Français    Search

The architectural itinerary Iannis Xenakis (Sven STERKEN)
An invitation to play space

The Le Corbusier years

Xenakis arrived in France in November 1947. With the help of several Greek friends (among them the architect Georges Candilis), he was almost immediately hired as an engineer in the team of Le Corbusier, where for several years he dealt with calculations and the design of structural elements of the Housing Units of Marseilles and Nantes. Later, for the Nantes Unit, he designed the façades of the kindergarten on the roof-terrace, where one can recognize the "neumes" (elements for the notation of Gregorian chant), as well as a "stochastic" distribution of the prefabricated windows, calculated from the Modulor[1]. At the same time he was working as an advisory engineer on the projects for Chandigarh, the new city that Le Corbusier began building in 1951 in India. Xenakis worked on the structure of the Supreme Court and the hyperbolic tower of the Assembly, which houses the Parliament. It was during construction of the Secretariat (housing all Ministries) that he came up with the idea of his celebrated "undulating glass panels". In order to avoid a monotonous repetition of standard elements in the immense façade of the building, Le Corbusier asked Xenakis to develop a principle for windows that he had caught sight of during the Chandigarh construction. For reasons of economy, the "raw" glass panels of the windows are placed directly into concrete, and their initial width is retained. The resulting window configurations are very vivid. Xenakis developed the dimensions of the glass panels according to the blue and red series of the Modulor. Thanks to the resulting effect of dilatation and contraction, the façade seems to become a dynamic membrane. The principle finds its most virtuoso application in the Tourette monastery, a project that Xenakis worked on as of 1954, with the western façade conceived as a great architectural counterpoint (ill. 1). Here he transforms the traditional Dominican structure (a rectangle around an interior garden, closed on one side by a church) into a sophisticated unit of circulation and remarkable plays of light. In this project, almost all the "free" forms were drawn by Xenakis: the chapel, shaped like a grand piano with its "light canons"; the "machine-guns" in the chapels; the stilts shaped like a comb over the western wing; the helicoidal stairs[2]. It was during this period that he met Olivier Messiaen and Hermann Scherchen, who were to be strong influences on the young composer and architect; he was putting the finishing touches to his first great composition, Metastasis.

In 1956, the year he composed Pithoprakta, Xenakis was placed in charge of a project for the Maison de la culture et de la jeunesse in Firminy. The first proposal included a gallery, workshops, meeting spaces and two small theaters, all of them integrated into a single building located alongside a sports field. Unfortunately, the remarkable cross-section — the negative of the gallery formed the interior space and vice-versa — was not retained in the final version of the project drawn up in 1958, but Xenakis' signature style remains visible in the undulating glass panes that cover the two principle façades (ill. 2). Although he did not draw it, the parabolic roof of the Maison de la jeunesse recalls another project that Xenakis was working on at the time in Le Corbusier's studio: the Philips Pavilion. At the request of the Philips corporation, Le Corbusier proposed to create an Electronic Poem for the Brussels Universal Exhibition of 1958. This was a collage of multicolored projections and atmospheres that would sum up the modern world in eight minutes, accompanied by the musique concrète of Edgar Varèse. The work was housed in a large black space which Xenakis was asked to conceive. He used the opportunity to experiment with thin-shelled concrete panels for the roofing, whose thickness he ultimately managed to reduce to just five centimeters. Despite its success with the public, the project left Xenakis with a bitter taste: only after a bitter argument did Le Corbusier accept that he should acknowledge Xenakis as co-author in the project's numerous publications. This cast a shadow on the final project that Xenakis worked on in the studio: the Baghdad Olympic Stadium. Commissioned by the Iraqi government, this project included a 50,000-spectator stadium, several swimming pools, a gymnasium with seating for 3,500 and various pitches for open-air sports. Despite the freedom at his disposal, Xenakis realized that if he remained with his old master he would never be able to develop his own ideas. Le Corbusier, meanwhile, was again rethinking the way his workshop functioned, realizing that he could hardly continue to deny the requests of his principal co-workers for full recognition of their participation in projects. Finally, at the end of the summer of 1959, he resolved the problem by firing the whole team. Thus from one day to the next ended twelve years of collaboration.

