Sven Sterken
Professor of Architecture, KU Leuven, Belgium

In the 20th century, giants of modernism such as Iannis Xenakis – born 100 years ago this month – and Karlheinz Stockhausen proposed new interpretations of the 19th century concept of Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art). Relying on the latest technologies in the field of sound, light and automation, and often developed in close collaboration with architects, their revision of the total work of art entailed an open set of experiences admitting no privileged viewing position or single message.

Such multisensory environments demand substantial financial resources and, therefore, more often than not emanate from public commissions or large corporations. That does not necessarily compromise the artistic integrity of such a project. Indeed, a quick survey of World Expos reveals how several artists have succeeded in exploiting the latest technological achievements in their field to creative and critical ends rather than for social manipulation and economic gain.

By turning an ideologically or commercially charged brief into an artistic and technological statement, the Philips Pavilion (Expo 1958 Brussels) by Xenakis and Le Corbusier, Stockhausen’s Kugel-Auditorium (Expo 1970 Osaka) or the Blur Building (2002) by Diller & Scofidio and the Swiss Pavilion by Peter Zumthor (Expo 2000 Hannover), interrogate the most fundamental aspect of architecture, namely its materiality.

Commissioned to Le Corbusier for Expo 1958 Brussels, the Philips Pavilion was to illustrate the superior quality of Philips’ products in the field of light and sound equipment. It hosted Le poème électronique, a light and sound show developed together with Edgar Varèse, which reflected, in seven stages, Le Corbusier’s vision on the history of humankind and its ambivalent attitude towards technological progress. The pavilion’s architecture, drawn by Xenakis (then working in the old master’s office as an engineer-architect) on the basis of hyperbolic concrete shells, was in fact a huge projection screen warped around the audience. Its purpose was to create a darkened interior space for Le poème électronique and attract the crowds through its futuristic exterior form.

"Inside the Philips Pavilion, floor, ceiling and walls all had to merge into one another, so that depth and perspective seemed to disappear"

It is interesting to note that initially, Le Corbusier didn’t think of the pavilion as a proper building. Upon accepting the commission, he wrote to Philips: “I will not make a façade for Philips, but an Electronic Poem. Everything will happen inside: sound, light, colour, rhythm. Perhaps, scaffolding will be the pavilion’s only exterior aspect.” Indeed, as his first sketches show, he initially conceived it as a simple tensile covering, quite similar to his Pavillon des temps nouveaux at the Expo 1937 Paris. Nevertheless, Le Corbusier’s intentions at Expo 1958 were clear: inside the Philips Pavilion, floor, ceiling and walls all had to merge into one another, so that depth and perspective seemed to disappear. This confusion was reinforced during the show by the projection of large images on opposite sides of the room, while a succession of ‘ambiances’ (coloured light projections) filled the entire pavilion with tints of red, blue, green and orange.

In the meantime, recorded sounds of bells, voices and sirens, electronically manipulated by Varèse, travelled alongside the walls through 300 hidden loudspeakers. Xenakis not only designed the pavilion’s geometry but also composed a two-minute interlude, Concret PH. Contrary to Varèse’s soundtrack – basically a surrealist collage of recorded sounds, developing in time and space – it was more an abstract static soundscape with a certain textural quality. Based on the scintillating noise of burning charcoal, it must have made the audience feel as if the thin concrete shell of the pavilion was about to burst. Concret PH was not so much music to listen to, but rather a soundscape to be felt – in the sense that it must have made the audience’s skin crawl.

Although Le poème électronique was a huge success at the Expo, Xenakis criticised its mimetic content as well as its lack of artistic coherence. As he stated in ‘Notes sur un geste électronique’ (1958), the current state of electronic media allowed for a more advanced concept of the total work of art; in his vision, such an integration of visual and aural arts had to be abstract in nature. Referring to contemporary developments in kinetic art and avant-garde cinema, he observed: “The intentions behind painting and sculpture have already adopted the most recent stages of physical, mathematical and philosophical thought. These are steps toward abstraction. Abstraction, here, is meant in the sense of conscious manipulation of laws and pure ideas, and not of concrete objects.”

"The ear can provide us with spatial orientation just as much as the eye"

Whereas the visual arts had already embraced the temporal dimension through cinematography, it was now music’s turn to conquer the spatial dimension and enrich the classical structural components of sound (duration, timbre, dynamics and pitch) with that of location. Moreover, as Xenakis argued, in this manner, “music may now govern mathematical space and its abstract relations and thus become wonderfully perceptible to the ear without the use of visuals or any physical apparatus of measurement.” What Xenakis is saying here, is that the ear can provide us with spatial orientation just as much as the eye.

