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The History of Yugoslavia's Pavilion at Montreal's 1967 World EXPO

Updated: Mar 25, 2021

By the time the 1960s arrived, many of the architectural trends across the globe were being criticized that they created cities of bland boxy structures, crafted only in terms of being economically "sensible" and their potential to pack humans tightly together. As one source notes, "it was exactly this unexciting style that the business society welcomed, but the effect was boring and it deprived cities a sense of identity." As a response to such criticisms, when officials began planning the 1967 World Expo, held that year in Montreal, Canada, the participating countries were encouraged to be as architecturally bold and imaginative as possible in their pavilion designs. What resulted was some of the most spectacular and innovative architecture of the decade. From the Buckminster Fuller sphere of the USA pavilion, to the futuristic Habitat 67 model community, to the inverted pyramid of the Canadian pavilion, the 1967 Expo was a marvel of forward-thinking and progressive space-age design, just two years before man was to finally land on the moon. Heralded under the theme "Man and his World", the Expo captured the fantastic energy and optimism that existed during this time period, where anything and everything seemed possible, while the architecture on exhibition seemed to hint at a tomorrow that was beyond belief and right at our fingertips. Beyond being just hyper-modern, the architectural offerings of the Expo were also meant to be culturally unifying. As explained in a 2014 paper by Inderbir Singh Riar, "The resulting well-known Expo 67 theme, Man and His World, was a [praise of] contemporary humanism, which was first used... to reject the most enduring symbols of world exhibitions: the nation-state and its emblematic architecture. They imagined new kinds of architecture that could somehow engender new senses of political consciousness... outside nationalist chauvinism." Thus, the Expo 67 built environment was meant to communicate a sense of a collective "global" architecture, oriented not only towards the future, but also towards a sense of utopian togetherness and universalism.

A postcard view of the impressive Canada pavilion at the 1967 World Expo in Montreal.
Some advertising and promotional material used by the 1967 World Expo in Montreal.

It was within the backdrop of this imposing atmosphere that Yugoslavia intended to create their pavilion for the 1967 World Expo in Montreal, which would be only their second participation in a World's Fair event since the end of WWII (the first one being Brussels in 1958). As such, Yugoslavia had every intention for their architectural contribution to this historic event to be as progressive and tantalizing as those of the the dozens of other participating countries in the Expo. Though, despite these intentions, the process of the conception and creation of the pavilion was fraught with controversy (between architects and between political groups), while their completed pavilion presented at the Expo did not receive the attention or praise that government officials back in Yugoslavia hoped it would attract. Yet, despite the frazzled process leading to its creation and its lackluster performance as an architectural object during the Expo, the Yugoslav pavilion's legacy could be argued to be much more impactful and longer lasting than the majority of the Expo's pavilions. Designed originally as a 'temporary structure', after the Expo's conclusion, the pavilion was relocated to the Canadian island of Newfoundland, where it was repurposed as a "Provincial Seamen's Museum" in the town of Grand Bank. Thus, the pavilion has greatly transcended its original intention, adopting an unexpected history that survives on and endures up to the present day, making it an unquestionably unique relic in the history of Yugoslav architecture.

A vintage postcard showing the Yugoslav pavilion at the 1967 World's Expo in Montreal.

Yet, despite the unusual fate of this iconic and historic artifact, little is written about it and even those who live near it now in Grand Bank are often unaware of its unique story. As such, this article will explore the history of the Yugoslav pavilion, from its inception, its life during the 1967 Expo, and its final form as a museum to the maritime history of Newfoundland.


The Conception & Construction of the Yugoslav Pavilion

Originally, the 1967 World's Expo was meant to be hosted by the Soviet Union, the bid for which they had won back in 1960. However, two years later in 1962, the Soviets unexpectedly canceled their plans to host, at which point the hosting responsibilities were offered to the runner up of that 1960 bid... Montreal, who subsequently accepted the offer. This situation left Canada scrambling to quickly organize the event, already having been deprived of two years of valuable planning time from the start. As such, Canada made great efforts to enlist as many participant countries as possible for an event which many thought impossible to pull off successfully in such a short amount of time. Yugoslavia did not firmly commit to Canada its participation in the event until May of 1965, only two years before the planned opening of the Expo in 1967 and a point at which other participating countries were already in the process of constructing their pavilions in Montreal (making it one of the last participating countries to commit). In explaining its reasoning behind the decision to take part in the Montreal Expo, the Federal Executive Council of Yugoslavia made the following remarks (as recounted in a 2018 paper by Mladen Pešić):

"Participation in this exhibition will have a great political and propaganda significance for the popularization of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, its political and economic system, business and cultural development, especially on the North American continent. Participation in the exhibition will enable a much better acquaintance of the Canadian public with Yugoslavia and will undoubtedly influence the further development and expansion of international relations"

However, after committing to the Expo, Yugoslav government officials took four more months before they were able to announce an official architectural competition, which came finally in September of 1965, only giving architects one month to prepare their submissions. Yet, despite this obscenely short amount of time, 59 architectural design proposals for a "Yugoslav pavilion" were anonymously submitted for consideration by some of the most distinguished architects in the country, which included the likes of Ivan Štraus, Marko Mušič [profile page], Berislav Šerbetić, Vjenceslav Richter (who had built Yugoslavia's pavilion for the 1958 World's Fair in Brussels), among many others.