Xenakis, independent architect

Xenakis then worked as an independent engineer for a construction business, while focusing as much as possible on his musical and mathematical research. The contacts he had made with Hermann Scherchen in the mid 1950s had been decisive. Thanks in part to his visits to Gravesano, where the annual meetings of young composers took place, Xenakis found the courage to devote himself entirely to music, although Scherchen had always urged him not to completely abandon architecture. In 1961, Scherchen asked Xenakis to consider a studio that he wanted to create for experimental music in Gravesano! Abandoned at the project-conception stage, it was only in 1984, during the competition for the Cité de la Musique in Paris, that Xenakis was able to pick up this project, which had expressed strong desire to break with the traditional of frontal listening. In addition to a large range of musical equipment, his proposal, which was drawn up together with Jean-Louis Véret (another former member of the Le Corbusier team), included a great, 2500-seat concert hall shaped as a "patatoid". It was equipped with a ramp deployed in a constant helical shape around the hall. The spectator would be "suspended in space like a spider at the tip of its thread[3]". The hall itself was, in turn, enveloped in hyperbolic sails made of reinforced concrete. Since the volume of air between the sail and the room could be regulated via pivoting panels in the walls, this mechanism could vary the volume of air in the hall and thus dose its sound energy, depending on the composition or the instruments to be played. With its "resonance chamber", the hall thus actually functioned as a musical instrument itself!

In the early 60s, as he was publishing the first version of Musiques formelles, Xenakis applied his favorite paradigm of hyperbolic paraboloids on an urban scale, with his proposal for a "Cosmic City" for five million residents. This was the description of a project conceived in the tradition of utopian urbanism, offering an interesting alternative to the obsession of rigorous control over cities that has been the failure of modernist urban planning. Xenakis proposed to create "envelopes" (symbolized metaphorically by 5000 meter-high hyperbolic towers), within which urban scenarios could be played out freely, without being determined in advance (ill. 5). In strong contrast with this technological paradigm, the series of houses that he designed over the years reveals a deliberately archaic quality. In this work, Xenakis abandons great ideas and renews contact with the traditional architecture of the Cyclades. For example, these houses are all built by local workers. In one holiday home in Greece that he designed in the mid 1960s, we recognize the "neumes" that Xenakis revisited in the annex of a house in Corsica that he built in 1975, as well as in his project for a holiday home in California, in 1992 (ill. 6). Moreover, in the 1990s, he created the extension of his daughter's house in Paris (1991) and a holiday home in Corsica (1996) for his personal use.


As early as 1958, dissatisfied with the figurative character of the Electronic Poem, Xenakis had expressed his own vision for a totally electronic artistic performance, proposing to take light itself as the material for sculpture, and not as simply the vehicle for an image[4]. This abstraction appeals to the intelligence of the spectator, who is invited to participate actively in constructing the meaning of the work. Xenakis produced these ideas as early as the end of the 1960s in the Polytopes, great installations of sound and light. The word "polytope" is employed here in its literal sense: it means "several places". The Polytopes superpose different spaces: sound, light, architecture, colors. These projects graft various Cartesian systems, comprising points of sound (speakers) or light (flashes) on a given architecture or historic location. Given these axiomatic entities Xenakis constructs virtual figures or volumes in music or light. He thus cerates an approach of global and parallel formalization in the various media. The components of this diachronic whole are approached independently, with synthesis and the attribution of meaning reliant on the spectator who is its interpreter.

