The British Pavilion at Expo '67: Art, Architecture and National Identity

By Edwards, Brian; Fahy, Susan | British Journal of Canadian Studies, September 2007 | Go to article overview

The British Pavilion at Expo '67: Art, Architecture and National Identity


Edwards, Brian, Fahy, Susan, British Journal of Canadian Studies


The British architect Sir Basil Spence designed the British pavilion at Expo '67 in a style which controversially combined elements of national identity with the innovative use of steel-framing and asbestos sheeting. The design departed from orthodoxy and was seen by reviewers more as sculpture than architecture. In realising the design Spence worked with a firm of architects based in Montreal and associated with McGill University, where they were also members of the architecture faculty. The first part of the article explores the ideological basis for the Spence design, its cultural and artistic references, the collaboration with artists, and finally the mechanisms (including construction) employed to bring the design to fruition. The second part investigates the responses to the British pavilion comparing the opinions expressed in Canada to those in the UK, and contrasting popular reaction to comments in the architectural press. Finally, the article reflects upon Expo as a place of design experimentation and the role the Spence pavilion played in this. The paper speculates that one of the first expressions of postmodernism in architecture is to be found at Expo '67.

EXPO '67, held in Montreal that year, was the first and last world exposition mounted by the Canadian government. The year 1967 was portentous: it marked the centenary of Canadian confederation. A company known as the Canadian Corporation for the 1967 World Exposition was established in 1962 with responsibility for planning and financing an undertaking which, five years later, attracted some fifty-five million visitors, making Expo '67 the second-largest ever held. This body, with members drawn from national government, the province of Quebec and the city of Montreal, chose the humanist theme of 'Man and his World' and master-planned the site on the island of Notre Dame in the St Lawrence. Expo '67 was open between 28 April and 27 October 1967, and became a showpiece of contemporary architecture, public sculpture, landscape design and new modes of urban transport. The attention it enjoyed in popular and professional journals encouraged commentators at the time to call Expo '67 the most successful world fair of the twentieth century.1 Although the exposition was widely seen as one of the great flowerings of modernism in a city noted for bold contemporary urbanism, a closer examination suggests that the ambiguities of postmodernism were also present.

Using the recently-deposited Sir Basil Spence archives at the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland, this article focuses on the British pavilion (designed by Spence), one of seventy-seven national pavilions at Expo. It does so from four main perspectives. First, it explores the architectural imagery of the pavilion and associated cultural messages; second, it investigates the integration of art and architecture, or more particularly sculpture and architecture; third, it describes the construction technology employed to realise what was a most unusual design; and finally, it examines the public and professional reaction to the building once completed. These perspectives are discussed in the context of modernism as practised at the time, particularly against the tentative emergence of postmodern concepts of landscape, memory and identity. The article also engages in the tension evident in many world expositions between new modes of lifestyle on the one hand, and nostalgia and tradition on the other. As such, Expo '67 allows us to raise some questions about the evolving nature of modernism in the 1960s, particularly the search for a language of forms which is both accessible and popular in an age of technological innovation.

Sir Basil Spence was appointed by the British government in June 1964 following discussion between Sir Frederick Gibberd, President of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and the Commonwealth Office.2 Spence was an obvious candidate, having designed several exhibition buildings in the past such as the 'Britain Can Make It' exhibition at Olympia in London in 1946 (see Figure 1: Hall of the Future) and three pavilions at the Festival of Britain in 1951, including the widely regarded Sea and Ships Pavilion. …

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