Interview with Elizabeth Sikiaridi by Britta Bürger about Iannis Xenakis‘ architectures in the live programme “Fazit” of the German cultural radio “Deutschlandfunk Kultur” on the occasion of Iannis Xenakis‘ 100th birthday about his work and importance as an architect.
Interview, Britta Bürger Pioneer of Hybrid Spaces. The Sound Architect Iannis Xenakis @ Fazit, Deutschlandfunk Kultur, Germany, 29 May 2022
In Berlin, Paris and Athens, the composer Iannis Xenakis is being celebrated with concerts around his hundredth birthday today. This weekend, we have also thematized his musical work at various points in our program. Now in the conclusion we want to focus on the architect Xenakis. Because designing spaces, constructions and structures, that was actually his first profession. In the 1950s he was an assistant to Le Corbusier.
Elizabeth Sikiaridi is an architect, professor and founder of Hybrid Space Lab. This is such a think tank for architecture, urbanism, design and digital culture. She has worked extensively on the architecture of Iannis Xenakis, and we want to talk about what significance his early designs have for today, for contemporary architecture.
Britta Bürger: Good evening, Ms. Sikiaridi.
Elizabeth Sikiaridi: Good evening.
Britta Bürger: You met Iannis Xenakis personally in the 90s. How did that happen? Why were you interested in his designs and his thinking?
Elizabeth Sikiaridi: Well, I always found it exciting. In 1994 Xenakis was invited to the Akademie der Künste in Berlin for a conducting workshop. At that time I was a research assistant at the Technical University of Berlin. And then I went to Xenakis in Paris and tried to convince him to give a lecture on his architectural work in Berlin. But he didn’t have time for that, gave me books and told me to give the lecture and he would then answer the questions. And that’s how it went.
He subsequently invited me to visit him again when I got back to Paris, which I did, and in the process he gave me several banana boxes, full of drawings, copies, photos, texts on his architectural work. All jumbled up.
Britta Bürger: He had great confidence in you.
Elizabeth Sikiaridi: I was supposed to take this, make copies, and bring it back. And I did bring it back for real. And after that I did some interviews with Xenakis to understand this material in the first place. Yes, and that’s how the work came about.
Britta Bürger: Please give us the most important biographical keywords about Xenakis. Born 100 years ago today to Greek parents.
Elizabeth Sikiaridi: He studied civil engineering in Athens. And he fought as a young man against the German occupation in the left wing resistance movements and then in the left wing in the Greek Civil War and was very badly injured; was able to escape with fake papers, that was in 1947. And he was able to get accommodation in Le Corbusier‘s office. It didn’t matter to Le Corbusier that he had no papers. Le Corbusier himself didn’t have an architecture diploma either. And he started out, first as a civil engineer, and he slowly worked his way towards architecture.
Britta Bürger: He then realized two buildings that have gone down in architectural history the Dominican monastery of Sainte Marie de la Tourette and, together with Corbusier, the Philips Pavilion for the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. What is special about these designs?
Elizabeth Sikiaridi: Very specific in the design contribution of Iannis Xenakis was his interest in light. So he conceived elements that capture, guide, transform light. For example, for this monastery La Tourette, he designed such a rhythmically structured facade, which brings the natural light into the building, also with the shadow that belonged to it.
Later he himself, Xenakis himself, also made light productions, sound and light productions “Polytopes”. He made some of them, in Montreal, in Japan, Osaka, in Paris, in Persepolis and also in Mycenae in Greece and also the “Diatope”. This was a combination of sound and light productions in a tent construction specially designed by Xenakis himself, a mobile pavilion, which was shown in Paris and then in Bonn.
And because you mentioned Philips Pavilion, his interest is also in volumetric forms, three-dimensional forms. So Philip’s pavilion is typical of that. It’s made of concrete shells that are doubly curved, so it’s really three-dimensional, so it can’t be accommodated in a grid.
The Philips Pavilion was for the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair, and that was actually intended as a vessel for an electronic poem, “Poème électronique,” which consisted of such a visual part, conceived by Le Corbusier, and then of a spatialized piece of music by Edgar Varese.
It’s interesting to see that the architectural discourse had a lot of trouble with this Philips Pavilion for a very, very long time, and certainly one reason is that it is, after all, a building with light and sound, so it’s a kind of hybrid space. It didn’t fit, let’s say, into the canon of architecture. And there you also see the co-authorship of Xenakis and Le Corbusier. Whereas Le Corbusier didn’t want to accept that. They were fighting about this.
Britta Bürger: He then kicked him out. He didn’t want a competitor either, I think.
Elizabeth Sikiaridi: Exactly, he always wanted to stand as the only one. Although in an architectural firm work quite a a lot of people.
Britta Bürger: What you say with the double-curved is perhaps a bit difficult to imagine, because we don’t have a picture of it now. But if I were to describe it, now, in contrast to what one usually associates Corbusier with, then these are not geometrically right-angled or square elements, lines, but it is also like a tent in which certain elements simply strive upwards.
Elizabeth Sikiaridi: This is exactly as you described, like a tent. Whereas this tent is not made of flat surfaces, but of double curved surfaces.
Britta Bürger: When you say that these are hybrid spaces, then perhaps that is also the keyword for why contemporary architects are interested in such designs today. Was Xenakis a kind of pioneer for what is in vogue and in demand today?
Elizabeth Sikiaridi: Yes, certainly. These light-sound-space architectures are pioneering achievements for the evolution of architecture today, for these hybrid spaces that take into account multiple dimensions, including light and sound and so on together.
Yet another reason why he can actually be seen as a reference figure is that today, with the help of digitalization, contemporary architecture can integrate more complex and dynamic formation. So you can draw them, you can control them, you can even build them.
Britta Bürger: And he built a special computer of his own.
Elizabeth Sikiaridi: What’s very interesting about the computer is that this computer had as an interface such a rice rail, the architectural rice rail. So basically, an instrument that he knew from architecture. And also what is quite interesting is that this computer translated visual information, graphics, directly into sound. And I think that’s very specific to Xenakis.
Britta Bürger: We haven’t even talked about the connection between his architecture or his architectural thinking and his musical thinking. That’s also a whole separate topic. But can you briefly bring it to the point? What is the connection between architecture and music? Because at some point he decided against architecture and in favor of music.
Elizabeth Sikiaridi: It’s about the transfer of structures from one medium to another. That he thinks of music objectively as an overall structure, and in architecture, let’s say, he brings in a musical attitude that way, and that he materializes the same structures in architecture and in music.
Britta Bürger: On the centenary of Iannis Xenakis’ birth, architect Elizabeth Sikiaridi of Hybrid Space Lab commemorated the pioneer of hybrid spaces, Iannis Xenakis. Thank you Ms. Sikiaridi, very much for the interview.
Elizabeth Sikiaridi: Thank you very much and have a good evening.