A crucial component in realising this idea of ‘audible space’ would be a three-dimensional acoustic grid, allowing sounds to emanate from any point in the floor, the walls and the ceiling. As Xenakis argued further, “these sound points define space in the same manner as geometric points in stereometrics. Everything that can be stated for Euclidian space could be transposed into an acoustic space.” Thus, geometric shapes and surfaces could be articulated in sound-space, while sound was no longer only a carrier of musical expression, but also a means to generate ephemeral sonic architectures. Twelve years later, at Expo 1970 Osaka, Xenakis had the opportunity to put this idea into practice in the so-called ‘Space Theatre’ (not designed by him), where his electro-acoustic piece Hibiki Hana Ma was broadcast via 800 loudspeakers according to all sorts of geometrical configurations. This was the closest Xenakis would get to his ideal of an ‘isotropie sonore’: an environment where the quality of the sound would be exactly the same in all the spots.

In the Polytopes, a series of large multimedia installations, Xenakis transferred his experience in musical composition to the realm of vision. In his view, this was quite logical a step as musical notions such as continuity, intensity and repetition keep their meaning when transposed to the domain of light and colour. The first Polytope, presented at Expo 1967 Montreal, featured 1,200 strobe lights whose configurations changed with a rhythm of 25 times per second, suggesting a continuous movement to the eye. Every hour, during six minutes and changing with a rhythm of 25 times per second, voluminous clouds, spirals and complicated curves in different colours gradually emerged from the apparent chaos of white light patterns, suggesting a continuous movement to the eye.

The Polytope’s soundtrack was broadcast from four groups of loudspeakers placed symmetrically at the bottom of the central void and consisted of strings playing vast glissandi whose continuous and uniform aspect notably contrasted with the pointillist lighting effects. Thus, rather than using light, sound and movement as carriers of content like in Le poème électronique, Xenakis created a multidimensional work based on their inherent sensory qualities. In 1972, on the occasion of the prestigious Festival d’Automne in Paris, he installed a light metal structure in the Cluny Museum, covered with six hundred strobe lights and four hundred mobile mirrors to refract the beams of three laser lights. The metal structure somehow resembled Xenakis’ acoustic grid at Expo 1970 Osaka – with the difference that it allowed to draw with light instead of sound.

In the Diatope (1978), a temporary multimedia pavilion celebrating the inauguration of the Centre Pompidou, the technical interface became an architectural element in its own right. Consisting of an external, semi-transparent canvas of red fabric and an inner metal net carrying the lighting apparatus (1,600 light flashes, 4 laser beams and 400 refracting mirrors), it also delimited the area of performance. However, as Xenakis’ sketch illustrated, the double-layered membrane of the pavilion only isolated the area of performance from its environment for the duration of the spectacle. Once the 46-minute show was over, the interior space became again part of its environment. With this idea, Xenakis closed a circle: whereas in the Philips Pavilion, he had managed to reduce the concrete shell to the minimum thickness of 5 centimetres, he now did away almost entirely with the material aspect of architecture. Thus, he put into evidence how electronic media can define architectural space as much as a physical enclosure.

"The German pavilion at Expo 1970 Osaka was entirely dedicated to contemporary music and sound technology"

Apart from Xenakis, at Expo 1970, Stockhausen also had the opportunity to realise some of his earlier ideas about the total work of art in the electronic era. Symbolising the country’s achievements in art and technology, the German pavilion, designed by Fritz Bornemann, was entirely dedicated to contemporary music and sound technology. Its central feature was a spherical concert hall with a capacity of 550, designed almost literally according to the instructions formulated by Stockhausen in Musik im Raum (1958): “New kinds of concert halls have to be built suited to the requirements of spatialised music. I propose a spherical space which is equipped all around with loudspeakers. In the middle of this spherical space a sound-permeable, transparent platform will have to be suspended for the listeners. Thus, they will be able to hear music composed for such standardised spaces coming from above, from below and from all points of the compass.”

Together with the visual artist Otto Piene, Stockhausen conceived Hinab-Hinauf, a mixed media spectacle that was to challenge the standards set by Le poème électronique. Stockhausen’s ambition to overcome gravity and geometry as fundamentals of conventional space perception was cut short by its excessive cost however – the projected budget was even debated in the national parliament. In the end, the show was reduced to a broadcasting program alternated with daily live performances of Stockhausen pieces. In the course of the 180-day exhibition, ‘Spiral’, for a soloist and short-wave receiver, was played no less than 1,300 times. During the performances, the sound was distributed across 650 speakers (divided in 50 groups) with the aid of a spherical sensor, while the darkened interior space suggested that the audience were seated in an endless outer space. Just like Xenakis with the Philips Pavilion, this impression of infinity was exactly the architect’s aim. Envisioning an architecture that effaced itself before the message it was supposed to transmit, he even stated: “I didn’t want to use a building at all. Radar [sic] frozen air would have been better, but we can’t do that yet, so I tried to do the next best thing.”

