Are world’s fairs obsolete? This is the eight-hundred-million-dollar question posed by Expo 67, the “universal and international exhibition” being held in Montreal from April 28 to October 27. It is too early to expect a definitive answer. The fair seems to be an immediate popular, financial, and critical success, but any enterprise involving the expenditure of such immense resources of talent and capital must obviously be judged in the light of its long-range impact either upon world culture or the creative vitality of the sponsoring community.
Expo 67 has been greeted with such universal enthusiasm (except, strangely, among British critics) that cynics may feel the fair must be doing something wrong. Can the nightmares bred by science fiction really be assuaged by this carnival vision of technological humanism? Are all those articles about Montreal, the swinging bilingual metropolis, really about the city we know, with its slums, rising crime rate, and smoldering racial animosities? Is the whole exotic complex no more than a huge delightful irrelevance?
The idea of the world’s fair as an encyclopedic expression of faith in the pacific harmonies alleged to be implicit in technology, world trade, and “enlightened” nationalism dates back to the great London Exhibition of 1851. Here, for the first time, the new environment being created by steam power, machine production, and internanational commerce was dramatized in a form comprehensible to the average citizen. Appropriately, the exhibition was housed in Joseph Paxton’s glittering Crystal Palace—the first great modern building (four times the size of St. Peter’s) to forsake masonry in favor of prefabricated, mass-produced units of glass, iron, and wood.
However, the creative euphoria of 1851, based as it was upon an illusory dream of technological and capitalist Utopia, could not last forever. The four great Paris exhibitions of the last half of the 19th century carried on the tradition and added to it, particularly in the daring steel-frame constructions of the Palais des Machines and the Eiffel Tower, at the fair of 1889. But the Chicago Columbian exhibition of 1893 (a great contemporary success) is now generally regarded as having been an intellectual and artistic disaster, remembered chiefly for the prophetic triumph of Little Egypt, pioneer of the great American art of exotic dancing. As the prospects for a genuine international polity grow steadily grimmer, and urban living becomes more brutally sordid, so there has been an increasing hollowness and frivolity in the verbal and architectural rhetoric of each succeeding fair. Meanwhile, the development of instant electronic communications and modern methods of photographic reproduction has seemed to make the very idea of a large exhibition to which people must go on complicated and expensive journeys as obsolete as the steam engine which started the whole sequence.
Not many Canadians were very upset, therefore, when, in 1960, Canada’s application to the International Exhibitions Bureau for the right to hold a fair to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of Confederation was turned down in favor of a Soviet bid to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. Nor was there a great deal of excitement two years later, when the Soviet Union changed its plans, and Canada was awarded the right to stage an exhibition in 1967 after all. After a little jockeying between the mayors of Canada’s major cities, the contest was won by Montreal.
The prospects hardly seemed encouraging. Far from looking forward to the approaching Centennial with patriotic joy, the French-speaking majority of Quebec province was rather sourly reassessing “one hundred years of injustice,” as a common slogan put it. Bombs had exploded in the rich English-speaking Montreal suburb of Westmount, and no French Canadian under the age of thirty could be found to say a good word for Confederation past, present, or future. Moreover, Montreal’s location on a crowded island in the middle of the St. Lawrence river presented grave problems in the choice of a site for the exhibition: the two lost years since 1960 seemed to rule out such time-consuming solutions as the requisition and demolition of slum properties. Finally, there was general agreement that the fair would be no more than one gigantic traffic jam unless something drastic were done about both the highway approaches to the city and the public transportation system within its boundaries. No one had much faith that any of these obstacles could or would be overcome.
