Iannis Xenakis @ Alice Foundation

This contribution discusses the interdisciplinary aspects of Iannis Xenakis‘ oeuvre and his Synthesis of the Arts.

In doing so, I draw on archival research-including Xenakis‘ personal archives in Paris and interviews with him.

Publication, Lecture & Discussion Iannis Xenakis @ Make it New, le Poème électronique, Alice Foundation , Eindhoven, the Netherlands, 15 June 2004


In 1958, Philips was represented with its own pavilion at the World Expo in Brussels. The idea for Philips to participate in this way came from Louis C. Kalff, director of artistic affairs at Philips. The execution was entrusted to the architect Le Corbusier, who wrote the scenario for ‘the electronic poem’. The music was composed and produced by Edgard Varèse in collaboration with staff from the Natuurkundig Laboratorium. The cartoon came from Le Corbusier. Based on a rough sketch, architect and composer Lannis Xenakis, then a close associate of Le Corbusier, further elaborated the design for the pavilion.

The pavilion had the floor plan of a stomach measuring about 1,000m2 (40x25m), a height of 22 metres and was empty and dark inside. All technology was hidden away invisibly to be fully subservient to the performance. At a time, 500 visitors underwent the shocking ‘electronic poem’ while standing for 480 seconds. In total, between 1.5 and 2 million people attended the performance. Afterwards, the building was blown up.

Now almost 50 years later, Eindhoven has advanced plans to reconstruct this pavilion at Strijp S, a 27ha industrial area that will be redeveloped in the coming decades. But a reconstruction as part of a contemporary cluster for research, education, production and presentation. Commissioned by the initiator, the Alice Foundation, Wessel de Jonge architects from Rotterdam investigated the possibilities of reconstructing the pavilion and had extensive discussions with the Fondation Le Corbusier about the rights and ethical aspects. The results of this research were presented at an international symposium held in Eindhoven on 18 June 2006.

This book informs about the background, the research and the symposium. It is one of the very few Dutch-language publications on the history and actuality of the famous Philips pavilion from 1958. At the same time, it can be read as an intriguing introduction to the creation of a total work of art in which economic and artistic interests met. A world that also provides the basis for a contemporary translation of this extremely important cultural legacy.


Han le Blanc, Alice Foundation

The plan to reconstruct the Philips pavilion of the 1958 World Expo in Brussels at Strijp S in Eindhoven was born July 2003 in the car on the way from Tilburg to Eindhoven. The occasion was an earlier visit by Chris Manders to Le Corbusier’s Chapel Notre Dame du Haute in Ronchamps, France. Shortly afterwards, the NOS Journaal was on the doorstep, and then covered the subject extensively. The plan became news and the reconstruction a reality. Some time later, Rotterdam-based Adriaan Geuze‘s West 8 bureau decided to make the reconstructed Philips pavilion part of the urban design for Strijp S, a 27-hectare industrial Philips site in Eindhoven that will be redeveloped in the coming decades. The design was approved by the Eindhoven city council. Meanwhile, a broadly composed steering committee formed around the plan and it was decided to commission a feasibility study. The starting point was and is that the reconstruction of the Philips pavilion only makes sense as part of a multi- and interdisciplinary’progrannnna focusing on research, education, production and presentation.

The choice of Strijp S as a location is anything but a coincidence.

In Philips’ Natuurkundig Laboratorium at Strijp S, known as the NatLab for short, important developments in the field of image and sound took place in the second half of the 1950s. The first was around the Poème Electronique. The multimedia show for which Edgard Varèse was recruited to create the music. In a secluded corner in one of the factory halls at Strijp S, he developed his composition together with a number of Philips technicians. Le Corbusier was the creator of the Poème Electronique and lannis Xenakis drew the design of the pavilion. In addition, Dick Raaijmakers and, at a later stage, Tom Dissevelt did research there into the possibilities of making electronic music popular. The CD box set Popular Electronics: Early Dutch Electronic Music from Philips Research Laboratories 1956-1963, compiled by Kees Tazelaar, presents the results of this research. The origins of the world-famous Institute of Sonology were therefore also at the NatLab. The documentary Room 306 by Henk Lamers and Jeanne de Bont, which appeared on DVD, gives a penetrating picture of the research climate at the NatLab in that period.

