Unbuilt Vancouver: The Second Half of Science World

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I am sitting with Bruno Freschi on a summer afternoon in the Hotel Sylvia. Freschi, one of Vancouver’s most influential and inspired architects, has taken the time to share some hidden secrets about the Expo Centre (known today as the Telus World of Science, previously Science World, and originally the Expo Preview Centre) from his time as chief architect of Expo 86. Freschi reveals that the building was only half-finished, and to this day is missing a massive outdoor sphere-shaped screen, capable of playing movies along with what are now a geodesic pattern of reflective triangular panels.

Footage provided courtesy of the Province of British Columbia. Royal BC Museum item number V1990:09/41

JB: Can you describe the design approach of the Expo Centre?

BF: First of all, there is a “Referential Plan” which is the structure of our Expo Plan. In the plan, the axis of Georgia and Terminal Avenue intersect [at the Expo Centre]. The fountain in Lost Lagoon [on the opposite end of Georgia Street] represents the 50th anniversary, and the Expo Centre the 100th anniversary of the founding of our city. And then Terminal Avenue was “terminal” – in a sense it is the end of the road in Canada, so I selected that location particularly for those reasons.

Second, the initial Expo planning was a far bigger site than what it ended up as because of budget and all that; it included the False Creek Flats beyond Main Street. Looking at the plan, I took the gloves off and got permission to just look at the city and, I tell you, the city planning department was very upset at me. They admit that now, because I wasn’t “in” city planning, nor did I have to respond to them, but I was looking at a bigger picture. Ray Spaxman and friends are rumoured to have said “well, let Bruno do what he wants because everything will be torn down after the Expo.”

My job was to find a design that would deliver an Expo legacy for the City.

We evolved an iconic building at that “Referential” site. The idea was to open a pavilion a year in advance. That meant assembling and programming that building for the event, which was to be a major global event.

I had researched innovations in projection technology as a personal interest. We then discovered [the team behind] IMAX, which is a Canadian invention in Montréal, were innovating the OMNIMAX concept: a spherical screen. The technology was all there; they were funding the photography and elaborate films for the OMNIMAX. It’s a huge photographic machine, and it is an elaborate photography to go up in shuttles in space because they wanted to do a space film. So this was really cutting edge. At this point we had the technology for doing OMNIMAX which gave birth to the sphere on the interior.

The third major point regarding Expo (we were at that point around 1982) was “dematerialization.”

I thought this was a window into a dimension that hadn’t really been explored. Subsequently we had the Cloud by Diller + Scofidio in Switzerland, but at the time no one was talking about it.  The dematerialization thing fascinated me, and I felt that, wow, this has a social component.

When I was a student, we were [using dematerialization by] projecting onto the sides of buildings downtown Vancouver during the battles fighting the freeway plan for Vancouver. Subsequently I lived in a little town, Lugano Switzerland. There was a theatre I used to frequent to improve my Italian, and around the corner the guys who did the projections would go outside and take the reels that weren’t being used and projected them on the wall for the kids on the block. I was totally fascinated by this, and I wanted to explore the idea of “dematerializing” architecture further.

And then new technology pops up – A Japanese company was working on the Jumbotron concept (which at the time was just a word for exterior billboards and stadium scoreboards). Of course, the implications were phenomenal, because it works in daylight and weather doesn’t bother it. They schooled me in what they were doing and finally they invited me to a meeting in New York City and they presented the idea [of introducing Jumbotron to the world at Expo 86. Of course these screens are ubiquitous today.

I then came up with the idea of adding Jumbotron technology to the exterior of the Expo Center geodesic sphere]. And thus came the synthesis of dematerialization and projection both inside and outside the sphere. But, I needed triangles, which was a big challenge because of the geodesic qualities of the sphere. I said we are going to end up with triangles one way or another, whether they are hexagons or octagons or whatever – you are going to end up with triangles. That was fine; they went away to work on it; they came back and they wanted to give it to us for free and announce it to the world at Expo 86.

So I designed the building accordingly, and then went to Montréal. You could literally take the same [OMNIMAX] machinery and electronically put it on the exterior through the Jumbotron technology. So whatever you could play on the inside you could play on the outside.

JB: How did the massive spiral ramp come about in Expo Centre?

BF: The price of a world’s fair – any exposition in any building you know there is the show/main event and then if you have lots of people, there is always a pre-event, and then the lobby/foyer pre-pre entrance, and the ticket taking. We knew we were going to be in crowds, and I always advocated that we were going to be land-poor and there were going to be too many people, and believe it or not there were days where the entry was limited around the fair because it was too crowded and the fire marshals got excited. So I came up with the event and then I needed to entertain the line-up, so I created these mini-theatres at the base and then this circular ramp (which still exists) so when you go up the ramp there were opportunities to do all sorts of other stuff to inform you as you got to the main show. That’s a big problem in event design, and we handled it with the ramp. It’s not a new idea but it was a good idea.

JB: How did the project end up losing the Jumbotron?

BF: We could do the OMNIMAX. With a very steep theatre and all that technology worked. And the technology of putting it on the outside worked too. So we did a promo video, crude as it was for its day. In those days, Stanley Kubrick lived in Seattle and he was a good friend of a friend. He said go to Salt Lake City [to develop our promo video with a firm which was the avant-garde of computing and theatre in those days. We improved the quality of the video by pirating some images from Tron, the Israeli military, and shots of earth from space; we projected these images onto the surface of the dome as would be seen from the surrounding cityscape.

