JOHN BARBER March 17 1986


JOHN BARBER March 17 1986



Czechoslovakian film technician Bohumil Mika has travelled the world as a representative of Art Centrum, a state agency that hires out its skilled employees to foreign clients. Art Centrum workers have been in demand since Czech pavilions became crowd favorites at the Brussel’s World Fair in 1958 and again at Expo 67 in Montreal. Not surprisingly, Czech film-makers and designers are hard at work on the bustling Expo 86 construction site in Vancouver. Mika’s assignment is an unlikely one for an employee of a Communist state: producing a multimedia extravaganza for the Pavilion of Promise, a project of Crossroads Christian Communications Inc., a Toronto-based fundamentalist organization that produces the evangelical television program 100 Huntley Street. But in the unpredictable melting pot of a world exposition, such alliances are common. And Mika’s collaboration with the Pavilion of Promise could easily result in one of Expo 86’s unexpected hits.

Ultimately, the visitors who will begin passing through Expo’s flag-bedecked gates on May 2 will determine the hits of the fair. And there is no shortage of candidates, ranging from a snakelike concrete highway encrusted with 200 vin-

tage vehicles to a train that levitates above its track. Mika’s productions will compete against the most technically sophisticated films, videos and slide-and-light shows ever collected in one place—so many “black-box” special effects that many exhibitors are concerned about overpowering the fairgoers. They are taking pains to present conventional exhibits in fresh and creative ways. And although almost all exhibitors will concentrate on the fair’s transportation and communication theme, few are confusing Expo 86 with a trade show. Instead of displays of cars and electronic consumer goods, the Japan pavilion will present a detailed, 10,760-square-foot model of a coastal city of the future with 5,000 moving pieces.

Clear: Indeed, the overall message that Expo 86 will deliver is already clear on a site still ringing with the sounds of construction: technology cannot solve all the world’s problems. That in itself is a break with the tradition that world’s fairs offer rosy visions of the future. Indeed, in his 1968 book This Was Expo, author Robert Fulford described Expo 67 as “our century’s most ingenious and most blatant expression of liberal optimism.” By contrast, Expo 86 will bristle with

messages about the limits of technology. And some of its most striking features will be unabashedly nostalgic—an attitude rarely encountered at world expositions.

The most striking expression of this ambivalence is Highway 86, a $4.5-million sculpture which consists of a 217-m roadway of undulating concrete carrying more than 200 vehicles—from a Bell 47G1 helicopter to a 1959 Cadillac Eldorado convertible. Expo’s creative director, Ronald Woodall, calls it “the largest sculpture in the world that doesn’t have U.S. presidents in it.” James Wines, the New York City architect who created the highway, describes the work as “an archeological dig of the future.” Added Wines:

“It is a double-edged piece. It raises the prospect of technology out of control.” Wines says that Highway 86 is a nostalgic tribute to fondly remembered vehicles. At the same time, it is also a children’s playground and a structural marvel only eight inches thick.

Focus: Originally commissioned by Expo as a pavilion showing the “world of today,” Highway 86 will be juxtaposed with two installations that focus on the future and the past. The former will be captured in the Expo Centre,

Vancouver architect Bruno Freschi’s metallic geodesic dome, which will become the futures pavilion when Expo opens in May. It will include a giant-screen film, A Freedom to Move, which was previewed in the centre last summer, and an exhibition of futuristic transport. That brave new world may not be as popular as the return trip to the past offered by The Roundhouse, a restored Canadian Pacific Railway maintenance centre built in 1888. In 1984 the Expo corporation hired Czechoslovakian Studio Shape, a Prague-based design group, to install a $2.2-million exhibit in The Roundhouse celebrating the late 19th century as the “the golden age of ingenuity.”

With its freshly polished brass fittings and a new coat of black paint, CPR Engine No.

374, which hauled the first rail passengers into Vancouver 99 years ago, holds the place of honor on the Roundhouse’s outdoor turntable.

And inside the first of four galleries there is another re-

minder of the age of steam: Studio Shape’s huge sculpture of a locomotive wheel. Fully 25 feet high and 12 m across, the wheel arches up to the gallery ceiling while a fanciful flying machine resembling an exotic insect hovers nearby. Other exhibits will include an 1893 Benz Viktoria passenger car and a life-size working replica of British inventor George Stephenson’s Rocket, a locomotive which first puffed along railway tracks in 1829.

While emerging technology will be well represented at Expo 86, visitors could be disappointed by the absence in the Japanese pavilion of the robots that proved so popular at Expo 85. Japan project manager Takao Yamazuki said that the robotmakers were concerned about espionage by industrial rivals in Vancouver and the cost of § maintaining the robots. I Instead, the Japanese § will show a prototype of 1 future commuter rail otravel—the one-car I High Speed Surface z Transport train (HSST) “ designed to levitate magnetically above a curved track and cruise at 300 km/h. At Expo 86, HSST will travel at a sedate pace of 40 km/h on its 450-m route at the east end of the site.

