Xenakis - composer, engineer, and architect - worked in Le Corbusier's
office from 1947 until 1960. In the following decades, based on his
musical compositions and the architectural ideas which he developed
together with Le Corbusier, Xenakis created several spatial compositions
of light and sound which he collectively called 'polytopes.' This term
is made up of the ancient Greek words poly ('many') and topos ('place').
Thus the title is to be understood as a designation for the staging
of space in which spaces of light, color, and architecture overlap in
of La Tourette (1953 - 60) is not only the first project by Le Corbusier
in which Xenakis's involvement was considerable. It also represents
the synthesis and climax of Le Corbusier's previous works in the control
of light and space.
In 1922, Le Corbusier had already stated that 'light and shadow reveal
form,' (Textes et dessin pour Ronchamp, Le Corbusier, Swiss 1965) thus
appropriating for light a function in the service of sculptural volumes.
With the chapel at Ronchamp (1950 - 1953), this relationship began to
turn around: the walls serve to modulate light. As Le Corbusier put
it, the architectonic 'space becomes intangible.' (Das Buch über
Ronchamp, Le Corbusier / Jean Petit, Stuttgart 1957, p. 46) The impression
of space is created in a composition of light, half-shadow, and shadow.
Xenakis brought this spatial concept to completion in the design of
the side chapel for La Tourette: he created a dark, intangible space.
With so-called 'light cannons' he cut funnels of light from this undefined
darkness. The space is no longer defined by the walls surrounding it.
The perceived space is immaterial, and the immaterial spatial qualities
take on a concrete quality themselves.
In designing the visual space of La Tourette, Le Corbusier and Xenakis
not only worked with light volume, they also discovered the projection
as a subject of architecture, creating projection spaces.
space which Xenakis and Le Corbusier designed together is a sort of
camera obscura: the room is dark. A small square opening in the ceiling
projects the image of the sun on the floor. The movement of the sun
is represented by this wandering spot of light in the interior. Yet
that is not all. The exterior walls of the lower floors of the monastery
were designed by Xenakis as 'musical glass walls.' Also called 'ondulatoires,'
they are composed of vertical strips of concrete and strips of glass
of different widths. The constantly changing rhythm of open and closed
is projected by the sunlight onto the floor. The floor becomes a projection
screen. The walls fade in our perception. The projection of the rhythmical
composition of light and shadow structures the space. With the movement
of the sun, the picture changes.
While these projections of natural light are still reminiscent of the
screens in Gothic cathedrals, artificial lighting and film projectors
are employed in the Philips Pavilion (1958). In this second collaboration
between Le Corbusier and Xenakis, the immaterial spatial qualities become
the main subject of the entire design, as Le Corbusier himself states:
'I am not building the Philips Pavilion, but an electronic poem. Everything
will take place in the interior - sound, light, color, and rhythm. Scaffolding
will form the exterior of the pavilion.' (Jean Petit: Le Poème
Electronique Le Corbusier, Paris, Editions de Minuit 1958)
Slide projectors with movable colored disks project changing spots of
light onto the walls. Hundreds of colored fluorescent tubes and lamps
simulate the course of the day - dawn, sunset, stars, and lightning.
Projections of photographic images create spaces of illusion. The moving
images of the four film projectors are dispersed in the space with the
help of mirrors. The simultaneous projection of numerous motifs increases
the effectiveness of the illusion. Due to the curvature of the projection
surface, the projection becomes three-dimensional. The curvature makes
portions of the image appear blurred and creates depth. This produces
a three-dimensional space of illusion.
After his collaboration with Le Corbusier, Xenakis continued to develop
the spatial concept of the Philips Pavilion with the polytopes he conceived
on his own. In these spatial stagings, which he created between 1966
- 78, Xenakis abandoned the projection of figural, photographic images
in favor of abstract compositions of light. He dissolved the projection
screen into innumerable dots of light, like a television. This 'light
image' is composed of thousands of incandescent lights which - mounted
on a grid - surround the viewer on all sides. Moving, abstract patterns
of waves, lightning, and spirals fill the space. There is also a three-dimensional
projection - a light sculpture of laser beams whose spatial configuration
is constantly altered by the movement of hundreds of mirrors and prisms.
As the abstract light compositions quickly change, the space is transformed
at breakneck speed. It becomes dynamic. Time becomes the fourth spatial
like light, changes over time and describes an immaterial space, a bodiless
volume. In the Philips Pavilion, over four hundred loudspeakers created
numerous audio paths in which sound could be carried through the space
slowly or quickly, erratically or incessantly.