As part of the feasibility study, Rotterdam-based Wessel de Jonge architects, known for the Zonnestraal and Van Nelle Factory projects, researched the possibilities for the actual reconstruction. Together with Belgian architect Sven Sterken, he also inventoried the source material. Arno Pronk, associate professor at the Faculty of Architecture at Eindhoven University of Technology, researched a reconstruction of the pavilion using contemporary digital design methods and sprayed concrete technology. Jos Lichtenberg, professor of product development at the Faculty of Architecture, looked at a number of options for exploiting the pavilion. Extensive discussions were held with the Fondation Le Corbusier about the integrity of the plan and the snags around intellectual property. And, not unimportantly, initial contacts were made with the Xenakis heirs. The organisation for Music in Brabant (BraM) developed a pleading note as the impetus for a substantive programme.

In parallel worlds, meanwhile, additional developments are at play. The Electronic Poems Foundation decided to reconstruct the Poème Electronique-although the performance-was to be performed regularly in planetariums and theatres. The Game of Life Foundation developed and built The 192 Loudspeaker Experience. A state-of-the-art loudspeaker system, a so-called Wave Field Synthesis system, which could be heard at the 2006 November Music festival in ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Internationally, there is the now realised European project Virtual Electronic Poem (VEP) directed by the University of Turin and the Virtual Reality & Multi Media Park in Turin. Earlier, Belgian architect Piet Lelieur developed a 3D animation of the Philips pavilion including the performance.

The results of the feasibility study and background were presented at the international symposium on 18 June 2006 at youth centre Dynamo in Eindhoven. This publication reflects the symposium and the research that preceded it. Slowly but surely, it becomes clear how to translate the famous Philips project from 1958 in a contemporary way and give it a place again-this time in Eindhoven-without losing sight of its important cultural-historical and artistic value.

Finally, we would like to thank in particular:

Alex van der Hulst, Arie van Rangelrooij, Arno Pronk, Catherine Peyrard, Chris Manders, Dirk de Wit, Erwin Roebroeks, Francoise and Makhi Xenakis, Frank Lubbers, Henk Lamers, Ikaros van Duppen, Jeanne de Bont, Joep Huiskamp, John Thomas, Ben Schreuder, Jos Lichtenberg, Kees Tazelaar, Mary-Ann Schreurs, Michel Richard, Phillip van den Bossche, Piet Lelieur, René Paré, Rik Vandecavey, Sharon Kanach, Sven Sterken, Theo Anne Boesveld, Theo Timmers, Tom Veeger, Walter van Hulst, Wessel de Jonge, Wim Wabbes.

Han le Blanc, Stichting Alice Eindhoven, February 2007



Can a
art landmark
be rebuilt?

Forum discussion led by Lieven Bertels

2008 will mark 50 years since the famed Philips Pavilion of the Brussels World’s Fair opened in early June 1958 and closed its doors in mid-October. Attempts to preserve the pavilion came to nothing and it was blown up on 30 January 1959. Between 1.5 and 2 million people visited the Poème Electronique by Le Corbusier, Varèse and Xenakis, an extraordinary building that contained a new kind of music and an impressive sculpture series. It was an experience that left a great impression on visitors. Subsequent generations have not been able to enjoy the artwork in that way. So isn’t it about time the Poème Electronique was restored to its full glory including the pavilion? And where better to do this than in the city of Philips, the company that initiated the construction at the time, to show the world what the concern was technically capable of, in an artistic context.

Can the Philips pavilion be rebuilt, and if so, how?

That question was the focus of the symposium Make it new: Le Poème Electronique, where all facets of the Poème and the rebuilding of the Philips Pavilion were discussed. If it were up to Mary Fiers, alderman for housing and space of the municipality of Eindhoven, Eindhoven would benefit from a rebuilt Philips Pavilion in 2008, she said at the symposium’s opening.

The forum discussion, led by Lieven Bertels, the Holland Festival’s music cardinator, focused on the statement Le Corbusier made in 1958 prior to the construction of the Philips pavilion at the World Expo in Brussels. ‘I will not make a pavilion but a Poème Electronique-a jar whose contents are a mix of the following poetic ingredients: Light, Colour, Image, Rhythm, Sound and Architecture. ‘All these ingredients will represent an organic synthesis accessible to the public,’ Le Corbusier said. The architect enlisted Edgard Varèse to compose the music for the Poème Electronique and lannis Xenakis took on the execution of the architecture.


Should we rebuild something that was made 50 years ago and then torn down,

discussion leader Lieven Bertels wonders. Kees Tazelaar (composer and head of the Institute of Sonology and former Edgard Varèse visiting professor at the Technical University of Berlin) explains that the Poème Electronique should be seen as a total work of art, a synthesis of different art forms. In this respect, the building is essential to get a good idea of how the music should and can sound. He argues that there is never any hesitation to renovate important works of art, and so the rebuilding of the Philips Pavilion can also be seen, as the renovation of the Poème Electronique.