At this point, the Mayor of Montreal, Jean Drapeau, began to reveal that he was something more than the efficient and incorruptible (and, it must be admitted, somewhat autocratic) public servant he had hitherto appeared. Having begun his career as an ardent Quebec nationalist, Drapeau had been converted by his office as mayor to a vision of Montreal as a great cosmopolitan and international city (at one point in the cold war he had dreams of snatching the United Nations headquarters away from New York and reestablishing it in Montreal). Almost singlehandedly and in the face of widespread opposition and skepticism, Drapeau decided that the exhibition would be held on a site literally created in the middle of the St. Lawrence river: the nucleus was to be Ile Sainte-Hélène (named by Champlain in honor of his wife in 1611) extended upstream and downstream by dumping tons of fill; nearby, close to the dike of the St. Lawrence Seaway (the entrance to which is hard by the exhibition), a whole new island, Ile Notre-Dame, was to be created. New bridges, an ice boom, and a greatly enlarged man-made pier on the “mainland” were all involved in the plan. For a while, it looked as though the skeptics had been right when the river bottom failed to provide dredges with sufficient fill, but an emergency plan, which sent a truck over the single access bridge every four minutes day and night for seven months, produced the required twenty-five million tons by June 1964—at which time the site was handed over by the city to the Exhibition Corporation. It would be hard to imagine a more varied and dramatic setting for an exposition—within ten minutes of the downtown area, yet affording space (1,000 acres), greenery (the untouched parkland on Ile Ste. Hélène), canals, lagoons, a magnificent view of the Montreal skyline, and the activity of harbor and seaway to watch.
While all this was going on, the Drapeau administration was also directing its energies to the solution of the traffic problem. The most impressive achievement in this field was the completion of a long-promised underground Métro, 15½ miles of lines and 26 stations, in under five years. Not many mass-transit systems are so gay and convenient: the sky-blue trains run on rubber tires, each station was designed and decorated by a different team of artists and architects, and sheltered pedestrian walkways connect with department stores, shopping centers, concert halls, and railway terminals, as well as Expo 67 itself.
In 1963, a conference of artists, intellectuals, scientists, and administrators was called to establish a unifying theme for the exhibition. The choice fell upon Terre des Hommes (“Man and his World”), the title of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s great book (1939, published in English as Wind, Sand and Stars). Saint-Exupéry’s spirit dominated the early planning of the exhibition, particularly his vision of the machine as a device which “at first blush seems a means of isolating man from the great problems of nature, [but] actually plunges him more deeply into them.” Man’s task, according to Saint-Exupery, is to try to colonize, to humanize the machine world. “We are emigrants who have not yet founded our homeland.” And one of the means of binding man to man in a new global community is the fellowship of technological craftsmanship which “binds men together and fashions for them a common language.” The least that can be said for this choice of theme is that it was appropriate for an exhibition planned and executed by a huge team of French and English Canadians who had to cope with language problems in addition to the normal difficulties encountered by hastily assembled organizations.
So seriously was the “Man and his World” idea taken, that there was talk, at one time, of making the entire city of Montreal the exhibition, locating pavilions and experimental housing schemes in blighted areas where they might have formed the nuclei for urban renewal. Sad to say, this plan foundered in face of the brute complexities of real-estate valuations.
It is perhaps an open question whether Saint-Exupéry would recognize his vision in Expo as it finally emerged.
With the decision in favor of the river sites, planning reverted to more conventional modes of giving expression to the theme. The lone (and sadly truncated) survivor of the original utopian plan is Moshe Safdie’s imaginative experiment in high-density housing, Habitat 67 (of which, more later). Although every participating country or organization was invited to incorporate the exhibition’s main theme into the plans for its pavilion, the Expo Corporation decided to dramatize its central vision in a chain of “theme pavilions” scattered round the site, devoted to Man the Explorer, Man the Producer, Man the Creator, Man in the Community, and Man the Provider. Together with administration and service buildings, and the pavilions of Canada, the provinces, and Canadian corporations, these structures presented Canadian architects with an almost overwhelming set of challenges, to be met under conditions of unusual freedom.
