair grounds.

To get to the island you can either take the Jacques Cartier bridge to the east, or the Pont de la Concorde which was the route I chose to take.
The Pont de la Concorde is one of the surviving Expo 67 landmarks.  It's not a particularly inspiring bridge, but it is fairly long, and extremely wide.  During Expo 67 the Pont de la Concorde, so named in honour of the motto of the City of Montreal Concordia salus, was one of the main gateways to the fair.

It's a challenge to get pictures of the bridge.  Here's one taken from Ile Ste-Hélène.
 Here's another taken from the Montreal side.
A light rail line was built to take fair goers over the fairly large distances between the city and the two islands given over to the fairgrounds.  The double-tracked rail line ran down the center of the Pont de la Concorde.  The remainder of the bridge's ample width accommodated throngs of pedestrians, me among them as a boy, wide-eyed with the wonder that was Expo 67.

One of the other signature landmarks so closely associated with Expo 67 is Habitat 67.  When you head for the Pont de la Concorde, Habitat 67 is the building right before the bridge.

Habitat 67 was architect Moishe Safdie's daring concept of concrete modular apartments.  I don't think that his vision actually ever got any real-world traction, other than that one concept project.
Today Habitat 67 is still futuristic, and is now all much sought-after condominiums, each with spectacular views of the river and the city skyline.
One of the other remaining landmarks has a second career as the Biosphere, now a museum on the environment.  During Expo 67 it was the American pavilion.  Designed by Buckminster Fuller it is a massive 200 foot high geodesic dome.
 Like Seattle's Space Needle, Montreal's geodesic dome is a prominent 1960's tribute to a George Jetson future that hasn't quite materialized. Where the heck are those flying cars?  I was really looking forward to those flying cars.

Mind you, if you buy a condo at Habitat 67, with a view of the Montreal skyline and of the Biosphere, you might begin to think that the Jetsons could be your next-door neighbours.

I can tell you that when you zip around town on a Vespa, and you glide through sweeping turns, you can't see the wheels under you, and it certainly feels like you could be skimming along on a wheel-less air scooter, or a Star Wars imperial speeder bike, or something like this:
With my photos all snapped, off I went back downtown to grab a quick bite before settling in for an afternoon at the office.

Here's a brief video showing the ride back to downtown from Ile Ste-Hélène over the Pont de la Concorde and past Habitat 67 which you'll see on the left after the bridge.


SonjaM said...

Thanks for taking me out sight-seeing. I have always admired the architecture Habitat 67 and was fascinated by the Biosphere.
Not much traffic on the bridge, or is it just that time of the day?

David Masse said...

Sonja, there's never that much traffic on that bridge, at least not unless the F1 race is in town. Those islands are basically a large playground: picnic areas, an aquatic centre, an urban beach, the Gilles Villeneuve F1 and Nascar circuit, the Montreal casino, housed in the former French pavilion, another of the surviving fair buildings, and Montreal's 6 Flags amusement park. During the week, particularly once school's back in session, there aren't many folks going out there.

Dar said...

David, I enjoy reading your blog and as Sonja said sightseeing! Montreal looks beautiful and I hope one day to visit. That is a very cool looking scoot, I somehow could picture myself tootling around Victoria on that! Thanks for the mini mental vacation in Montreal!

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