The opposition is voiced by Robert Jatte (author of the book ‘Geschichte der Sinne: Von der Antike bis zum Cyberspace’, a work on senses and aesthetic perception). ‘Audiences have changed,’ he says. ‘Is a work of art like this still special enough for young people? They are now so used to electronic music combined with images. The audience that visited the Philips pavilion back then was inactive, today the audience needs interaction. We have grown in the 50 years that have passed between us and the Pavilion. People used to be quite impressed by something like Panorama Mesdag in The Hague, now this work of art has more museum value than impressive value. The same can happen with the Philips Pavilion. Remember that the Poème appeals to only two senses with image and sound. What about smell and touch? Today’s audience expects something where many senses are stimulated. The Pavilion of yesteryear should be placed in a historical context.’

According to Kees Tazelaar, a virtual experience of the Poème Electronique, as it can already be experienced, would not suffice. This would miss the social context, which the more than one million visitors did experience at the time. According to him, the artwork is still of great importance. And because it was a particularly important milestone of art at the time, a reconstruction should definitely be considered now. He gives the example of the sound system used in the Pavilion at the time, even measured by today’s standard, that is still an extraordinary system.


The question then becomes, which pavilion do we want to rebuild?

argues Sven Sterken (engineer and architect, PhD on Xenakis and researcher in the architecture department at the Hogeschool Sint-Lukas in Brussels). ‘Is it about the pavilion as it was built at the time built or as they conceived it at one time? In Barcelona, you can see how the rebuilding of the pavilion by Mies van der Rohe improved the original design in some aspects. Some facets of the Philips Pavilion would now be redundant, the framework on the exterior was only put there for safety at the time and would no longer be needed now, should it come back in a rebuilt Pavilion? ‘But,’ discussant Lieven Bertels breaks in, ‘is a rebuilt Poème going to be seen as an icon or a work of art?’

Marc Treib (author of ‘Space Calculated in Seconds’) responds from the audience to Robert Jatte‘s earlier comment about the changed audience. According to Marc Treib, that may even be an advantage: ‘Young people love retro, they might even become more enthusiastic than the first audience that visited the Poème. The point is to recreate a benchmark in art. And that building can be used in different ways, eventually.’

Part of the building’s strength now is that it has disappeared, adds Sven Sterken. ‘But look at the Atomium, a building also erected for the 1958 World Expo. That has since become a symbol of nostalgia. The same could happen to the Philips pavilion.’ Frans Vogelaar (professor at the Cologne University of Media Arts) wonders what should be done with the building once it is there. ‘Will the building stay open all year, will new activities be developed in it?’


‘I compare it to old musical instruments,’

says Kees Tazelaar. ‘These are now being used to perform certain pieces from the Baroque era as authentically as possible. But at the same time, you see how contemporary musicians use those same instruments to make whole new music with them.

And so could a rebuilt Philips Pavilion. The installation of the technical equipment in the Pavilion was quite problematic at the time. You are crazy to recreate that exactly as it was, with all its drawbacks. But let’s stick to the score, I would say to return for a moment to Sterken‘s statement about the possible intention of the creators, you also don’t perform Beethoven‘s Ninth in the way Beethoven may have once intended, you perform it as he wrote it down.’

Lieven Bertels raises the question of how the new building should be used, adding that his experience is that policymakers, who ultimately decide whether a project can go ahead, are not so much concerned with the content of a new building as with the money that construction should cost. ‘Money for a programme is a lot harder to acquire than money for bricks,’ he argues.


The building should be used for education,

said Robert Jatte. ‘The Poème Electronique lends itself extremely well to training the senses and helping young people better understand modern and electronic music. It can become a professional centre, laboratory even, where the emphasis is on the synthesis between different art forms.’ But with the rebuilt Globe Theatre in London in mind, Jatte warns against the Poème becoming a frozen icon.

Frans Vogelaar suggests that the Philips Pavilion could also be used flexibly, a building that can be taken apart and reassembled in different ways. Sven Sterken sees something in that idea. After all, Xenakis also made the Diatope for the Centre Pompidou in Paris. A tent, with visual and acoustic elements, that was constantly being improved and could also be taken away and placed in other places. From the audience comes the question of whether the clear context in which the Poème Electronique was placed at the time will ever be found in Eindhoven. The Poème was once designed for the world exhibition that always attracted many visitors, but will a weekday in Eindhoven also attract those many visitors? According to Kees Tazelaar, this should indeed be taken into account and it is important to combine different functions in the building. Both for education and for use by contemporary artists. It should become a centre for different experiences.

