Inside Le Corbusier’s Philips Pavilion

An obscure book about an obscure milestone in the history of multimedia.

Peter Wever’s Book, Inside Le Corbusier’s Philips Pavilion: A Multimedial Space at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair, is a fascinating document which delivers on its verbose title’s promise. Given the provenance of the pavilion’s primary creators, architect Le Corbusier and composer Edgar Varèse, I was concerned that the book would skew towards academic critique; instead, it’s a highly anecdotal, behind-the-scenes look at the design, production, and legacy of the historic immersive experience.

book coverThe Philips corporation, originally known for its lighting products, was by the late 1950s one of the largest electronics companies in the world. The company opted to create a promotional pavilion at the 1958 Brussels expo as an adjunct to the Dutch national pavilion. Philips made a significant financial commitment to the pavilion, and entrusted it to perhaps the most influential architect at the time, Paris-based Le Corbusier, who took on the project with the stipulation that he would have complete creative control. He proceeded to design a multimedia spectacle of projection, light, and audio, loosely themed to the concept of human progress. He was less concerned with the architecture of the structure, leaving it to his associate Iannis Xenakis, who designed a tent-like exterior based on hyperbolic paraboloids. The experimental composer Edgar Varèse was commissioned to build an eight-minute electronic soundtrack, and the resulting spectacle was dubbed the “Poème électronique.”

pavilion photoThat’s more or less the “official” history of the pavilion, which is mostly remembered for Xenakis’ architecture and Varèse’s soundtrack. The Poème électronique was significant as a technical achievement, and arguably the first multimedia spectacle of its kind – but the presentation itself was ill-documented, and challenging to convey through still photography.

Wever’s book offers a human-scale take on this history, stemming largely from interviews with the pavilion’s technical staff and correspondence between its sponsors and creators. Each chapter focuses on a different aspect of the project, from its color, lighting, and audio development to its inevitable demolition. Today, sixty years later, the book offers some surprising relevant anecdotes for those of us who create branded and immersive environments:

The Prima Donna: Le Corbusier demanded autonomy, and brought with it egomaniacal behavior. Despite agreeing to work within Gerrit Rietveld’s exterior architecture, Le Corbusier refused and rejected the famous architect’s designs outright, prompting Rietveld to comment: “Thinking that he is the only one who knows best is something he shares with other greats in our profession… but that he does so to such a degree makes him a small man in my eyes.”

The Back-up Plan: An entire chapter is devoted to the “replacement show.” Philips executives were concerned about the possibility of complete failure (both technical and aesthetic), and so commissioned a top-secret back-up experience for the pavilion. Pierre Arnaud, a creator of son et lumière spectacles, completed the never-seen show without any knowledge of Le Corbusier’s plan, though by coincidence, both used “progress” as their central theme.

Technical Challenges: The pavilion was run semi-automatically; the film and audio reels were lined-up by hand, and a technician pressed a single button to start the show. Still, the synchronization of multiple channels of audio, overlapping projections, and multi-colored lighting caused headaches and postponed the pavilion’s debut until more than a month after the fair’s opening day.

interior photo

Visitor Service: Without air conditioning or proper ventilation, the pavilion took on an unpleasant smell, alleviated in part with fluid citronella. And given the abrasive dissonance of both the score and the visuals, audience members became ill on more than one occasion, forcing the installation of “panic lights.”

Mixed Reactions: Philips expressed pride in the experience, and promoted it heavily, as thoroughly documented in the book. But the press feedback was not always so kind, describing it as a “modern nightmare” and “inconsolable loneliness in this concrete space.” As one of the pavilion’s engineers noted years later, “It was a great technological feat for the benefit of a load of hogwash.”

There’s only one discernible gap in the book’s content – Le Corbusier’s process, intent, and feelings regarding the final project remain largely a mystery. This may be frustrating to readers hoping to understand the pavilion in the context of the architect’s masterworks, but it actually makes for a more entertaining, complex narrative, as the cast of characters struggles to “make it work” with respect, but not quite adulation, for its creator.

The book promises to communicate the spectacle of the pavilion as best it can, and does so with impressive detail and documentation. But reading a written description and viewing still images can only go so far to convey an immersive experience. About a decade ago, a consortium of European university groups developed a VR recreation of the experience – I was unable to find the original code, but a documentary about the project can be found online. Others have constructed video recreations, combining the atonal score with approximations of the image and color effects. Even by today’s standards, it’s jarring, noisy, and ultimately unpleasant.

book spread

While these videos may convey the “feel” of the experience better, the book effectively provides history, context and insights that I found to be both relevant and fascinating. It’s surprising, and in some ways encouraging, to learn how little has changed in the way we think about immersion, spectacle, and multimedia in the design of visitor experiences.

Inside Le Corbusier’s Philips Pavilion:
A Multimedial Space at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair

by Peter Wever
192 pages. nai010 publishers, 2015.

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