This sweeping transformation project sparks wonder by recreating the magic of a legendary site, showcasing a rich history and boosting biodiversity through maximum multifunctionality, with a meticulously optimized, four-season user experience. Montrealers have always had a fondness for the island at the heart of the most successful World’s Fair of the 20th century, EXPO 67.
Punctuating the majestic St. Lawrence River that runs along Montreal’s southern edge, Saint Helen’s Island’s bucolic character and proximity to downtown naturally invited its use as a public park as early as 1874.
With that 1967 event, however, the island “put Montreal on the map.” Enlarged by then-Mayor Jean Drapeau, the artificial portion of the island became known as Man and His World for the landmark event.
Some 50 million people – well over double the entire country’s population at the time – attended the six-month exhibition. It boasted pavilions from over 60 countries, including the United States with its iconic, 200-foot-high Biosphere designed by American architect Richard Buckminster Fuller.
Also featuring provinces, companies and cutting-edge scientific and artistic themes, the event made widespread use of myriad performance stages, restaurants, a monorail network and a sizeable amusement park.
Although Man and His World remained open as an exhibition during the summer months until 1984, its pavilions fell into disrepair, and post-EXPO development then concentrated on promoting the original island’s natural regrowth.
By 2016, the site was dominated by vegetation cover, its works of art and exhibition remains isolated; its stunning Montreal and river views obscured. It was nonetheless receiving larger and larger crowds, for which it was ill-prepared.
Following extensive research and study, our firm brought its unique approach to rethinking, restoring and reshaping the mythical site, integrating master planning, urban design, landscape architecture and architecture, branding and visual communication, in addition to coordination of theatrical, multimedia, lighting and security consultants and more, to optimize and amplify the visitor experience – and bring back the wonderland.
The original heart of EXPO, reborn as Espace 67 by Lemay, is now a must-see scenic, social and cultural destination year-round, easily accessible and open to all free of charge, with a global feel and EXPO-reminiscent motifs woven throughout. In accordance with the objectives of Lemay’s master plan, the site is now defined by green or snowy hills (depending on the season) and a whimsical new Central Concourse (Calder Alley) that reconnects the island site’s riverfronts, connects key landmarks and creates visual openings towards downtown, Old Montreal and the St. Lawrence River. For instance, Alexander Calder’s monumental “Trois disques” sculpture punctuates the island’s north shore, at the end of Calder Alley, atop a podium, before a spacious belvedere opens onto the river, framing a stunning panorama of Downtown Montreal.
The new concourse draws visitors from the subway station into the site with its distinctive seating areas, abundant shade and breathtaking views. The new landscape experience integrates grand and human-scaled gestures as it fragments the site into comfortable subspaces, inspired by the site’s genius loci: a mixture of lush indigenous forest, a picturesquely designed urban park and, of course, its landmark event.
RECREATING THE SPIRIT OF EXPO 67
Building on the site’s original bucolic signature, Lemay successfully met project objectives to recreate the spirit of EXPO via building architecture, urban design, brand image and signage, in effect creating a new attraction in harmony with nature and culture.
The project introduces an event village, a misting fountain and natural gathering areas: eloquent public spaces accommodating multiple functions year-round. Signature furniture and lighting features recall EXPO’s innovation and signature materials. Oversized, playful seating welcomes crowds and impromptu events. The lighting concept thoughtfully showcases the site’s compositional elements.
A great deal of attention was paid to every detail, down to the shape of the Concourse pavers inspired by the predominantly geometric shapes of the Man and His World era, especially space-frame design, also reproduced in the floor of a new, 65,000-seat natural amphitheater and three new pavilions’ façade treatments.
In echoing the vocabulary of EXPO 67, building volumes, materiality, façades and lighting also act as key wayfinding elements that guide visitors through the site’s experience as they fulfil reception, information, restaurant and administrative functions. Their strategic positioning facilitates crowd management, improves wayfinding and showcases high-quality built and natural environments.
The site’s redesign is in line with a contemporary view of shared spaces and environmental protection, offering close contact with nature while providing safe and universal access to an experiential space that recalls the multifaceted, magical destination it once was, but with contemporary adaptations and considerations.
COMBINING NATURE AND CULTURE
The planting strategy is based on a four-season, low-maintenance, Nordic landscape: coniferous and deciduous trees, profusions of florals that bloom at different times, particularly spectacular in spring and summer and protected by large custom planters. Oversized planters provide comfortable seating without damaging the vegetation and help to direct crowds during events. Even the lawn is protected by low curbs to discourage trampling but remain very accessible to those wishing to stretch out or picnic.
The landscape strategy promotes plant and animal biodiversity and reintroduces indigenous species. Its interventions are adapted to the site’s myriad uses, with permeable surfaces enabling stormwater management and its many public spaces designed to not only withstand but welcome large crowds.
The Nordic quality of the project is translated by hills designed for sledding, skiing or snowshoeing in winter. Certain pathways serve as skating rinks when temperatures are cold enough. The open areas invite snow, ice sculptures and winter racing, as well as space for heated mobile cabins.
Hazard mitigation measures include a sophisticated surveillance system and a specialized island evacuation plan. The areas surrounding the amphitheater are equipped with a drainage system to quickly draw away heavy rains into a large existing pond, complemented by a sediment filtration system.
A DESTINATION UNTO ITSELF
One of the city’s objectives was to maximize the mythical site’s event-hosting vocation. It is much now much better equipped to welcome a host of local and tourist performances and festivals, from the intimate to the grandiose, delivering an authentic Montreal experience.
The redevelopment also integrates universal design and promotes physical activity with its urban greenspace, bicycle paths, walking trails and sidewalks that adapt to snow and ice to invite all manner of winter activities. Easily accessible, with an onsite subway station and a water shuttle connected to downtown Montreal, the extraordinary site offers breathtaking views of the city’s skyline reflected in the river, which can be enjoyed from the Calder belvedere or the restored boardwalk, now easily accessible and safe.
What is arguably North America’s largest outdoor amphitheater provides Espace 67 with one of its many adaptable spaces for events of all sizes. Its surfaces were fastidiously tested to be as resilient as possible, withstanding the elements as well as heavy vehicles and equipment. Its accesses are designed to accommodate very large crowds without compromising vegetation, trees or furniture. An extremely complex staging infrastructure includes a miles-long underground electrical network and 30 aboveground access stations judiciously integrated into the landscape.
Lemay’s thoughtful and strategic integration of nature, culture and site memory has created a unique urban destination, enhanced by a landscape signature highlighting the site’s festive history as well as its majestic river, spectacular urban and natural panoramas and the multifunctional, again-welcoming vocation of a treasured site.