Making technology accessible was a top priority of Expo’s creative director, Woodall. He supervised the overall look of Expo, which he described as “a little sixmonth, bolt-together city,” and it was his idea to have three outdoor plazas celebrating land, sea and air transportation. All three were designed, said Woodall, to ensure that “if you never went inside a pavilion at Expo you would still get your money’s worth.” He added that, because Expo expected the foreign participants to mount technological exhibits in their pavilions, on the site’s open spaces “we have tended to a lot of whimsy, curiosity and surprise elements, with a lot for children.”

Cue: At the Land Plaza, which takes its cue from the nearby Highway 86 sculpture, there will be an international traffic jam, including a Hong Kong tram and a London taxi, spiralling up a coneshaped pole. Further west, a similar brash jumble will characterize the Air Plaza. Woodall calls the plaza,

which is enclosed by a colorful steel gantry, “a great cage of trapped flying machines.” Its main attraction will be the nose cone of a Boeing 747 (donated by the manufacturer) which Woodall plans to use as a display case for a full-scale replica of Flyer I, the biplane which Orville and Wilbur Wright flew over the beaches of Kitty Hawk, S.C., in 1903. On the other side of the Cambie St. bridge, the Marine Plaza will consist of a wharf which juts into False Creek. The inner harbor created by the wharf will have berths for more than 150 international watercraft ranging from a tiny reed boat used by Peruvian fishermen to Nova Scotia’s famed racing schooner Bluenose II, which is sailing to Vancouver via the Panama Canal.

Anarchic: The exuberance of the theme plazas matches Woodall’s deliberately anarchic design for the fair as a whole.

Far from repeating the cool elegance of Norman Hay’s overall design of Expo 67, Woodall has splashed Expo 86 with enough color and light to outshine the Las Vegas Strip. Said the ebullient Woodall: “There is an awful lot of fun here and it’s all my fault.”

The frenetic design helps to compensate for the undistinguished architecture at Expo 86, especially architect Freschi’s boxlike international pavilions, which Expo provided participants in accordance with the requirements for a “second category” fair.

But visitors will be surprised by the freshness of the provincial and corporate pavilions, most notably those being built by the western provinces. And for the most part, international participants are finding imaginative solutions to dress up their functional accommodations. The Australians intend to decorate their pavilion with a huge neon mural of a jumping kangaroo, while the Hong Kong pavilion will be encased in bamboo scaffolding typical of the city’s ongoing construction.

One of Woodall’s goals was to create outdoor sites that would serve as a contrast to Expo’s audiovisual attractions. According to John Powles, the deputy commissioner general of the Canadian pavilion, many exhibits are using films because they are relatively cheap and efficient. Said Powles: “It is still the best way of processing large numbers of people quickly and getting the right message across.”

At the same time, there will be a surprising lack of technical innovation evident to many people watching Expo’s major films. The offerings will include a “multidimensional” film in the U.S. pavilion by Toronto’s Christopher Chapman. He first introduced the technique in the Ontario pavilion at Expo 67. And Telecom Canada will present Portraits of Canada, a “Circle-Vision 360” travelogue produced by Walt

Disney Productions, the same company that created a similar film to surround viewers with nine screens in the Telephone Industries’ Pavilion at Expo 67.

The two most dramatic film systems at Expo 86 will be Showscan and OMNIMAX. Showscan, developed by Los Angeles special effects innovator Douglas Trumbull in the late 1970s, projects 60 frames of film per second—compared to 24 in conventional films—to create a more vivid, almost three-

dimensional image. The technique will be used in the B.C. pavilion’s Zargon, starring Fairuza Balk of Return to Oz, and also in Donald Brittain’s Earthwatch at the Canada exhibit, OMNIMAX achieves a similar effect using film 10 times larger than normal 35-mm film and concave screens 88 feet across to give viewers a sense of literally being in the picture. The format is the invention of film-maker Graeme Ferguson’s IMAX Systems Ltd. of Toronto and will be used in Michel Brault’s A Freedom to Move at the Expo Centre. Another IMAX Ltd. system will be used in National Film Board director Colin Low’s Trani sitions, a 3-D documentary about Canadian transportation.

Queasy: As the ushers in the Expo Centre discovered last summer during previews of Brault’s film, OMNIMAX’S j wraparound technique makes some viewers queasy. But not all of Expo’s films will do that. Czech Emil Radok, whose Laterna Magika at Expo 67 dazzled Montreal audiences with pioneering multiscreen techniques, is now a Canadian citizen and has created The Taming of the Demons for the Teleglobe Canada Theatre. With nine different-sized screens surrounding a spinning hoop containing more projected images, and an eight-track sound system, Demons is as sophisticated as OMNlMAX’s offering—and less unsettling.

Radok’s film is an imaginative account of the role of communications in bringing order to man’s chaotic world. There are no roller-coaster rides in it. Indeed, Radok demands that viewers work to absorb his message. Said Radok: “It will be hard work for them. But the result will be something wholly new.” In that, his film reflects the best of a world exposition. And since The Taming of the Demons cannot be shown without the Teleglobe Theatre’s elaborate technology, Radok knows that the film will slip into obscurity when the theatre is dismantled in October. That is his only regret after spending two years making the film. And when Expo 86 closes, millions of people who have experienced its wonders will doubtless share a similar sense of loss.