From the auditorium, Konrad Boehmer, composer and former head of the Institute of Sonology, reveals that the Poème Electronique is the only building made specifically for a whole new style of music. ‘Nowadays, music halls are being built solely to showcase music already heard in the Concertgebouw and other halls. The rebuilding of the Poème Electronique can symbolise a new type of concert hall, and should instead encourage composers to create music beyond the boundaries of that created for and performed in the current halls.


Due to the passage of time, Lieven Bertels closed the discussion.
Report Alex van der Hulst Eindhoven, 18 June 2006

lannis Xenakis:
of the

Elizabeth Sikiaridi

This contribution discusses the interdisciplinary aspects of Xenakis‘ oeuvre and his Synthesis of the Arts. In doing so, I draw on archival research-including Xenakis‘ personal archives in Paris-and interviews with him.


A key work of artistic synergy emerges amid the countless aesthetic artistic expressions of the twentieth century. An architect, Le Corbusier, conceives an Electronic Poem, an electronic synthesis of visual and acoustic events, and a structure that incorporates the poem, a pavilion, for the presentation of the Philips Group at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels. With this, one of the most fascinating works of art of the postwar era sees the light of day, the Philips pavilion, a structure where electronic music, architecture and visual projections merge into the organic unity of a Gesamtkunstwerk.

Le Corbusier devotes himself to the visual part of the Electronic Poem, the projections in the pavilion itself, a film consisting of associative still images depicting the development of mankind and displayed over projections of light and colour. The composer Edgard Varèse takes the acoustic part, the spatial musical piece Le Poème Electronique. lannis Xenakis, in collaboration with Le Corbusier, designs the structure that comprises the poem, the scale structure of the Philips pavilion. He also creates the musical piece Concret PH, an interlude sonaire (interlude of sounds) to be played when the public entered and left the pavilion.

lannis Xenakis (1922-2001), studied engineering in Athens and fought with the communist partisans against the German occupiers during World War II. He was seriously wounded and had to flee Greece because of his communist background. He eventually settled in France. He worked as a civil engineer in Le Corbusier’s architectural office, where he continued his work as an architect and took composition lessons with Messiaen in the evenings.


The concrete shells of the pavilion took the form of hyperbolic paraboloids, three-dimensional curved planes created when a straight line is guided along two curves. The prestressed steel cables supporting the prefabricated concrete elements of the structure are clearly visible. Xenakis was familiar with hyperbolic paraboloid shapes through his work as an engineer. He was interested, even in his later architectural works, in three-dimensionality as a complex, volumetric architectural form, and also made use of hyperbolic paraboloid structures in his musical and visual pieces. Besides the continuity and complexity of the hyperbolic paraboloid form, the way Xenakis applied this structure in his music, architecture and visual compositions is certainly interesting.

The architecture of the pavilion itself was initially assigned to Le Corbusier and Xenakis together, something Le Corbusier later regretted. After a disagreement with Le Corbusier, Xenakis decided to break off contact with him. For Le Corbusier, the building mainly meant supporting visual and acoustic projections in the interior. He was particularly interested in the visual Poème Electronique, which would represent the history of humanity. In fact, the Poème Electronique and the Philips Pavilion are a prototype for the development of an architecture in which material spaces and media merge seamlessly. An early model of the emerging hybrid spaces within which the virtual is projected into the tactile world, a prototype for the merging of digital and analogue environments where (visual, acoustic) media spaces merge with material places. This synthesis of the arts is based on Le Corbusier‘s holistic approach, but nevertheless occupies a unique place within his architectural and artistic works. Xenakis, on the other hand, went further and included the complex, ephemeral architectures of sound and light in his investigation of complex architectural also.

Xenakis‘ Polytope Cluny in Paris is an example of such a composition of sound and light structures. The name Polytopes comes from the Greek poly-topoi (multiplicity of places). In the Polytope Cluny, the layering of music and light creates continuously changing, asynchronous environments.

The Diatope was an interplay of sound and light in a pavilion designed by Xenakis specifically for this purpose. The name Diatope is derived from Greek and means through space in the sense of translucent. The Diatope was designed for the opening of the Centre Pompidou/Beaubourg in Paris, where the sound and light show was performed in 1978. A performance took place in Bonn in Germany in 1979.

It is very interesting to see how Xenakis applied the structure of the hyperbolic paraboloid in both his music and his architecture and visual manifestations. For the Polytope in Montreal, he fixed the steel cables to which the lighting equipment was attached in such a way that hyperbolic paraboloid light planes could be created.