The pavilions of the sixty-three nations and two dozen private organizations and corporations obviously had to be allowed the normal liberty of exhibition architecture to express national tradition or functional form in a dramatic way. However, Expo’s architectural chief, Edouard Fiset, exercised to the full his power to reject or request modifications in designs. Only two or three real horrors (notably the pavilions of Taiwan and the Steel Companies of Canada) seem to have slipped through his net. Order and unity have been imposed upon what might have been chaos by the strict (perhaps almost puritanical) control of street furniture, signs, and advertisements. Only one chaste sans-serif type-face (Univers) was approved for, public notices anywhere on the site; even directional arrows conform to a single standard pattern; restaurants, hot-dog stands, and boutiques are identified by non-verbal pop-art posters showing pictures of the product being sold (an example of life imitating art imitating life?). Benches (of which there are plenty), lamp-standards, trash-containers, and telephone booths have been austerely designed by a brilliant young Colombian architect, Luis Valla. No pavilion promotes or sells individual products; commercial activity is carried out in separate boutiques nearby. Entrance to all pavilions is free, but La Ronde, a moderately successful attempt to combine the charms of Tivoli and Disneyland, offers the usual attractions of a fun fair at the usual exorbitant prices. (Elsewhere in the exhibition, prices are very reasonable.)
Because the Expo site is so large and dispersed, it is served by a full-scale train, the Expo Express (no charge), a mini-rail system which snakes up and down and about among the exhibits (passing right through the U.S. pavilion, thirty-six feet above ground level), a trailer train which plies the roadways, gondolas, vaporettos, and Hovercraft. Since I am confined to a wheelchair, and have often had reason to curse the thoughtlessness with which some buildings are designed, I must mention the great care that has been taken to ensure that the overwhelming majority of the exhibits are accessible to the handicapped. There are no curbs and, almost everywhere, ramps replace or supplement stairways. Getting around Expo is much easier than negotiating any normal urban district of comparable size.
World’s fairs are above all opportunities for architects to experiment with the kind of building which would ordinarily be too expensive or too risky to undertake. There seems to be something liberating about the thought that one is building for the moment—not for all time. In most cases this freedom leads to the creation of nothing more interesting than a bizarre or delightful jeu d’esprit, but every fair worthy of being remembered includes at least one or two structures which enlarge the grammar or the vocabulary of the architect’s language.
Expo contains an unusually large proportion of successful buildings of the first type. Among those worth mentioning are the pavilions of Japan (Yashinobu Ashihara), a kind of elegant log cabin made of precast concrete blocks; the Netherlands (Eykelenboom and Middlehoek), supported by a tubular aluminum frame exposed outside and above the walls and roof; Africa Place (John Andrews), which houses the displays of several African states in a brick-and-plywood setting which succeeds in suggesting the ambience of an African market quarter without ceasing to be contemporary; Cuba’s witty architectural pun (Baroni, Garatti, da Costa), an extravagant and highspirited juxtaposition of geometrical forms; and Venezuela (Carlos Rau Villanueva), three enormous, brightly enameled pop cubes. This is long enough for a catalogue of brief comments, but I feel uneasily that I might have added three or four more pavilions which equally deserve a mention.
Among the theme pavilions, two are of special architectural interest. Man in the Community (Erikson and Massey) is housed in a tapering tower of laminated wooden hexagons corbelled one on top of the other. Light filters into the structure through plastic sheets which close the gaps between the timbers, and the top of the cone is left open allowing rain to fall into a large central reed-bordered pool beneath. The general effect—faintly Oriental—is one of elegant exaltation.
Much more brutal and assertive are the matched pavilions of Man the Explorer and Man the Producer (Affleck, Desbarats, Dimakopoulos, Lebensold, and Sise). These are made up of huge truncated tetrahedrons, constructed out of massive steel frameworks which have been allowed to go rusty, and connected to one another by large open galleries. Though there was not enough time for the architects to carry out the elaborate mathematical studies that would have made full structural logic and economy possible, these buildings have a gloomy grandeur which is a refreshing contrast to the lightness and frivolity of most of the structures surrounding them. So far, they have been unpopular with the general public (who object to the rust), but amateurs of architecture may remember the Piranesiesque drama of these buildings long after the rest of the fair has become a hazy memory. Unfortunately, the full shock of the design is cushioned, for those who view it from outside, by an inappropriate facade of shingle; only from underneath and within do the melancholy arches and shadowy vaults exercise their full romantic power.
In general, those countries which tried to make the most powerful impression upon visitors muffed their opportunity. The USSR, in particular, tried valiantly to break out of its stereotyped reputation for stodgy and old-fashioned exhibition architecture, by commissioning an aggressively modern pavilion (credited to M. V. Posokhin, but at least partly designed and entirely constructed by Italians). Its huge ski-jump of a roof, upon which is suspended the whole weight of the building, is supported in tension upon two gigantic V-shaped steel struts (the pavilion is said to contain as much steel as a 30-story office block). Unfortunately, the architect surrounded the whole structure, including the struts, with a glass wall (also hung from the roof) and the exhibitors stuffed the building uncomfortably full of things to look at, with the result that the structural drama is concealed by wall and bric-a-brac, and the pavilion looks as though it were nothing more than a roof supported in the boring old way by four walls.
Britain and France both spent a great deal of money to produce pavilions which, seen side-by-side, seem like caricatures of their national stereotypes. The British pavilion (Sir Basil Spence) is an immense, stolid, concrete structure which suggests, to those who stand on its plaza, a rocky island or a battleship. I don’t believe that Spence intended the effect to be taken seriously enough to deserve the scorn that has been heaped upon its “pretentious cliché-ridden rhetoric” (he originally planned a huge pop design based on the Union Jack), but it certainly is not the kind of building of which architectural history is made. France, anxious to exploit its renewed love affair with Quebec (after two centuries of mutual unfaithfulness), has lavished millions on a huge chauvinistic exercise in Gaullist baroque—eight floors (count them!) of galleries surrounding a central well, the whole design confused and prettified by a meaningless facade of aluminum strips. It is a pity that both pavilions look as though they were built to last six centuries rather than the duration of the fair, six months.
With the possible exception of Man the Provider and Man the Explorer, none of the buildings discussed so far is likely to find its way into architectural history books. A number of Expo buildings probably will, however, and, interestingly enough, they qualify for similar reasons. If Expo is, in any sense, an indication of the direction in which architecture is developing, then it signals the approaching end of the kind of uncluttered rectangular shape that has dominated “good” design for sixty years.
Even Moshe Safdie’s assault on the problem of cheap, high-density housing, Habitat 67, presents a jagged, apparently haphazard silhouette to the observer, though its basic unit is a rectangular precast concrete box 17’6” by 38’6” by 10′ The essential principle of Habitat’s design is to place individual prefabricated dwellings of various sizes on top of one another in a series of irregular pyramids, so that the roof of one unit can serve as the garden terrace of another, and each family can enjoy maximum privacy and its own unique outlook, though living in close proximity to neighbors. The architect’s original plans called for 1,350 dwellings, housing up to four thousand people. Each unit, fully prefabricated and fitted with windows, wiring, and plumbing (including complete plexiglass bathrooms) in an on-site factory, was to be “plugged in” to position in a three-hundred-foot prismastic lattice pyramid, up the sloping legs of which all services were to move.
Unfortunately, the total estimated cost of this project was so huge that it looked for a time as though the whole idea would be scrapped. (Habitat would become really “low cost,” only if five- or six thousand units were to be built.) However, a modified plan was finally approved. In its present form, Habitat consists of 158 dwellings constructed out of 354 modular units piled on top of one another like an arrangement of children’s bricks. Vertical elevators, made necessary by the elimination of the pyramidal supports, stop at the sixth and tenth levels, where they connect with bridges (called airways) leading to individual front doors. However, the abandonment of the structural lattice plan meant that each unit had to be built strong enough to bear the weight of all those piled on top of it. This limited the architect’s freedom to use lightweight materials, and dictated construction of units varying widely in strength and weight, depending upon their position in the complex. A huge and expensive crane had to be specially devised and constructed to lift the 80 to 120 ton boxes (complete with wall-to-wall carpets) into place.
Thus, Habitat, which was originally conceived as an experiment in low-cost housing suitable for use in underdeveloped countries, has ended up an immensely expensive project, working out at a cost of at least $90,000 a unit. Its present occupants are not the poor, but senior officials of Expo or distinguished visitors such as Prime Minister Pearson.
