Le Corbusier: Philips Pavilion, Brussels, 1958

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By Aaron Zephir

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Essay on photographs from the 1958 Exposition universelle et internationale in Brussels, Belgium created as a final assignment in World's Fairs: Social and Architectural History, HONR 219F, Spring 2001

Essays on the Material Culture of the World's Fairs
Edited by: Patricia Kosco Cossard and Isabelle Gournay
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University of Maryland Libraries
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Electronic version encoded on January 17, 2006

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Keywords:

  • Le Corbusier, 1887-1965
  • Xenakis, Iannis, 1922-2001
  • Exposition universelle et internationale (1958 : Brussels, Belgium)
  • Philips Corporate Design (Firm)
  • Philips Building. Exposition universelle et internationale (1958 : Brussels, Belgium)
  • Poe??me e??lectronique Le Corbusier
  • Exhibition buildings -- Design and construction
  • Essay
  • 1901-2000
  • Europe
  • Belgium
  • Brussels
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     Source: Philips Technical Review, Vol. 20, No. 1 (1958/59), page 1. Photo by Hans de Boer.

These photographs taken from a 1958 issue of Philips Technical Review depict the Philips Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World's Fair. Located in a small site next to the Dutch section and away from the center of the fair, the pavilion hosted a futuristic multimedia display featuring images, colored lighting and music and sounds called the "Po??me Electronique." Some of the greatest artistic minds of the twentieth century were involved in its creation, including the architect Le Corbusier (1887-1965) and the composer Edgard Var??se (1883-1965). But most importantly, the Philips Pavilion represented an important artistic phenomenon through its synthesis of architecture, visual media and music.

The purpose of the pavilion was to exhibit the technology of the Philips corporation, a Dutch electronics company specializing in everything from sound production to fluorescent lighting to X-ray technology. Philips' aim was obviously promotional, integrating corporate advertisement into an exhibit much like the pavilions by General Motors and Ford at the Chicago fair of 1933 and the New York fair of 1939. But rather than having a traditional pavilion that would display their products for the visitors to browse through, Philips chose to create an integrated work of modern art that would utilize its wide array of technologies. Therefore, the Philips pavilion had no exhibits per se; rather it was a kind of exhibit in itself; an all-encompassing showcase of what the Philips corporation could offer.

For the execution of this unique undertaking, Philips selected the French architect Le Corbusier, one of the greatest modern designers of the twentieth century. Philips executives approached him in January 1956 to design, in the words of artistic director Louis Kalff, a "spatial-color-light-music production" for the Philips corporation (Treib 2). Le Corbusier was by this time near the end of his career, but also at the height of his powers, as demonstrated by his recently completed masterpieces including the Unit??? d'Habitation in Marseilles (1946-52) and the chapel of Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, France (1950-54). Philips executives no doubt expected a first-class design from Le Corbusier, but they also expected him to direct the entire concept of the Po??me Electronique and all of its images and lighting, in addition to the architecture. In effect, Philips gave Le Corbusier carte blanche to create their pavilion, insisting only that he utilize the various technological media the company was producing.

Le Corbusier's involvement in the Philips Pavilion is often overestimated. In reality, most of the designing was carried out by his collaborator Yannis Xenakis (b.1922), a Greek architect and music composer working in Le Corbusier's office at the time. Xenakis would later become famous for his use of rigorous mathematical concepts and relationships in his music, but at this time was not well known. This may be part of the reason that he receives less recognition for the design than he probably deserves, coupled with Le Corbusier's prestige and public exaggerations of his own role. Le Corbusier was more concerned with what was going on inside the pavilion and cared little about its exterior appearance. Even the spectacle inside was not completely his own, for the music was by Edgard Var??se, a well-known composer at the time and a pioneer in the field of electronic music and the use of non-instrumental sounds, exemplified by Ionization (1930-31) and Deserts (1949-54). It was Le Corbusier, however, who insisted that Var??se be chosen to compose the music, for Philips wanted to enlist the talents of the more famous but less radical British composer Benjamin Britten. But after succeeding in his plea, Le Corbusier left Var??se a completely free hand in composing the music.

