Monday, September 17, 2012

Burning Bubble


One fine day in May, 1976, I was in my favourite classroom window-seat at Chambly County, the local high school in the Montreal suburb of St. Lambert.  My older sister Kathleen reports that she skipped classes that day and hung out in the field behind the school.  My younger sister Mary doesn’t know where she was, except maybe in grade 7.  Our brother Murray was a few blocks away at Champlain College, the St. Lambert CEGEP-by-the-Seaway.

Suddenly, I caught a glimpse of smoke down a side street.  Kathleen says that from the field she could see the smoke towering up in a thick, oily column.  But our brother had the best view of all: from his CEGEP library window, which faced the Seaway Canal, he got to watch the whole drama of Montreal’s (unoccupied) geodesic dome going up (“Magnificently”, he said) in flames.

That fire burned the flammable skin off the pavilion.  When it was over, only the globular metallic structure remained.  It stayed in that decrepit state for many years: I was married with children (visiting my parents and looking for an expedition) before it reopened in 1995 as a water ecosystem museum; without the skin. 

The dome was not the only dilapidated structure that littered the landscape of what became a ghost town on the Expo Islands.  These islands maintained their other activities: trails and swimming pools on the forested Île Ste. Helene; and, the Olympic Rowing Basin, Formula One racing, and cross-country-ski trails on Île Notre Dame. When my family went on wintry expeditions to Île Notre Dame, one of my favourite things to do was ski off-route and sweep in and out of the icy, eerie, broken-down structures.  It felt like we were exploring a lost civilization.  It’s no wonder that “Battlestar Galactica” (original series) did some filming there.

But long before the Expo site reached such a state, it was a favourite childhood expedition.  After Expo 67, the complex of pavilions remained open and was called “Man and His World”, a name you could get away with in the 60s and 70s.  In full view of our suburb, we could have walked there if we were capable of leaping the Seaway Canal. Instead, my Mom and us four kids would travel by Metro with a picnic supper to meet my Dad after work; and then, using our season’s passes, explore the site.  As my siblings and I got older and more independent, we scattered ourselves around the grounds, devouring our favourites.  

I loved the American pavilion (the doomed geodesic dome), with its airy interior and long escalator. The Czechoslovakian pavilion displayed glass-blowers and their impossible talent.  We swarmed all over the massive outdoor playground at the Children’s pavilion, and enjoyed the précis-version of War of the Worlds playing continuously at the Space pavilion.  But my absolute favourite was the Iranian pavilion; with beautiful blue and white-tiled columns on the outside, and friendly artisans on the inside.  This pavilion had a huge screen mounted in the main open space, which showed footage of the Shah and his family travelling in a carriage through cheering crowds.  It was like a fairy tale: a king, a beautiful queen and a cute little prince. It turned out to have all the substance of a fairy tale too: the institution of Iranian royalty was just as doomed as the geodesic dome, including the untimely ending. Fortunately for the royal family, their end involved exile, not incendiary destruction.

By the time I started losing interest in “Man and His World”, so, apparently, did the Powers-In-Charge.  I’m guessing that the city’s energy and money ended up in the Olympics.  The site slowly morphed from the bountiful summer destination of my childhood to the bleak, abandoned backdrop of my youth.  “Man and his World” closed for good in 1981, and most of the pavilions were eventually torn down.