However, if the project had been completed even on its original scale, the unit cost would have been much lower. As it is, most people seem to think that Habitat’s value as an experiment and a prophecy of things to come is well worth the difference between what it cost and its market price as a piece of real estate. Certainly, its irregular profile will be one of the sights of Montreal for at least the next decade. Detractors have unkindly called it “a terribly expensive modern slum,” but that description should surely be applied to many a more costly conventional “luxury” apartment block.
In comparison with the two most exciting and prophetic pavilions at Expo, even Habitat may seem heavy, square, and conventional. Buckminster Fuller (for the U.S.) and Frei Otto (for West Germany) have each produced buildings in which lightweight materials and sophisticated mathematical calculations combine to achieve miracles of grace, lucidity, and structural economy. Both eschew straight lines and rigidity of structure—but there the similarity ends. J. M. Richards has suggested that the two pavilions respectively represent classic and romantic applications of the new architectural technology.
Fuller’s enormous transparent geodesic sphere, 20 stories high and 250 feet in diameter, is a network of triangulated aluminum tubes supporting an acrylic plastic skin. Automated shades (controlled by a computer) regulate the amount of sunlight penetrating the interior, and the skin is equipped with “pores” that enable the structure to breathe as though it were an organism. Seen from within or without, in darkness or in light, the pavilion is endlessly various and fascinating. Fuller’s building completely upstages the exhibition it houses (“Creative America,” designed by the Cambridge Seven): though there is a refreshing lack of industrial self-assertion or patriotic rhetoric, and the initial view of brightly striped space-capsule parachutes and huge op-pop paintings is breathtaking, the slightly campy display of space equipment, Hollywood trivia, patchwork quilts, Indian war bonnets, Civil War memorabilia, and the like is too casual and offbeat to stand up to the architectural drama in which it is set.
The West German pavilion, like an enormous surrealistic circus tent, consists of a translucent plastic roof suspended beneath a mesh of cables slung between a number of raked masts of various sizes, the largest rising to over 120 feet. The huge, mysterious, irregular space enclosed by the “tent” is lit, during the day, by sunlight filtering through the plastic (which is punctuated by occasional “windows” of clear material). At night, the whole building gives off a warm, romantic glow. Otto’s pavilion, though just as satisfying in its own way as Fuller’s, does not compete with its exhibits: the effect is graceful, intriguing, and exhilarating, but not overwhelming. The presence of these related but totally dissimilar buildings a few hundred yards from one another suggests that the new architecture offers unprecedented freedom of expression to those who can master its grammar. Both Fuller and Otto are chiefly famous as structural theorists, and neither of their pavilions could have been erected without the aid of computers; but one of them descends artistically from the builders of the Parthenon, while the other is the heir of the great anonymous architects of Chartres, Ely, and Cologne.
After the architects, sculptors have the most reason to be grateful to Expo for opportunities to practice their art on a large and expensive scale. Haters of modern sculpture will find hundreds of grotesque and bizarre objects upon which to vent their spleen (I have already seen one man give Michael Snow’s Walking Woman a vicious kick on the shin). The blowtorch is replacing the chisel in the sculptor’s bag of tools, and the comparatively few orthodox stone figures that dot the exhibition site look rather demure and out-of-place in the midst of so much rusty iron and bent aluminum. Most of the pieces are rather good fun, as though the sculptors were in a holiday mood. There are lots of mobiles, including a ferociously corroded sea-monster by Gerald Gladstone that rises clanking from a lake (when it is in working order) and spits fire (when the pilot light is on). Nobody will be very surprised to learn that the most widely publicized commission for Expo, Alexander Calder’s Man (48 tons of stainless steel, 67 feet high by 94 feet wide), is no more than an exercise in empty heroics. It is sad to see an artist of such wit and talent allowing himself to be seduced into attempting such a pretentious gesture.