Start on October 15th, the concluding the date for the competition, the selection jury began evaluating all of the submitted proposals. This jury was composed of a mix of Yugoslav politicians, academics, writers, painters, architects and sculptors, which included notable figures such as architect Bogdan Bogdanović [profile page], sculptor Vojin Bakić [profile page], painter Miodrag Protić, architect Uroš Martinović, and numerous others. The jury took only six days of deliberation before they narrowed the 59 proposals down to just six finalists. These six finalists were then given 45 days to refine and re-submit their proposals. As such, on December 10th, 1965, the final results were announced. The first prize of this Yugoslav pavilion competition was awarded to a relatively unknown recent architect-school graduate, 28 year old Belgrade designer Miroslav Pešić. Meanwhile, the second place winner of the competition was none-other than veteran architect Vjenceslav Richter (creator of Yugoslavia's previous 1958 pavilion at Brussels).

An image of the winning concept model for the1967 Montreal Expo Yugoslav pavilion by architect Miroslav Pešić.
An image of the second-place concept model for the pavilion by architect Vjenceslav Richter. Credit: Archive Vjenceslav Richter, MSU Zagreb

The winning concept proposal by Pešić consisted of a building formed of seven modular prism shapes of alternating orientations which were all connected at their broad sides into one long continuous exhibition space. Plans called for six of these prism shapes to be the same size (30m long by 16m tall), though, the center prism of the group was intended to be slightly larger than the rest by roughly 10m. Entirely geometric in scope, the design called for no ornamentation or exterior decoration on the facade, just white walls and sharp defined lines. The only colorful element of the building's entire exterior was to be burnt-orange colored panels covering its three tall top-to-bottom windows and four small lower windows. What symbolic character, if any, Pešić's design was meant convey was not clear. Meanwhile, the second-prize entry by Richter was a concept called "Half-Defined Space", which proposed an open-air pavilion crafted from a separated four-sided pyramidal structure. Within this vaulted amphitheatre-like pavilion, Richter envisioned an array of cylindrical elements to be suspended from the pyramid's ceiling, an inclusion which would have given the whole space an almost sacral atmosphere.

As soon as the results of the competition were announced, they created almost immediate controversy. Many felt that the chosen design was not as ambitious as the pavilions being constructed by other participating nations (or the one proposed by Richter), while others asserted that Pešić's design was chosen on the basis of affordability and ease-of-construction rather than on its architectural merits. Meanwhile, others pointed to the fact that only a small number of the competition's jury members were practicing architects, a factor which some asserted led to a less bold architectural design being chosen. Furthermore, researcher Lara Slivnik, one of the most prominent academic writer on the subject of this pavilion, notes in a 2015 paper that, in addition to the above-mentioned points, when evaluating the debate surrounding the winning pavilion design by Pešić (who was a Serbian architect), versus the runner-up design by Richter(who was a Croatian architect), that it is worth recognizing that "neutral and supportive articles [of Pešić's pavilion] were... published in Serbia, while less favorable opinions were printed in Croatia", indicating that some of the criticism (or praise) towards Pešić's design may have contained an element of ethnic politics.

The Yugoslav pavilion under construction at the Expo grounds in Montreal. Credit: Lara Slivnik/Arhitektura urbanizam, 1967, No. 47

Efforts towards assembling the prefabricated elements of the pavilion began in Yugoslavia in early 1966, which were manufactured in Belgrade by the company "Rad". However, due to the looming deadline which the project was constrained by (as well as Pešić's limited experience as a seasoned architect), other experts were brought in to assist in facilitating the pavilion's completion. Firstly, structural architect and engineer Oskar Hrabovski was brought in to assist Pešić on creating the prefab steel skeletal segments of the pavilion, which, when completed in the summer of 1966, were shipped overseas from Yugoslavia to Montreal, Canada. Then, through the summer of 1966 through January 1967, the prefab segments of Pešić's pavilion were put in place and carefully assembled at Yugoslavia's assigned exhibition space located on the Expo grounds at 'Île Notre-Dame', adjacent to the French and British pavilions (located at THESE coordinates). After the exterior of the structure was completed, the final phase of the pavilion's interior arrangement and exhibit coordination began. However, it was not Pešić who designed the elements of the pavilion's interior and furnished the exhibition space... this was a task that was instead entrusted by the Yugoslav government Expo organizers to the competition's runner-up, architect Vjenceslav Richter — in conventional circumstances, a competition for the design of the interior would have been held, however, due to time constraints and considering the experience Richter already had in designing Expo and fair spaces for Yugoslavia, the commission was granted to him without competition.

A map of a section of the 1967 Montreal Expo showing the location of the Yugoslavia pavilion. Credit:

Information on the degree to which Richter and Pešić worked amicably and happily together on this project is not readily available, which would be especially interesting to learn about in the face of the many challenges of controversies, deadlines, distance and time constraints they faced together. However, what is clear is that they were able to work together and succeed in effectively delivering the Yugoslav pavilion to the public on time and in full working order when the Montreal Expo had its grand opening on April 28th, 1967. This Expo quickly became one of the most popular and visited World's Fair event in history, with well over one million people visiting it in just the first three days alone, with the third day by itself attracting nearly 570,000 people (a World's Fair history record). In total, by the Montreal Expo's conclusion on October 29th, 1967, over 50 million people pass through its gates. Now, we will look at the offerings of the Yugoslav pavilion in detail in order to understand what it was exactly that these huge throngs of visitors saw when they came to learn about and experience a small slice of Yugoslavia.


The Offerings of Yugoslavia's Pavilion

As the Yugoslav pavilion opened its doors on April 28th, 1967, sources indicate that more than 7 million Expo visitors from around the world poured into the structure over the course of the fair's duration. Within the pavilion laid a huge treasure trove of artifacts, exhibits, installations, and artworks which presented to audiences the life, culture and history of Yugoslavia. Let us now look in detail at these various features of the pavilion, examining what exactly made them so special and how the operated as key factors in communicating the country's heritage.