IIannis 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 one site.
The Convent 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.
Iannis 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.
The church 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
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
Sound, 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.
The question 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
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 removed.
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
By superimposing 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.
The first 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 is
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 immaterial
Xenakis 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
The coordination 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.
With 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 into
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 1987)
published in : Arch+ 107 | Aachen | 1991