What goes on inside the pavilions is as hard to generalize about as are their external designs. Israel presents a panorama of five thousand years of Jewish history, with one of the Dead Sea Scrolls as her main exhibit; Britain makes a quite successful stab at living up to her swinging image, with a kind of automated historical pageant by Sean Kenny and a witty series of exhibits illustrating life in Britain today; Belgium’s pavilion is full of superb works of art; the five Scandinavian countries manage to turn displays of manufactured products and raw materials into superb abstract sculptures; one can watch Nova Scotians building a schooner, Iranians weaving carpets, Tunisians making inlaid boxes and wire birdcages, and, in the Vermont pavilion, sculptors at work on a gigantic granite statue of Champlain. The rambling Canadian pavilion consists of an eleven-acre maze of ramps and platforms and features films, variety shows, string quartets, folk dancers, and organ recitals, in addition to more conventional attractions. The pavilions of Ontario and Quebec stand side by side like two solitudes, with their predictable characteristics reversed. Quebec’s elegant trapezoid enshrines an austerely stylized and completely programmed vision of an industrial megalopolis (beautiful but cold and frightening), while Ontario’s range of crystalline plastic triangles houses a riot of fun and creativity.
The catchword among the younger designers seems to have been Total Involvement. Almost all the theme pavilions (with the intractable exception of Man the Provider, which features pleasantly restful cows and hatching eggs) include “experiences” designed to force-feed the imagination. Two hundred people fainted during the first ten days of Meditheatre, a spectacle in which the audience witnesses huge color movies of open-heart and kidney-graft operations. Citérama, in Man and the Community, seats its audience on benches to watch a huge carousel of startling urban juxtapositions revolve like a series of “happenings” to the accompaniment of city noises and discordant jazz; in the same pavilion, blinding stroboscopic lights and electronic music intermittently highlight stark black and white figures, each locked in his own private prison cell, to symbolize the lonely crowd.
Kaleidoscope, sponsored by the chemical companies of Canada, envelops the visitor in a wild prismatic burst of brightly colored abstract shapes; while Italy’s whole pavilion is a dark, exciting, confusing catacomb full of electronic music, disembodied voices, glowing transparencies and walls that seem to dissolve into shifting patterns of light. Even the Russians have an oyster-shaped sputnik theater, in which visitors are given the illusion of weightlessness. Everywhere you look in Expo, ten thousand automatic slide projectors click relentlessly on, projecting images on the inside and outside of spheres, on whirling bird-cages, on ceilings and floors, on visitors and, very occasionally, on ordinary rectangular screens.
If there is one art which dominates Expo, it is cinema. Not the old-fashioned kind which tells a story or reproduces the appearance of life. Every pavilion has a few small screens upon which loops of ordinary two-dimensional film flicker repetitively, half noticed among the clutter of other attractions. But the crowd-pleasing blockbusters are the spectaculars, presented in special theaters with wrap-around or multiple screens, and projectors aimed above, below, and even at the audience, their images multiplied or distorted by prisms or mirrors. Some of these film “experiences” have a stunning sensuous and emotional impact, but nearly all of them lack the kind of paraphrasable content that would make them easy to describe.
The most ambitious and pretentious is the National Film Board of Canada’s Labyrinth (Roman Kroiter), housed in an enormous specially designed building (Bland, Lemoyne, Edwards, and Shine). As the audience moves through its mysterious galleries, it is exposed to a series of indescribable kinesthetic experiences loosely based on the legend of the Minotaur. Though a sociologist (Fernand Cadieu) and a literary critic (Northrop Frye) were consulted on the scenario, Labyrinth achieves its most vertiginous effects through the close collaboration of film director and architect—perhaps a prophetic partnership for the future of art.
There are so many other interesting film presentations, modest only in comparison with Labyrinth, that it would take an article in itself to describe them, even if I had been able to find time to see them all. Among those which have been immediate popular successes are CPR-Cominco’s multi-screen film on Canadian youth (by Francis Thompson and Alexander Hammid, who made the Johnson’s Wax film for the New York fair); Canada 67 (Walt Disney) at the Telephone pavilion, really a rather corny travelogue, though nine projectors and a 360-degree screen conspire to impress even reluctant sophisticates; Art Kane’s three-screen A Time to Play in the U.S. pavilion—a kind of cinematic parallel to Lord of the Flies; and A Place to Stand, (Chris Chapman) another delightful but very different three-screen extravaganza presented at the Ontario pavilion.