Although Xenakis was the principal designer of the Philips Pavilion, the architecture did originate with Le Corbusier's general concepts. These consisted of descriptions of a "stomach" to contain the Po??me Electronique, with a twisted path for entrance and exit and warped, curving walls on which to project the colors and images. This basic concept was about as far as Le Corbusier's architectural involvement went. The shape of the building would be left for Xenakis to determine. The pavilion was to serve as a small auditorium, where approximately five hundred seated visitors could see the images projected on all the walls around them, as if it were an irregularly shaped planetarium. His point of departure for the structure was a series of conjoined hyperbolic parabaloids-curved planes mathematically generated entirely from straight lines-that would form a tent-like enclosure for the stomach-shaped floor plan. The sloping walls of the hyperbolic parabaloids would satisfy Le Corbusier's idea of irregular warped surfaces for the projection of images. The geometric form also appealed to Le Corbusier's desire for mathematical rationality while the dramatic slopes and contours of the pavilion related to a more expressionistic idiom.

The execution of the design proved to be problematic. Xenakis' own structural solution involved a tensile structure of steel cables strung from steel posts at the ends of the "tent" to form the hyperbolic parabaloids. It was rejected on the grounds that the interior would require more solid, acoustically insulating walls. Le Corbusier and the sound engineers wanted a structure of concrete to keep exterior noise from interfering with the presentation. But the complex shapes of Xenakis' hyperbolic parabaloids made it impossible to build a conventional poured concrete structure. The solution that would satisfy both Xenakis' ideas and the acoustical requirements of the Po??me Electronique was a system of precast concrete panels hung in tension from wire cables. Because hyperbolic parabaloids are generated by straight lines, the method of using precast panels was easy to implement. This ingenious compromise was devised by Hoyte Duyster, the chief engineer for the Philips project. The panels were constructed in a hangar shed from a simple sand mold that matched the curvature of the pavilion. Once the panels were cast around the sand mold, they were numbered, shipped to the construction site and quickly assembled. They would hang on steel cables strung from thin concrete ribs that were cast in place. These ribs are visible in the photograph where the walls converge at the ends of the pavilion. The result was a quickly and efficiently constructed building that fulfilled the requirements of the Po??me Electronique.

While the design of the pavilion was underway, Le Corbusier was busy figuring out what would be happening inside. Le Corbusier wanted the Po??me Electronique to consist of an eight-minute film made up of an array of still photographs highlighted by changing washes of colored light on the interior surfaces of the pavilion. The underlying concept related to Le Corbusier's own view of the progress of humankind through history and into the future. However, the Po??me would not be a presentation of concrete images associated with events or historical developments. It was meant to be abstract and highly symbolic, with groups of stills chosen to make a statement about humanity. These images, including such diverse subject matter as tribal art, baby faces, animals, machinery, Charlie Chaplin and even a mushroom cloud, were arranged in rather confusing combinations and juxtapositions. For example, Charlie Chaplin and the mushroom cloud would be shown next to each other in an attempt to show the absurdity of modern warfare. The eight minutes was made up of seven sequences: "Genesis," "Matter and Spirit," "From Darkness to Dawn," "Manmade Gods," "How Time Molds Civilization," "Harmony," and "To All Mankind." The actual filming of the images was carried out by Philippe Agostini, a celebrated filmmaker who further enhanced the visual potency of the Po??me with his techniques of quick montage, innovative framing methods, and rotation, reflection and movement of the images. The color projections were integrated into this grand scheme and were laid out in a sequence that would help dictate the mood of each image or series of images. All visual media utilized Philips' latest projection equipment. The final result was a highly original visual arts spectacular showcasing Philips technology, but more importantly an artistic expression of Le Corbusier's vision of humanity, laced with all its propaganda and personal biases (including images of Le Corbusier's designs meant to suggest mankind's hope for the future).

The audio component of the Po??me Electronique however, was completely devoid of the influence of Le Corbusier. Var??se was given free reign in this respect, composing the music sporadically from the time he accepted the commission in 1956 to when it was recorded in late 1957, while the pavilion itself was nearly complete. The music was purposefully to have no relationship to the visual components of the presentation, so that the entire ensemble would not be one of coherence, but one of abstraction and juxtaposition. The eight-minute composition consists of a combination of electronically generated sounds and "concrete" sounds, or real-life sounds and noises that have been recorded. While to most ears the "music" sounds like a lot of swirling and tapping noises with bizarre human voice sounds, it is actually a carefully structured composition with a recurrence of themes leading to variations and climaxes. But the music also had a spatial dimension, in that different sound sequences were directed out of one of the hundreds of speakers that were mounted on the pavilion walls. The effect was a sense of "moving music," where sounds would whisk across the space in a manner that would enhance the rising and falling aspects of the composition itself. The music was the final dimension in this showcase of Philips' technology, for it was all recorded using the company's high-tech audio equipment, and projected from their sound reproduction equipment and speakers. And although it had no direct relationship with the rest of the Po??me Electronique, Var??se's music was integral to the final ensemble because it presented a audio component that was as equally modern and abstract as the architecture and images.

The combination of Xenakis' architecture, Le Corbusier's visual ensemble, and Var??se's music provided a very memorable experience. Millions of people visited the Po??me Electronique, and all agreed that was new and different. The general public was for the most part baffled by the bizarre images and sounds. Howard Taubman of the New York Times called it "the strangest building at the fair," and remarked that "the sounds that accompany these images are as bizarre as the building" (17). This attitude is generally representative of the public response to the building. The response of critics specializing in art and architecture, however, was extremely varied. A Swedish critic characterized the pavilion as "a deeply fascinating realization of a dream which has tempted artists since...Wagner: the dream of the total work of art" (Romare 175). Although this view is typical of the pavilion's supporters, its detractors often focused on specifics rather than the ensemble in its entirety. The architecture in particular was harshly criticized for its awkwardness and uncomfortable ambiguity between structural rationality and free-form expressiveness. Italian architect Ernesto Rogers thought that "where the result should have been a fluid sequence of convexities and concavities..., there are disturbing elements for reinforcing....It is not a fulfilled architecture, it is not a clear composition; it is only the indication of new architectonic dimensions" (4). Rigid tectonics and smooth, curving surfaces tended to cancel each other out. Var??se's score would exercise the most lasting influence of any aspect of the Philips Pavilion. While not enthusiastically received by the public, it influenced an entire generation of avant-garde composers with its use of electronic music, including the American John Cage and the German Karlheinz Stockhausen. In the end, the area afforded least attention and recognition by the Philips corporation became the most memorable part of their exhibit. The Philips Pavilion is mentioned only briefly when discussing the career of Le Corbusier, as a footnote to an already distinguished career. But the Po??me Electronique by Edgard Var??se was one of his greatest accomplishments.

The Philips Pavilion was demolished on January 30, 1959. Like most world's fair buildings, it was a temporary structure never meant to remain standing beyond the duration of the fair. But because it was demolished, the work of art is lost forever. We can see pictures like these, look at Le Corbusier's images, even listen to Var??se's score, but the complete ensemble integrated into a single space surrounding and moving around the visitor is something that can never be recreated. Therefore, the Philips Pavilion and its Po??me Electronique remain an artistic achievement that have left their mark on precisely eight minutes of history.


Works Cited

Rogers, Ernesto N. "All'Expo '58 Il Futuro Non e Cominiciato." Casabella. 221 (1958): 2-21.
Romare, Kristian. "Le Corbusier's Electronic Poem" Byggm??steren. 8 (1958): 175.
Taubman, Howard. "Fairgoers Hear Electronic Poem." New York Times. 21 May 1958.
Treib, Marc. Space Calculated in Seconds: The Philips Pavilion, Le Corbusier, Edgard Var??se. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1996.