The Philips Pavilion was designed by Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, more commonly known as Le Corbusier, for the electronics company. After World War II, the World Fair Expo was held for the first time in Brussels. Philips chose to build the Pavillion for the expo of 1958. Philips roped in Corbusier impressed with his work on Notre Dame du Haut (aka Ronchamp Chapel). Louise Kalff (Creative Director at Philips) wished to make a statement about the future of electronics and technology instead of displaying their commercial products. The display was to be a multidisciplinary art spectacle showcasing the impact of the nuclear war and the post-war progress.
Corbusier knew this was not going to be just another project in his catalogue. By then he already had a good chunk of architectural structures under his belt. He had become widely known for his signature style of brutalism and his ‘Five points of Modern Architecture’ theory. He stepped up to the challenge saying “I won’t make you a pavilion, I’ll make you a Poèmeélectronique – a vessel containing the parts of the poem: first light, the second colour, the third image, fourth rhythm and fifth sound”. To achieve this abstract reality he worked along with Iannis Xenakis – a designer, structural engineer and a composer who worked as a principal designer under le Corbusier. As Corbusier was busy with his work in Chandigarh, Xenakis was the one who carried out the majority of the designing and structural details on his conceptual indications and sketches.
The pavilion was to have a capacity of approximately 500 spectators watching the audiovisual projections on the plain vertical surfaces. Considering the acoustic requirements and the visual engagement of the audience a unique form was required. The architect had imagined a structure that resembled the cow’s stomach- separate entrance and exit to the bottle like structure that would host the poem. The briefing led Xenakis to define a few design guidelines viz.
- The central space should be flanked on either side by the entrance and exit tunnels. The core should comfortably contain 500 spectators standing/ seating or laying down while watching the presentation.
- The soundwaves should not reflect creating echoes or reverberations, hence no parallel planar surfaces or dihedral angles/ sections of spheres.
- The curved surfaces reflecting the coloured lights should form dynamic, mobile volumes.
- It should be self-supporting, the core should have maximum free volume.
After extensive experimentation, Xenakis came up with a tent-like structure formed by a cluster of nine tangled hyperbolic-paraboloids. To the scale models were made for testing structural stability & strength. The achieved abstract form provided a combination of curved and planar surfaces for the audiovisual experience in the space.
The highest point of the pavilion was at 20m from the ground. The structure had a unique design wherein the shell acted as the roof as well as the walls. The ribs of the hyperbolic paraboloids were made of precast concrete. The shell was made of unique trapezoidal panels on the inner side with the help of timber formwork & pre-tensioned steel cables were located along its inner and outer surface. The panels were made with the help of metal mesh. The outer shell was made up of wooden panels with aluminium like metal finish.
The experience in this space was such that the spectators would enter the stomach through the S-shaped passage to the stomach. There they would watch the 8 min long display of PoèmeElectronique composed by the American artist Edgar Varese. The composition consisted of electronic sounds; the music was played on 425 speakers along with the film made by the architect himself.
At the end of the project, the recognition for this architectural masterpiece was solely awarded to Le Corbusier and not Iannis Xenakis, who had carried out the project on the preliminary instructions of Corbusier. On the architect’s return from Chandigarh, the design by Xenakis was approved without any inputs, hence his demand for credit along with the architect. His request, unfortunately, was denied by both the company as well as Corbusier. These events led to a very public dispute between them and eventually the fallout resulted in Xenakis leaving the Atelier where he had worked for years with Corbusier.
The Philips Pavilion, an iconic structure very much ahead of its time was unfortunately demolished in 1959. Architects and students have conducted various studies and research on the project by making models. Attempts to reconstruct the architectural masterpiece were made and also commissioned once. The reconstruction process has not materialized until now.
Philips pavilion- PoèmeélectroniqueA sudden flash and an unforgettable story –Fausto Giovanardi
Conoids and Hyperbolic Paraboloids in Le Corbusier’s Philips Pavilion- Alessandra Capanna