Canadian film-makers may justly claim that they have more than met the unprecedented challenge offered by Expo. They have turned out an astonishing volume of work, much of it first-rate—particularly some of the films made for theme pavilions. But the undisputed cinematic champion of the fair is Czechoslovakia. Not content with mounting a conventional exhibit of surpassing beauty and intelligence, the Czechs offer no fewer than four extraordinary film presentations.
Two of them feature a combination of live and cinematic performances. Laterna Magika (Pavel Prochazka), which was a success at the Brussels fair of 1958, confuses flesh and film in an astonishing counterpoint of reality and illusion. Performers argue, converse, and make up mixed duos, trios, and quartets with one another and their own images on the screen, until the audience happily loses its ability to distinguish shadow from substance. Kino-automat, a more frivolous entertainment, involves the audience in the development of the plot. At twelve crucial points, the actor who plays the hero stops the action and calls for a vote on what should happen next. The audience chooses between two alternatives by pressing buttons set into the arms of their seats. The result is automatically tabulated, and the majority gets its way. Unfortunately for middle-class morality, no audience has yet decided that the man whose wife is away for the week-end should refuse to open his door to the towel-clad blonde who is locked out of her apartment!
Polyvision, devoted to Czech industrial achievement, uses dozens of projectors and a roomful of unconventional “screens”—cubes, spheres, drums, and wheels, many of them whirling at high speed in different directions. The result is a kind of kinetic mosaic in which shots of assembly-lines and complicated machinery appear and disappear in a variety of combinations, like so many themes in a visual symphony. Diapolyécran, the last of the Czech film novelties, looks at first like a large ordinary screen covering an entire wall. Once in action, it turns out to consist of 112 translucent cubes, each containing two slide projectors. The “program,” synchronized to a superb musical score (like all the Czech films), involves a brilliant series of mosaic variations on the history of man, with breathtaking juxtapositions and changes of scale. Each individual cube and, some-times, the entire luminous “wall” can be advanced several inches toward the audience—an effect which seems to bring the static images to dynamic life.
Roman Kroiter is supposed to have said, rather grandiosely, of Labyrinth, that those who see it will never again be quite the same. This is probably true of the whole film experience offered at Expo. With its annihilation of the detached observer and its blurring of the boundary between illusion and reality, it may constitute the greatest blow to old-fashioned book culture since Joe Shuster began to draw Superman.
Expo’s hypnotic power is attested by the large numbers of visitors who come to scoff, but end by succumbing, with almost childlike enthusiasm, to its spell. The sheer colorful improbability of its streets, canals, and vistas is a lift to spirits jaded by the visual sterility of most urban environments. We may be perversely loving a quintessential image of our intellectual and cultural chaos, but most of us cannot help ourselves.
However, the planners of the exhibition wished to do more than hold a flattering mirror up to our own contradictions and confusions. They hoped to present a vision of man as he might be if he were to take seriously Saint-Exupéry’s injunction to colonize the machine and make it truly human. It is no slur upon the achievement of these talented men to suggest that they failed in this impossible task. There were too many insuperable obstacles in the way.
Politics, to begin with. This “universal and international exhibition” contains no representation from China, Spain, Turkey, Pakistan, Portugal, Brazil, Argentina, or Poland—to mention only a few large and obvious omissions. The list of participating countries is almost entirely the result of diplomatic or economic circumstances beyond the power of Expo to control. The reality of international conflict is only vaguely or generally recognized in Expo, for similar reasons. Exhibits have had to be planned with national sensibilities in mind. There seems to have been a kind of involuntary agreement to pretend that China and Vietnam do not exist; and the picture of a sorrowing Turkish Cypriot widow had to be removed from the International Photography Exhibit at the insistence of the Greek Commissioner General. Everyone knows that the pill and its mechanical equivalents hold out one of the best hopes for controlling the population explosion (the effects of which are dramatized all over the exhibition), but religious politics seem to have imposed a virtual ban upon the mention of birth control. (I won’t go so far as to claim that there is no mention whatsoever.) Surely Expo—the expression of a country which prides itself rather unrealistically on its role as a kind of international honest broker—missed a golden opportunity to confront its visitors with all the real problems of their world, letting the political chips fall where they might.