For the Montreal Polytope, Xenakis suspended in the central, empty space of the French Pavilion at the 1967 Exhibition several paraboloids of steel cable carrying hundreds of flashes. Once every hour, and for eight minutes, the spectator thus could perceive virtual volumes of light moving in the center of the pavilion. Xenakis here creates a virtuosos performance with retinal persistence: since the constellations of flashes change every 1/25th second, the eye perceives their variations as continuous. Once the performance has begun, the public, on every floor, can walk up and down the stairs to modify their perspective on the installation. After eight minutes, everything returns to normal, as if nothing has happened… The Polytope thus modulates the existing space, imposing on the pavilion the dimension of time (ill. 7). For the Cluny Polytope, in 1972, Xenakis installed a metallic tube structure in the Roman baths of the Cluny Museum in Paris. This Cartesian grid, on which flashes were fixed, could be folded according to the contours of the specific space. The public is thus inside the performance, witness to the temporary transformation of this historic location in a violent cataclysm. In two other Polytopes, the location is a landscape, and these Polytopes could be considered musical land art[5]. Conceived for Persepolis (1971) and Mycenae (1978), they stretch across an entire archeological site, which Xenakis calls back to life via a choreographic of electronic music, laser rays, children's choirs and even flocks of animals! This strange confrontation of the technological and the archaic takes place according to a precise script directed by Xenakis. Appropriating the space-time of the site, he imposes on it a new dynamic: following the performance, it is not the landscape that has changed but the way that the public perceives and remembers it. The history of the site has suddenly become alive, thanks to the new chapter added by Xenakis.

We note that command of the space of the performance and that of the spectator become increasingly important to the Polytopes. With the Diatope, which he conceived for the opening ceremony of the Centre Georges-Pompidou in 1977, Xenakis designed the space of his performance himself: a nomad pavilion robed in cloth, conceived to voyage across the globe as a representative of the Georges Pompidou Center. Here, architecture has become an active part of the whole. The metallic structure where the flashes are attached; the mirrors and lasers function like a great three-dimensional screen that envelops the spectators. Since the cover is translucent, sound and cold can enter. This imperfection means that the spectator constantly shifts between inside and outside. He or she thus perceives the simultaneity of the imagination and of reality. In contrast with the Philips Pavilion, the Diatope is thus open to its environment. The change of prefix to its name indicates this: dia signifies "across". The Diatope is thus a hybrid, half way between the real and the virtual.

As with his music, the fact of creating architecture constituted for Xenakis a systematic search for the internal logic of forms, characterized by the technological paradigm of the hyperbolic paraboloid. Here the architect and the engineer could meet within him. In virtuoso manner, Xenakis managed to elevate these abstract forms into the dimension of a true architecture, revealing himself to be the precursor of an entirely new conception of shapes, which is today manifest in the theories of the "liquid" architecture of cyberspace. The issue is no longer the creation of closed spaces, but the conception of the notion of a place as a dynamic zone in space. Xenakis, no longer backed by a great architect who could permit him to experiment with shapes and programs, had now to seize the few occasions that presented themselves. But although, for this reason, his work as an architect is primarily ephemeral or imaginary, it nonetheless remains "a permanent provocation, an invitation to play with space".


1. The Modulor is a system of universal proportions conceived by Le Corbusier, which helps the architect to find homogeneity in the general dimensions of a project. It is based on the Golden Section and the Fibonacci series (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, …).

2. See Iannis Xenakis, "The Monastery of La Tourette", in Allen Brooks (ed.), Le Corbusier : The Garland Essays, NJ, Princeton Architectural Press, 1987, p. 142-162.

3. Iannis Xenakis, in "Il faut se débarrasser des préjugés architecturaux", Les Nouvelles Littéraires, 23-29 June 1983, p. 40-41.

4. Iannis Xenakis, "Notes sur un geste électronique ", in Jean Petit, Le Poème électronique de Le Corbusier, Paris, Éditions de Minuit, 1958.

5. Olivier Revault D’Allonnes, Les Polytopes, Paris, Balland, 1975.

6. Jean Vermeil, "Les demeures Xenakis", Silences, no 1, 1985, p. 201-205.

Haut de page