Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
Bold on the outside, campy on the inside—the Buckminster Fuller and Cambridge Seven Associates project showed visitors that the world’s superpower could have fun, too.
Expo 67, which opened 50 years ago today, brought optimistic and mostly temporary architecture from around the globe onto three sites along the Saint Lawrence River in Montreal under the theme of Man and His World. One pavilion that still stands today provided some of the most memorable fair experiences.
In Design for a Fair: The United States Exhibition at Expo 67 Montreal, Canada, viewers can immerse themselves in the playful cultural exhibits by Cambridge Seven Associates inside a 20-story geodesic dome by Buckminster Fuller.
Filmed by Peter Chermayeff, a founding principal of Cambridge Seven, Design for a Fair uses the voices of the pavilion’s creators to explain their mission and the user experience.
Inside, visitors were greeted to seven levels of exhibits showcasing “Creative America,” which included the space program, Hollywood, popular music, and contemporary art. They could either experience them quickly, by taking the fair’s train through the the structure, or walk in and travel up via a slow-moving escalator.
Despite all of its visual delights, one of the designers recounts in the film that they received complaints from U.S. congressmen lamenting the lack of industrial might and weaponry. In 2013, Daniela Sheinin wrote for the Journal of Transnational American Studies that the pavilion was admired by most visitors from abroad and people along the U.S. coasts, but not as much in the American heartland:
The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung called the U.S. Pavilion a “masterpiece of intelligent wit and... self-irony.” “Alas, the exhibit inside the dome is… scandalous,” reported the Birmingham Sun-Bulletin; “It is vulgar, ostentatious and somehow suggests the false but blatant victory of the homosexual.”
In fact, the exhibits conveyed an ironic and campy side of America—a liberating departure from what Sheinin describes as a “stodgy, heavy-handed past in U.S. propaganda.” She also notes that the campiness wasn’t always an inside joke.
Fuller’s idea for a dome had been previously rejected for the 1964 New York World’s Fair by its president, Robert Moses. The dome in Montreal leaked and there were reports of droppings falling from a NASA satellite where birds were nesting. Nearly a decade after Expo 67 closed, a fire melted the translucent skin on the dome, leaving only its steel bones.
Fuller, who died in 1983, was interested in better connecting modern architecture to environmental needs. Fittingly, after it sat vacant for another 15 years, Environment Canada purchased the structure, turning it into a museum devoted to the water ecosystem of the Great Lakes–Saint Lawrence River region. Today, it is known as the Montreal Biosphère and focuses on environmental issues and sustainable development. No American camp left to be found.