Anyway, everybody who saw the video loved the idea. Then, the Expo Consultants created this enormously complex RFP (Request for Proposals); I didn’t understand why they were having so much trouble. There was no technology firm in Vancouver or in BC to execute this new technology and the chairman of the board jokingly said to me he was in billboard business and this concept looked very complicated. And we did have a very tight schedule. However, we did have assurances that this concept was doable and deliverable.

The point is the Expo turned it down, and with no reason to turn it down because it wasn’t about money which really pissed me off. I believe the consultant RFP was intentionally made so difficult that no bidders appeared (death by a thousand cuts).

By then we were well under construction, and we had to open a year early. We were moving very fast, so we made the best we could with lighting the dome with strobe lights to meet the opening deadline.

JB: Did the media know at the time that the building could have had that façade for free?

BF: No. A lot of the work we did was kept confidential.  Expo was trapped in the philosophic debate of “theme park” vs. “world’s fair.” And really, the dematerialization argument, which was very architecturally esoteric, did not interest them. The president at that time was also advocating that Expo was to be a “post-architectural fair” There was concern [about the philosophy] which they never really understood. I tried to convince the Board and their Consultants but I failed to get any support. Also this was the time that the Expo President was undermining our Expo Plan and was pursuing the “Theme park “concept” or as he called it, “a revenue driven plan.”

He was later fired, thank goodness.

JB: Maybe it did not fit their prime directive.

BF: I don’t know. It just never made it. That resulted in the strobe lights on Expo Center instead. They were strobe lights then, they have since been modified in the upgrade of the building to LEDs.

The Telus World of Science – September 1, 2016. Programmable LEDs dot the perimeter of the geodesic sphere. Photo Credit: James AV Bligh

JB: If you could make any tweaks to the design of the Expo Centre today what would you make?

BF: I would add the skin back because here’s the other side of it – it’s social architecture. One of the elements of that sphere is that it is a lantern to East Vancouver. Now, Vancouver still today has this West and East Main Street divide.  The Sphere was a “signaletic icon trying to create a bridge to East Vancouver. This was that magic lantern, with public space around it for people to sit around and watch stuff. It would have been a hit during Expo and Post-Expo. It could have been a fun legacy in the public domain of the waterfront.

JB: You mention the Jumbotron acting as building dematerialization, what do you imagine playing on that screen?

BF: Anything you could do on a screen you could do there. You could run movies free to the world, or it could be commercials (which is dangerous). One can imagine live global events being broadcast to the public in open public space, I told you the little story about the projections on the sides of buildings; I was always struck by that kind of phenomenon because the building goes away and you are in the ennui of the movie, or whatever the projection is. All decoration in history tries to do that. If you study the Baroque world: Borromini, Bernini, all those guys – you discover that they are interested in that subject of dematerialization and illusion. Here we could have done it as intentional public media in the public domain.

Image Credit: Bruno Freschi Urban Design & Planning

I also believe that it’s related to this question of spectacle in architecture. When I worked on the Osaka Canadian Pavilion with Arthur [Erickson], we covered it in 45 degree angled mirrors so we captured the sky, the great Canadian metaphor. The mirrored building (you can see banal interpretations around town) is precisely that idea. It’s kind of a more creative and interactive interpretation of this idea but it dematerializes what’s there and introduces another level of complexity to a façade. As I said, the Baroque world was the big teacher in that subject; Baroque architecture was really after sustaining illusion through dematerialization of decoration and geometry, and the layering of prospect.

And so, people are quite happy to get into illusion. That’s why movies are the high art form of today. You turn the lights out, you turn the projector on, and the world changes.

Footage provided courtesy of the Province of British Columbia. Royal BC Museum item number V1990:09/41

JB: I come from a generation of people who have grown up with Expo Centre as Science World, and every local I know seems to have an intimate connection with the building. Did you try to achieve that, knowingly, in your design process?

BF: That was the intent – to create an icon. I admit that. Something that becomes iconic must be formatively iconic and functionally iconic. The OMNIMAX theatre was a pretty powerful [functional] device, and the location making it visually available as a form and this sign-post of East and West meeting. The form itself is pretty simple; there has always been a dome at every world’s fair since the turn of the century. The Sphere is symbolic of the world. In fact, we used satellite shots of the earth on the four minute promo video. For example, when I say iconic in a functional sense, today there is a big interest in a lot of pseudo-information, statistical info which you could project. So it becomes a publicly transparent and available, iconic urban lantern and mega-interactive, 21st century magic lantern. Notwithstanding the risk of its commercialization, this could have been a great potential illusion and spectacle. Politicians and civic bureaucrats might be afraid of this kind of spectacle available to the public in the public domain.

When they did the big renovation I had just moved back to Vancouver. They were looking for me, but they couldn’t find me because I had cancer and I was in surgeries half the time. And then I met the VP responsible and he said “oh, you’re too late!” But that whole conversation was started, and I gave him the promo video. The renovation program was banal and the architects were uninterested.

I keep hoping it’s not too late to finish the Expo (Science World) Icon!

I hope so too, Bruno.