Philips Pavillion


In 1958, Le Corbusier, Iannis Xenakis, and Edgard Varèse realized a hitherto unique space-sound composition at the World’s Fair in Brussels that can only be subsumed under the modern term ‘multimedia installation’. The artistic director of the Philips concern, Louis Kalff, commissioned Le Corbusier to design a pavilion that would reflect the technological achievements of the modern age and at the same time the importance of the globally active corporation. Starting with a ground plan based on the shape of the human stomach, Le Corbusier then assigned the design of the pavilion primarily to Iannis Xenakis, who had been working as an architect in his office since 1947.[1] Le Corbusier, who at the time was working on large design projects in Chandigarh, India, did not intend “to build a pavilion, but an electronic poem. Everything will happen in the interior — sound, light, color, and rhythm.”[2] Le Corbusier’s color and image projections were synchronized with the eight-minute-long sound projection of the Poème électronique by Edgard Varèse. Varèse saw his concept of spatial music ideally translated here for the first time. His composition had been recorded on three audiotapes and the sound projection distributed among 350 loudspeakers that were arranged on so-called ‘sound paths.’[3] However, it is not only the light and sound production by Le Corbusier and Edgard Varèse that is of importance to the relationship between architecture and music, but the exterior form of the Philips Pavilion as well. In his design, Xenakis, who was already well known as a composer of New Music, made reference, on the one hand, to Le Corbusier’s measurement system, known as The Modulor, which by means of the ‘golden cut’ aligns architectural dimensions with those of the human body; on the other hand, he used his composition Metastasis, which he wrote in 1954, as the starting point for the construction principles of the curved outward surfaces of the Philips Pavilion (referred to as hyperbolic paraboloids), which in part vaulted steeply upward. In doing so, he transferred the glissando movements of the multiply divided strings at the beginning and at the end of Metastasis to the mathematic-geometric principles applied in the calculation of the hyperbolic parabolic forms. Xenakis thus transferred the continuous movement of the sound sequences in Metastasis to the continuous cladding of the Philips Pavilion.

In addition, Xenakis wrote the piece Concret PH for the pavilion, a stereophonic composition with the sounds of burning coal that was played back cluster-like via loudspeakers in the pavilion’s interior during the interludes that allowed different audiences to attend the numerous daily presentations of Poème électronique. Xenakis referred to the relationship between Concret PH and the pavilion as a homologous antithesis. The granular structure of the composition, which was demonstrated by Agostino di Scipio, acts antithetically to the concept of the geometric continuity of the pavilion.[4]

The Philips Pavilion was demolished in the fall of 1958. The remaining original material, which has been maintained in the form of various scores, audio and film tapes, architectural plans, and numerous photographs, is currently being processed within the scope of the extensive research project Virtual Electronic Poem.[5] The goal of the project is the virtual reconstruction of the light-sound projection in the interior of the pavilion by means of an immersive three-dimensional playback system consisting of a virtual-reality helmet with a head tracker, binaural headphones, and a stereoscopic display.

Le Corbusier initially refused to credit Xenakis with his contribution as architect to the pavilion and the latter then ended their collaboration, turning increasingly to music. Xenakis was eventually cited as the co-architect.  
There is conflicting information about the number of the loudspeakers in the pavilion. According to the current state of the source material, 350 is the most plausible.  
See the project website: