I’m getting pretty comfortable with my love affair/obsession with the US Pavilion at the Expo 67 in Montreal. I mean, it’s got Buckminster Fuller; Alan Solomon curating gigantic paintings; photomurals; and satelloons, what’s not to love, right?
So seeing Design for a Fair, the 1968 promo short film by Peter Chermayeff is awesome just as it is. The vintage footage and photos are some of the crispest I’ve seen, and it really is pretty crazy on a whole bunch of levels that this thing existed at all.
But maybe the greatest thing–even better than the giant graphic designed flags that look like a lost Ellsworth Kelly, as if there wasn’t enough giant, escalator-optimized, actual art already–and even better than the sheer soft power/propaganda play that was so drop-dead awesome it won the future for the day–is the voiceover.
Because the whole thing really sounds like Chermayeff’s idea. Every last bit of it, dome to nuts. It’s fantastic. Chermayeff, of course, is an architect and exhibition designer, and his former firm, Cambridge Seven Associates, or C7A, was contracted by the US Information Agency to produce the US Expo entry.
And so, as Chermayeff tells it, they knew they wanted a 3/4 geodesic dome, so they ordered one. And they wanted some giant art, so they ordered that. And the moon stuff, and the Hollywood and all the happy parts of American culture.
Now I don’t doubt a thing; I’m sure that’s exactly how it all went down. It’s just that that’s not how it’s typically remembered. Architects only remember Fuller; the art world only recognizes Solomon and the artists, not the venue or the show or the implications of it; and everything else is artifact and prop. [And the poor lunar photomural, I’ve hardly found anyone remembering that at all.]
The historical focus is either on the general awesomeness of the spectacle and mood, the political context and propaganda, or on the parts in isolation. What Design for a Fair reminds me of, though, is the visitor’s experience, the carefully orchestrated messaging, and the reality that it was orchestrated by a contractor working to a brief provided by the USIA. It was a government-funded gesamtkunstwerk, a massive piece of installation art before the fact, and probably one of the most cost-effective public diplomacy efforts of the Cold War era. It literally seems unimaginable today.