The dispersal of multiple sound-sources throughout the space does not
just make it possible for a tone to wander through the room. By projecting
different sounds in different places there is an overlapping of many
sound spaces. Each listener perceives the music in a different way according
to his or her location at the time. The acoustical space is no longer
homogeneous, but divides itself into different spatial areas. Xenakis
developed this concept of spatially differentiated music for the first
time in his orchestral piece Terretektorh (1965 - 66), written for an
orchestra which is spread out in space. In the following year he used
it in his first light-and-sound installation, the Polytope de Montréal.
In this piece, four orchestras, represented by loudspeakers, make music
on the different floors of a multi-storied space.
In addition to this, Xenakis developed in the following years a concept
of temporal diversification of the musical space which is especially
noticeable in his piece for percussion, Psappha (1975): in the temporal
space, slow-speed low tones overlap with medium- and fast-speed high
tones. Time is no longer absolute. Several time divisions and different
tempi exist side by side, so that time oscillates.
Xenakis used this same process in the spatial stagings of his polytopes.
In Le Diatope - designed for the inauguration of the Centre Pompidou
(Paris) in 1978 - the music is almost static, moving in slow waves,
while the flashes of light change at breakneck speed, in fractions of
a second, and the composition of laser beams in turn has its own tempo.
Time is no longer clear-cut. In the same way, the space is differentiated
by projections of light and eleven speakers spread throughout the site.
must be posed as to which architecture is appropriate for such stagings
of space. If it is not involved in the production, or if it only makes
available the technical apparati, then it can be a simple scaffolding,
a 'boîte à miracles,' as Le Corbusier called it as he had
realized for the first time at the Paris Exhibition Pavilion of 1937.
With the Philips Pavilion, Le Corbusier and Xenakis had taken a different
approach. Architecture became a modulator of space. The convex and concave
curved surfaces form, as Xenakis described it, 'moveable, confining,
receding, and turnable spaces.' (Gravesano Review, No. IX, 1957 p.44)
For, in contrast to flat surfaces, curved or folded surfaces reflect
the light with changing intensity and modulate the space. The space
becomes dynamic, of changing intensity, concentrated and expanded. At
the same time, its boundaries are removed. Walls and ceiling flow into
one another. There is no defined enclosure on the sides, no defined
closure above. The play of concave and convex curvature forms neither
body nor space; it repels and embraces at the same time. The spatial
borders can no longer be perceived by the eye in an unambiguous way;
they disappear, as is also the case when the spaces are darkened. They
appear to become infinite.
As early as 1902, this effect was discovered for the stage by Mariano
Fortny. He developed the spherically curved dome horizon to mark three-dimensionally
the back of the stage, creating the impression of infinity. The canvas
envelops the stage without defining the space. Just like the round horizon
which was created slightly later, the dome horizon creates an abstract
stage space which only becomes concrete through light.
Even though Le Corbusier and Xenakis were probably not familiar with
these innovations of the modern stage set, Le Corbusier had worked with
similar means of staging space in his designs for dioramas (1925, 1929,
and 1937). In a diorama, the image which has been painted on a transparent,
curved canvas is made to appear by means of changeable lighting from
the front and back. The change of lighting simulates the cycle of the
day and movement in space. In order to be able to simulate wide, infinite
exterior spaces, the borders of the closed interior are visually removed
by the curvature of the image walls. In this way, the spatial form of
Le Corbusier's pavilion for two dioramas at the Exposition de l'Esprit
Nouveau of 1925 can be seen as a precursor of the interiors of Ronchamp
and of the Philips Pavilion, the borders of which had been visually
With Le Diatope, Xenakis went one step further: not only to the walls
and ceilings disappear, but so does the floor. Since it is made of reflective
glass, the visitor seems to float halfway up in the middle of the room.
At the same time, the space of Diatope is opened toward the outside.
The external shell is a semi-transparent membrane of red plastic which
filters and modulates light, sound, and warmth. This rather passive
filtering membrane is completed by an inner, active membrane - a metal
net to which light and sound sources are attached. It is a building
covering which does not delimit the space, but instead modulates it.
While in the Philips Pavilion the covering of the building served to
neutralize the surroundings and to mark off the limits of the interior
and darken them, the double-layered membrane of Le Diatope is semi-transparent
and its spatial effect can be controlled. It is a premonition of today's
glass façades in which the permeability for each individual spatial
parameter can be controlled independently for heat, light, and sound.
