Poeme electronique, the multimedia environment at the Phillips Pavilion in the 1958 Brussels World Fair.
In 1956, the artistic director of the Philips company, Louis C. Kalff, asked Le Corbusier to design a pavilion that would embody and demonstrate the excellence of the company’s products for the benefit of visitors to the Brussels World’s Fair. Le Corbusier agreed, proposing a “bottle” that would house a light, colour, image, rhythm and sound show that Le Corbusier called an “electronic poem”. Poème électronique was the title of the musical score commissioned from avant-garde composer Edgar Varèse specifically for use in the Pavilion.
(Source: Carlotta Daro, Canadian Center of Architecture)
The Philips Pavilion staged what would now be called a multimedia event, or interdisciplinary poly-art orgy, for the five months of the World Fair. There were projected images (Le Corbusier at least chose these), two hanging, sculptural figures, and two pieces of early electro-acoustic music: Xenakis’s Concrète P.H., and Edgard Varèse’s Poème électronique. The exterior of the Pavilion was based on the parabolic curves that Xenakis had discovered in mathematics and which he used to structure his early musical works, such as Metastasis; it was a symphony in swooping steel and concrete, and seeing it today in photographs, it still looks like the future made flesh. (Never designed as a permanent structure, the Pavilion was pulled down shortly after the World Fair – a shame, since the theoretically impermanent Eiffel Tower is still going strong).
(Source: How Iannis Xenakis turned his back to Architecture, Guardian)
Before you read on, have a look at this “virtual” representation of the project.
«The Philips Pavilion presented a collage liturgy for twentieth-century humankind, dependent on electricity instead of daylight and on virtual perspectives in place of terrestrial views.»
(Source: Marc Treib, Space Calculated in Seconds, Princeton, 1996, p. 3)
Le Corbusier wanted to create a Gesammstkunstwerk. As an architect he understood how people experience space and fill it with sight and sound
Poème Électronique is a concept that jumps straight off the theoretical draftboard into reality. That’s why he threatened to quit altogether if Philips wanted to drop Edgard Varèse. The whole point, for Le Corbusier, was that Varèse, neglected and frustrated, represented the new frontier, mixing technology with art.
(Source: Classical Iconoclast)
“The structure is composed of hyperbolic-paraboloid shells which, up to now, have not been used for the problems of the type. The walls are constructed of rough slabs cast in sand moulds on the ground, measuring about 5′-0″ on a side and 2″ in thickness. They are mounted in place by means of a movable scaffolding and are supported by a double network of cables, 3″ in diameter, suspended along the cylindrical directrices of strongly reinforced concrete. Such is the principal of the structure.”The electronic poem of Le Corbusier at the Philips Pavilion marks the first appearance of a new art form; ‘The Electronic Games’, a synthesis unlimited in its possibilities for color, imagery, music, words and rhythm.”
“The electronic poem of Le Corbusier at the Philips Pavilion marks the first appearance of a new art form; ‘The Electronic Games’, a synthesis unlimited in its possibilities for color, imagery, music, words and rhythm.”
(Source: Hans Girsberger, ed. Le Corbusier 1910-60. p236.)
“They asked Le Corbusier to design something and Le Corbusier asked me to design something. At that time, I was very much interested in shapes like hyperbolic paraboloids, things like that; and so I organized them to form a shell in which we could produce sounds and images on the walls. I did the designs and I showed them to Le Corbusier and he said, ‘Yes, of course.'”
“The structure represents a shift from a translational notion of volume (whereby the elevation is a vertical translation of the plan) to a new concept of volume, with three truly distinct, non-homomorphic, dimensions.”
– Yannis Xenakis, design engineer and Le Corbusier associate
As the story goes, Le Corbusier did not acknowledge Xenakis’s role and contribution to the design and construction of the Pavilion, resulting in the two men having a dispute in 1957. Here are the details:
“The ground breaking on the project was in May of 1957. The images to be projected inside were still not assembled, while Le Corbusier made excuses about a constant preoccupation with the project and needing adequate time for his ideas to gestate and be realized. Le Corbusier arrived in Paris to sign off on the design, then went to Eindhoven where he played it up to the press, posing for photos and pointing out his unique design elements at work. Xenakis was disgruntled, feeling neglected, unacknowledged, and upstaged. This kind of treatment is the norm, particularly in design firms. The head of the firm comes up with the broad strokes, dividing time between PR work and asking designers to adjust their work, then signs off on the plans and takes the credit. Xenakis, however, was not prepared for this reality. He immediately wrote to the Philips Corporation, claiming the design as his own, and requesting due credit in future. Such a move was unprecedented. Le Corbusier had never shared credit with anyone, and an employee with such audacity would normally be summarily dismissed. Xenakis, however, was too important to the firm, and Le Corbusier was forced, however reluctantly, to acknowledge, if not accept, Xenakis’ design contributions. Le Corbusier wrote to Philips, defending his work methods, claiming that none of his 250 architects had ever received any credit for any of the firm’s work.”
Architecture’s loss was, however, music’s big gain.
Xenakis turned his creative genius exclusively to music.
I want to share with you “Sea Nymphs”, a piece he wrote in 1994 for the 70th Anniversary of the BBC Singers.
The reason is that I was fortunate to attend the world premiere of the piece in London’s Wigmore Hall.
During a break, I managed to talk to Xenakis himself.
A soft spoken, extremely polite man, who contributed immensely to contemporary music.