Recreating the Philips Pavilion

ANABlog Archive: Posted by Joe Drew, January 16, 2010.

The Electronic Music Foundation presented a virtual recreation of the 1958 Philips Pavilion last night which was pleasant enough, but the real treasure was the lecture beforehand by Vincenzo Lombardo, a professor from Turin who spent a few years in charge of a research project about the original installation. The ‘virtual pavilion‘ which they prefer to present with video goggles and binaural headphones still has that Lawnmower Man look of mid-90s neuromancing, but it does manage to vastly enhance one’s understanding of what the pavilion experience was actually like.

Most of the material presented in Lombardo’s lecture is archived online. The pavilion is contextualized by dozens of great photos like this one, which shows the circular US pavilion next to the rectangular USSR pavilion at the top of the photo and the relatively tiny, by comparison, Philips pavilion in the lower right corner:
This ground level view shows it from a unique angle:
This rear view shows the ventilation windows for all of the electronic equipment:
The team unearthed a Dutch film documenting the construction of the pavilion, which includes footage of Corbusier and Xenakis checking the progress of the construction. Lombardo explained that the title, Poème Electronique, was actually Corbusier’s name for the entire pavilion. His stated goal was to put ‘a poem in a bottle’. In addition to Varèse’s composition, Xenakis contributed his own piece, Concrèt PH. Xenakis’ music was used as an interlude, played when the audience was entering and exiting the pavilion. The source material was a recording of charcoal burning.
Lombardo also revealed that Corbusier intended to narrate portions of the exhibit. The main film was originally supposed to stop at various points, during which Corbusier’s voice would be heard expounding on the vague themes of the installation. Varèse objected to the idea that Corbusier’s voice would be heard over his composition, and insisted on dropping the narration. One of the artifacts that Lombardo and his team uncovered was a detailed timing sheet (detail right), which had a column for Corbusier’s narration (‘Paroles’).
In addition to the film, the visual component of the pavilion included two hanging objects (a female mannequin, and an elaborate cube), three ‘windows’ of projected still images, and an elaborate lighting design. Lombardo actually tracked down all 51 of the ambient lighting configurations (ambiances) in the Pavilion. On the left is an individual slide, which shows the timing of the 34th ambiance, and on the right is the index of the various ambiances:
The biggest insight as to what the actual sound experience was like came from little details like the fact that the entire interior was covered in asbestos. This would have hardened the walls enough to create a cavernous acoustic. The detailed pictures of the speaker allocation and the spatialization were also very revealing. Essentially, it was a proto-acousmonium setup with a speaker orchestra spatialized live by sound projectionists. The speakers were dotted all along the interior walls, trailing up into the various peaks of the structure (left). Lombardo displayed Varèse’s detailed spatialization scheme for the entire piece that designated which speakers would be sounding at every moment of the piece. The sound was manipulated by a team of projectionists with several rotary telephone dials, which could each turn on 5 speakers at a time out of a bank of 12. Based on this scheme and other evidence of how many projectionists were actually on hand, Lombardo arrives at a low guess of 350 speakers in the pavilion, rather than the usual estimate of 400+.
Apparently, Lombardo’s site has been online since 2006, and it appears that they are still in the process of creating an updated version, which should hopefully include more of the information from Lombardo’s lecture such as Varèse’s spatialization timings. For instance, the only thing that is up there now is the composer’s sketch of the spatialization scheme (right). In addition to bearing Varèse’s signature just below-right of center, the sketch reveals how extensively he intended to exploit the physical environment, particularly the height of the pavilion. Details like that help to illustrate why the piece had such a lasting impact. Lombardo and his team have done an extraordinary job of unearthing the secrets of the legendary Philips Pavilion, and it’s well worth a visit to their site.