The covering of the building is no longer open or closed. In-between
tones or gray tones are possible. The space is no longer organized in
masses and cavities, but consists of energy fields of different masses
which contract and stretch the space.
From the Staged Path to the Scenario
light space, projection space, sound space, and architectonic space,
a multi-dimensional creation emerges, a diversified space of changing
intensity and density. This space no longer allows itself to be designed
with the traditional means of architectonic representation - floor plan,
elevation, etc. Instead the architect has to devise other methods to
be able to design and describe space, methods which illustrate the transformation
of space over time and the cooperation of its different dimensions.
approach to this was developed by Le Corbusier in his design for a pavilion
in the Exposition International Paris in 1937. He designed the space
as a path. The actual spatial experience is set forth in a sketch by
the architect which shows the procession of rooms in the interior of
the pavilion through which the visitor has to proceed. The individual
staged spaces are brought together with this design of the path, and
the cooperation of the color spaces, projection spaces, and image spaces
In the Philips Pavilion the problems are much more complex: the space
itself changes, and sound and film projections are added. Le Corbusier
designed this 'electronic poem' by drawing scripts. These scenarios
have vertical columns for the individual elements of the staging - colored
light, various projections of images, etc. - and horizontal stripes
for the temporal division, each indicating one second. The application
of methods of film design makes clear the change in the understanding
of space: instead of rigid bodies there is a changing procession of
designed his polytopes with the help of scores. The individual 'voices'
of the score correspond to different spatial parameters. Xenakis divided
time into steps of 1/25 seconds, so that the turning on and off of the
countless incandescent lights appears to the eye as continuous movement.
To check this cooperation, Xenakis did not just make sketches of the
individual spatial conditions, he also simulated the process with computers.
of the different elements of the production and its changes over time
also present problems for their realization. It is no longer possible
to manually control the large number of parameters. For this reason
S. L. Bruyn, the engineer of the Philips' automation department, was
asked to join the design team for the Philips Pavilion. Since modern
computers were not yet available at the time, the program of the scenario,
in the form of control commands, was transferred to a fifteen-track
tape which made it possible for 180 switches to be made simultaneously,
put into action with the help of relays and servo-motors. Xenakis perfected
this control technique for Le Diatope. The 1200 light sources and the
position of the 400 adjustable mirrors and prisms could now be changed
every 1/25 second.
The projects of Xenakis and Le Corbusier were early pioneer works for
a control technique which by now has been universally established in
theater buildings. Theater sets are now controlled by computer - especially
lighting, /scenery, and stage machinery. The script for all processes
controlled by computer are stored on a floppy disk. The software is
so flexible that it is not only permits manual intervention during the
performance, but also a different tempo, thus allowing the play length
to be extended or sped up by half an hour.
his staging of space, Xenakis introduced a new concept of spatial design
to modern architecture. Space is no longer primarily defined by its
containing walls (border surfaces), but by its immaterial qualities
of light, sound, and climate. These individual 'dimensions of space'
are no longer synchronized, but are instead controlled independently.
Light spaces, sound spaces, color spaces, and projection spaces overlap
which are different from and contradictory of one another; thus, polytopes
are created. The space is multidimensional, dynamic, and differentiated
Although Xenakis set down the entire process of these spatial 'spectacles'
as closed compositions, in his musical works he was nevertheless concerned,
on occasion, with the design of open structures. These compositions
offer the perspective of open, interactive presentations which use the
possibilities of today's technology of 'intelligent control' with flexible
programs and scenarios to allow for reaction to the environment and
the behavior of the user and to permit manual intervention. For such
an open system Xenakis developed a concept of 'elastic borders,' which
define the basic global conditions and within these conditions allows
relatively wide flexibility in execution. Xenakis unambiguously demarcated
this process of the domination of order over disorder from the concept
of the total flexibility of musical expression and architectonic design:
'I do not believe in mobile systems, in an infinitely adjustable frame
structure. (...) That liberty, that neutrality must be handled in such
a way that the diversity created will be interesting. (...) Mobile architecture
is nothing but garbage, because no one is able to replace an architect
of worth. (...) One must create a space which is strong, rigid, but
which nevertheless allows for a richness in arrangement, in the permutation
of things and events.' (Perspectives of New Music, Volume 25, Summer