United States Pavilion at Expo '67
The Creative Genius of America
The United States pavilion was the most popular at Expo 67, and welcomed no less than 11 million visitors in six months. Of the 62 countries present at Montréal’s World Fair, the United States stands out for its truly exceptional contribution, due not only to the impact of its geodesic dome on the Île Sainte-Hélène landscape, but also to the spectacular aspect of the pavilion's popular and sophisticated content.
The first noteworthy element is the structure itself. Richard Buckminster Fuller, architect, inventor and utopian, was the father of the geodesic dome in the 20th century. In 1963, he was asked by the U.S. Information Agency to design the sphere that would become the United States pavilion at Expo 67. While the geodesic domes constructed before 1967 were generally hemispherical in shape, three-quarters of Fuller’s 20-storey pavilion--his original proposal was twice the size!--is visible. The structure is a three-dimensional metal frame slightly over one-metre thick at the base, and gradually thinning out towards the top. At the time, it was covered by a transparent skin composed of acrylic panels. To keep the indoor ambient temperature at an acceptable level, Buckminster Fuller designed an apparatus composed of mobile triangular panels that would move over the inner surface of the dome following the sun. Although brilliant on paper, this innovation was probably too advanced for its time, and unfortunately never worked properly. Instead, a large number of valves were installed in the centre of the acrylic panels, to enable the pavilion to "breathe."
In addition to its shape, the United States pavilion had another major feature to attract visitors: it was the only pavilion to straddle the tracks of the Minirail transportation system that circled the Expo site on Île Sainte-Hélène. For people who were put off by the endless line-up at the dome's entrance, this was sometimes the only way of obtaining a closer look at the wonders that generated such enthusiasm among the crowd.
The seven designers of the indoor exhibition, known as the Cambridge Seven, decided to focus on American culture and the conquest of outer space, under the theme "Creative America." Based on the premise that there was no point trying to prove the superiority of American technology, which everyone recognized in any case, they organized the content into four easily assimilated units, designed to charm rather than convince.
The first unit, entitled The American Spirit, presented hundreds of artifacts representing popular American art, together with examples of craftsmanship and industrial products illustrating the inventive genius of the American people. Visitors were presented with a plethora of items, some of great artistic value and others much more modest, including feather Indian head-dresses, wooden Santos reflecting the Spanish influence, New England patchwork quilts, a Far West display, a collection of Raggedy Ann dolls, musical instruments, and presidential election mementos. This iconoclastic approach shocked many visitors, especially Americans, who found it too frivolous and in bad taste, but delighted the general public and specialist critics. It provided a way of breaking down barriers between genres and considering culture in a much more comprehensive way. Although daring in 1967, this approach has since become much more common in museology.
The next stage of the American exhibition was reached by taking the longest escalator ever constructed--40 metres (125 feet)--to the platform containing Destination Moon. This section illustrated the Apollo space program, an ambitious American project to carry man to the Moon (a feat that was finally achieved in July 1969). It contained several actual capsules, including Freedom Seven Mercury used by Alan B. Shepard in 1961 and Gemini VII, life-size models of satellites and rockets hung on enormous multicoloured parachutes from the roof of the pavilion, and a convincing simulation of a lunar landscape. Everyday life in space was illustrated by space suits, examples of food used by astronauts and other devices. The public responded enthusiastically, and Destination Moon became undoubtedly the most popular section of the pavilion.
After adventure came culture. The next section, entitled American Painting Now, contained an exhibit of 23 huge paintings by well-known artists of the 1960s, commissioned for the pavilion by head curator Alan Solomon. The list of artists read like a Who's Who of modern art, and included James Rosenquist, Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol, Jaspter Johns, Jim Dine, Ellsworth Kelly, Barnett Newman, Robert Rauschenberg and Roy Lichtenstein. Their works illustrated trends such as abstract expressionism, op, pop, hardedge and geometric art. Like the space component, this part of the American exhibition was truly spectacular. The works, gigantic, simple and colourful, paid a vibrant tribute to the creative vitality of artists who now count among the great masters of 20th century painting.
The fourth and last section was devoted to the American cinema, and in particular to the Hollywood star system. Giant photos showed actors and actresses ranging from Mary Pickford to Marlon Brando, and movie props were used to decorate the three screens playing extracts from musicals, love scenes and famous American movie roles including Orson Wells in Citizen Kane and Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind. Here again, the designers managed to summarize the strengths of the American cinema, a formidably effective "dream machine," by presenting content that was both informative and entertaining.
An Outstanding Contribution
Contrary to the custom at many previous World Fairs, where a monument was built to symbolize the event and illustrate the technological development of the era--for example, the Eiffel Tower in Paris (1889) and the Brussels Atomium (1958)--the Montréal event was designed as a celebration of kinship between peoples rather than an industrial and technological exhibit, and no such symbol was built. More than fifty years later, Buckminster Fuller’s Biosphere has withstood the test of time. Today, through its evocative power, the Biosphere has become an eloquent illustration of the attempt to combine technology and nature. The institution is a living symbol of “Man and His World”, which caught the imagination of millions of visitors and confirmed Montréal’s international city status.
Fulford, R. This was Expo. McClelland & Stewart Ltd. 1968.
Expo 67, Commemorative Album from Montreal’s World Fair.
Theall, D. F. "L’Expo - une forme d’art unique en son genre." Graphis Vol. 23, No. 132 1967.
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