Even before Xenakis began work on the Philips Pavilion, he had used hyperbolic-paraboloid structures in his musical piece Metastasis (1953-54). The score of Metastasis shows a graphic representation of straight lines that visualise the rising and falling sounds of each instrument, the glissandi, generating hyperbolic-paraboloid sound planes. Characteristically, Xenakis used these structures within different domains and transferred them from one domain to another: from engineering to music, from music to architecture, and from architecture to visual structures. His multiple sensibility to architecture and music enabled Xenakis to approach musical structures architecturally and compose architecture as an assembly of dynamic relationships. He found in working simultaneously with architecture and music and applying the same (mental) structures in two different domains the confirmation of his view that these structures play a role in artistic creation and perception.

This paved the way for the application of identical structures in music and visual manifestations (Polytopes) and-we will see below-in the transposition of mathematical-scientific structures to artistic expressions.

The graphic notation of the 1956 composition Pithoprakta-again a name derived from Greek that means ‘acts of chance’-shows that Xenakis applied Brownian motion created by the movement of gas molecules to create fluid, complex sound structures. Xenakis applied a wide range of transpositions from the mathematical-scientific world, such as from mathematical probability theory (stochastic calculations), group theory and chaos theory. These transpositions function as generators of creativity, as engines of innovation that promote the growth of the formal artistic idiom. For Xenakis, the transposition and application of mathematical-scientific methods meant more than practical solutions to the problems he faced in realising dynamic sound and light formations and organising and composing mass phenomena such as the ‘clouds of sound’ and the ‘galaxies of light’. They are an essential, integral part of his conception of art, of his vision of the world.

Xenakis writes: ‘Music is a matrix of ideas, of energy acts, of mental processes, of reflections of the physical reality that created us and keeps us alive […]. The expression of the images of the universe, of waves, of ramifications, of human beings as well as of the fundamental theories of theoretical physics, of abstract logic, of modern algebra […]. Music is the harmony of the world, which, however, has been made homomorphic by modern thinking.’

By integrating the electronic possibilities of the computer into his creative expressions, Xenakis made an important contribution to what he called ‘the poetics of the electronic age’. In the mid-1960s, he developed a computer tailored to his requirements that allowed him to control and (de-)synchronise the overlaps of musical and visual structures (Polytopes) and compose his complex musical pieces. The interface of Xenakis‘ composing computer was a large drawing board on which graphic information was translated into music and sound. The application of mathematical information in the fusion process of visual and acoustic forms is direct evidence of Xenakis’ holistic approach to form. It is an intergral part of his research into complex forms and architectures and their materialisations in a wide variety of media and dimensions, in sound, light, time and space.


I quote Xenakis again: ‘I observed figures and forms belonging to the domain of abstract speculations, such as mathematics or logic, or to the domain of more material speculations, such as physics with its subatomic and atomic phenomena, or the geometric symbols of genetics and the reactions of its chemical molecules. These figures, these forms, belonging to so many disparate domains and showing so many fascinating similarities and differences, can in turn explain other domains, such as those of artistic activities.’ 2

Xenakis advocates the development of a general discipline of form, a general morphology. He writes: ‘Moreover, now is the time to develop a new branch of science, a general morphology that will be concerned both with the forms and architectures of the immutable aspects of these disciplines and with the laws governing their transformations.

A doctrine of general morphology would thus require an interdisciplinary effort, something that fits seamlessly with Xenakis‘ universal thought and the transpositions he employed. This general morphology should explore the understanding of form and its origins. A general morphology would examine not only immutable types and rigid geometries but also irregularities and differentiations. It would be an investigation of the rationales of form in dynamic processes. Thus, through scientific investigation of the immutable and the changeable, Xenakis adds an intense expressivity to the rationalities of the form of dynamic processes. In his work, structural thinking merges with dynamism, and rationality with the intensity of emotional expression.

I conclude my contribution with a picture of the bombing of Athens (according to Xenakis, he was inspired to create the Polytopes by the bombing of Athens during World War II).

Elizabeth Sikiaridi, Eindhoven, 18 June 2006

Together with Frans Vogelaar, Elisabeth Sikiaridi runs the Amsterdam-based agency Hybrid Space Lab. They investigate the interaction between the physical and the digital public domain in contemporary urban networks. In doing so, they are interested in how built urban space relates to the space of mass media and communication networks and how they influence each other.


Xenakis, lannis, Musique-Architecture, 2nd ed., revised and expanded (Paris: Casterman, 1976), p. 16. 2
Xenakis, lannis, arts/sciences alliages, p. 97, 1979.
Xenakis, lannis, KéleUtha (Paris: L’Arche, 1994), p. 17.

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