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Competition for the 1970 Osaka Expo: When Canadian Identity was not a Circus Affair

by Izabel Amaral, published 2010-06-01
The 2010 universal Shanghai exposition reminds us that such major events always make us dream, in the present as in the past, but a return on the 1970 Osaka Expo, a great Canadian competition, leaves us contemplating on some aberrations of the use of architects' talents in the arts of.... circus. Since the mid-19th century, exhibitions have however offered memorable buildings, whether they are great halls housing a number of exhibitions, from London's Crystal Palace to the Galerie des Machines in Paris, or whether they are national pavilions: the 1929 German Pavilion in Barcelona by Mies van der Rohe, the 1967 American Pavilion in Montreal by Buckminster Fuller, or the 1958 Philips thematic pavilion in Brussels, the famous “poême électronique” by Le Corbusier and Xenakis.

When it comes to national pavilions, architecture has the function not only to host an exhibition but also to represent a country in the international context. A national pavilion is also a kind of temporary embassy, thus architecture plays the role of the country's diplomatic representative abroad. On the occasion of universal exhibitions, architectural competitions can be considered as a privileged milieu for the discussion of a society's values. In this context, the mission of the jury is more difficult because the choice is not confined to matters related to innovation or architectural quality, but involves very broad socio-political issues. In such cases, albeit rare, the delicate subject of the representation of the country's image is predominant. Today, as Canada was represented by a pavilion endorsed by the Cirque du Soleil in Shanghai, relegating the role of architects to the dignified role of technical consultants, it is perhaps time to revisit a historical episode of which there are still lessons to be learned, for the winning project of Arthur Erickson was actually a success at all levels.

The site of Expo '67 in Montreal was still underway when the Canadian government decided to confirm its participation in the exhibition that was to follow, scheduled for 1970 in Osaka and the first of its kind in Asia. With the theme "Progress and Harmony for Mankind", it revealed to the world the image of a developed and forward-thinking Japan, far from the depravity and aftermath of the Second World War. Some of the countries participating in the exhibition organized national architectural competitions in order to select their own national pavilions, and this was particularly the case in the United States, Finland, Brazil and Canada.

The competition for the Canadian pavilion at Osaka in 1970 brought together 208 architects, many of whom were also authors of buildings on the site of the 1967 exhibition in Montreal. The winning architects, Arthur Erickson and Geoffrey Massey, were also the designers of three buildings: the pavilion of Man in His Community, its annex, the pavilion of Man and his Health, and, lest we forget, the architects of the Canadian pavilion! With historical hindsight, we can now say that this multiple election was not the result of coincidence or manipulation but a direct consequence of the designers' particular sensitivity towards the image of a country that sought to assert its modernity. The 1970 Canadian pavilion project in Osaka evoked the grandeur and simplicity of Canadian territory, with its mountains, its vast sky, great forests and abundant water, where the entire form - very assertive and very clear – with four mirror-covered volumes, forming a truncated pyramid with a central courtyard. This project, heavy with symbolism and kaleidoscopic visual effects delighted the jury members and all the visitors to the Expo, it made the cover of almost every Japanese catalogue and magazine of the time; it was the foreign pavilion most visited and received among other prizes, the prize by the Architectural Institute of Japan and the Massey prize.

This month, the Canadian Competitions Catalogue invites you, where the coverage of major expositions is propitious, to discover not only the memorable project of the grand Canadian architect who died last year, but also the projects by Melvin Charney, Roger D 'Astous, the group Affleck, Desbarats, Dimakopoulos, Lebensold, Sise and other names, who have since become famous across Canada.

Coincidence or not, a little more than a decade after the exhibition of Osaka, Arthur Erickson developed the project for the Canadian Embassy in Washington. This reminds us that between the architecture of a universal exhibition event and that of a permanent architecture, questions of diplomatic and cultural representation arise, just as questions of creativity and imagination, but not always questions of transparency of either procedures or judgements. The enthusiasm with which the country experienced the universal expositions of Montreal in 1967 and of Vancouver in 1986 therefore merits a rediscovery of a competition that is already forty years old: given that there are always challenges to raise in architecture.
(translated by Carmela Cucuzzella)

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