Naturally, the various national pavilions are full of big and little lies about life back home. Most of these take the form of suppressio veri rather than suggestio falsi. India offers not a hint of poverty and starvation; the U.S. ignores the civil-rights movement and the War Against Poverty (as well as That Other War); Thailand, an Asian Uncle Tom, pretends that the whole country is like a gigantic set for Anna and the King of Siam; Greece, rather inopportunely, boasts of being the birthplace of democracy; and Quebec stresses the massive homogeneity of its population, conveniently forgetting its large and heterogeneous English-speaking minority. In face of all this deliberate deception (or self-deception) little moments of truth shine like good deeds. The British poke fun at many of their own national peculiarities—though even they don’t make jokes about xenophobia, the housing shortage, or color prejudice; and the Italians are honest enough to represent contemporary religious life with trashy plastic madonnas rather than masterpieces from the past. But the most bracing note of realism in the whole of Expo is the pavilion of the Indians of Canada, paid for out of public funds, to the eternal credit of the federal government. This mounts a devastating attack on the treachery and folly of the white man’s relations with the red man during the past three hundred years. Some masochistic paleface quirk has made the Indians’ show very popular, and there is reason to believe that the message is sinking in. (It would be too much to expect the Indians to devote any space to the shortcomings of their own cultural tradition.)
Expo’s theme pavilions make a valiant effort to deal honestly and systematically with the contemporary challenge to man and his world, and there are some minor masterpieces of clarification and popularization. The main obstacle to communication is not any intellectual or artistic failure, but the brute limitation of human flesh. The most ardent seeker after self-improvement has to draw the line somewhere. I found my attention span repeatedly inadequate to the demands being made upon it—even though I kept reminding myself that I had better keep alert if I wanted to produce this article. Others who lack the spur of duty or profit may switch off even earlier than I did.
However, though the intellect may shut down under the bombardment of information, the senses continue to react to the incredible variety of stimuli offered for their gratification: the flashing messages, the bouncing balls, the relentless half-audible voices, the complex incomprehensible machines, and the multicolored tangles of luminous plastic spaghetti (undersea life? the arterial system? enlarged micro-organisms?—it all depends on which theme pavilion you are in) soon come to have an irresistible attraction of their own, independent of meaning. In Expo, the medium really does become the message. And the medium, most of the time, is in a state of utter and constant flux. Who could have dreamed that it all would be so dangerously attractive?
If the possibility of this sort of identity crisis is alarming, better confine your visit to Expo’s superb exhibition of fine arts, just inside the main gate. No mere casual assembly of “masterpieces” (some of the works are quite modest and unassuming), the 188 items were carefully and lovingly chosen from all five continents and five thousand years of history to make up yet another set of variations on the Expo theme. In spite of tragedy (Rembrandt’s St. Peter Denying Christ), pain (Eakins’s The Agnew Clinic), and violence (Rousseau’s La Guerre), these men and their worlds seem so solid and palpable compared with our own uncertain grasp on reality that one can sense the relief and reassurance felt by the crowds that throng the gallery. Of course, the anarchic joy and horror of the modern movement is generously represented, but its claim to reveal the whole truth about life is implicitly refuted by the humane alternatives on every hand.
This juxtaposition exactly epitomizes the theme Expo is supposed to embody: the thrilling but anarchic energies released by technology can be humanized only if we are aware of what they may destroy as well as create. A civilized future must be based upon both piety toward the past and respect for the complex actuality of the present. Otherwise, Saint-Exupery’s vision will be turned upside down, and machines will colonize man. On the whole, with the exceptions noted, Expo 67 seems to offer grounds for moderate optimism.
Coming Next Month. . . .
Theodore Draper on Israel and World Politics
Walter Laqueur on The Causes and Efects of the War