This brings up the question what role is left for architecture in a context of electronic media. As the architecture critic Martin Pawley stated in his account of Expo 1970 Osaka, what is at stake here is a “quantum leap in architectural design”, involving “the substitution of mobile images for static forms – in a way the substitution of the laws of perception for the laws of force, mass and weight as the ultimate governing factors in the design of environment.” Two paradoxical options are left for architecture in such a context: either becoming a ‘rhetorical sign’ without a clear functional purpose, such as the Swiss Pavilion at Osaka by Willi Walter (called ‘The Radiant Structure’), an apparently weightless filigree structure with branches holding 32,000 electric bulbs; either becoming an infrastructural environment for all sorts of media devices that in fact have one single aim: to do away with architecture’s material dimension. Consequently, like Pawley concluded, “the design of such environments is going to become de facto providence of systems and media men, electronics and computer experts, (…). Architects who cannot manipulate sound and projection systems (…) will be about as much use as demonologists in a cancer research hospital.”

"The Pepsi Pavilion at Expo 1970 was ‘hijacked’ by the American artist group E.A.T. and transformed into an interactive multi-sensory experience of light, sound, touch and movement"

Pawley’s observations applied most strikingly to the Pepsi Pavilion at Expo 1970 Osaka. Originally intended as a purely promotional device (it formed part of a strategy to introduce the soda drink to the Japanese market), the project was ‘hijacked’ by the American artist group E.A.T. (Experiments in Art & Technology) and transformed into an interactive multi-sensory experience of light, sound, touch and movement. The pavilion’s dome-shaped interior was covered with an air pressurised reflecting film suggesting an impression of weightless floating. Hidden behind this film, 37 speakers arranged in a rhombic grid enabled to direct sounds via various spatial trajectories, blurring even more the spatial orientation of the visitors. It was used, amongst others, by David Tudor and Gordon Mumma.


Visitors were free to shape their own experience from the materials, processes, and structures set in motion by its creators. Each moment created an unrepeatable configuration of changing patterns and images. The most talked about feature of the Pepsi Pavilion however was the fog system designed by Fujiko Nakaya: fixed on the exterior shell of the pavilion, 2,500 jet-spray nozzles sprayed 40 tonnes of water per hour, disclosing its appearance in an ever-changing fogbank. This atmospheric, misty work – in fact her first ‘fog sculpture’, for which a specially designed high-pressure nozzle system was developed in collaboration with the engineer Thomas Mee – has become Nakaya’s signature work. An autonomous artistic intervention, with its own aesthetic and conceptual intentions, the installation also had a more prosaic dimension, though: it served to lead the attention away from the pavilion’s rather banal architectural features, designed long before E.A.T. became involved. In this respect, once again, media technologies became part of a strategy against architecture.

Thirty years later, the tendency towards dematerialisation found its accomplishment in the ‘Blur Building’ designed by the American architects Diller & Scofidio for the Swiss national exhibition at Lake Neuchâtel in Switzerland. Apart from a two-level visitor platform, carried by a lightweight tensegrity structure, the primary building material here was water, pumped from the lake and shot as a fine mist through 31,500 high-pressure nozzles. Reaching the foggy mist via a 122-metre-long walkway, the visitor entered a massless and elastic atmosphere, impalpable from the outside and invisible from the inside. While vision was put out-of-focus here, the other senses were heightened by the temperature change, the ‘white noise’ of the water spray and the scent of atomised lake water.

Embracing electronically mediated presence as a creative working principle and a means of interrogating the contemporary built environment, Diller & Scofidio were exactly the type of architect Martin Pawley prophesised about in 1970. Rather than viewing digital technology and video images as inimical to architecture, they appropriated their capacity of manipulating space and time as a means of augmenting its definition. Or, as the architects stated: their contribution would be “formless, massless, colourless, weightless, odourless, scaleless, featureless and meaningless.” This ambition of “doing nothing” somehow echoes Le Corbusier’s statement when accepting the commission for the Philips Pavilion (“I will not make a façade for Philips, …”). Thus, although both very different, the Philips Pavilion and the Blur Building both challenge the Vitruvian categories that have structured architecture’s conceptual framework since Antiquity: utilitas (functionality), venustas (aesthetic quality) and firmitas (sustainability).

We can wonder now if such statements imply that in an era of mediated presence and digital technology, architecture has become superfluous. Has architecture – in the classical sense as defined above by Vitruvius – lost its capacity to provoke strong sensorial experiences? As Peter Zumthor has shown in the Swiss Pavilion at Expo 2000 Hannover, this is surely not the case. As an antidote to the surrounding media cacophony, Zumthor proposed a huge open-air ‘timber labyrinth’ made of heavy wooden planks, piled up into stacks of 50m long and grouped together in a pin-wheel like formation.

"The immersive experience in the Swiss Pavilion at Expo 2000 derived not from displacement or interactivity, but from the authentic experience of sound, smell and touch"

Open on all sides, unprotected from the elements and without an established path of circulation, the pavilion was conceived as an ‘installation-performance’, provoking chance encounters with Swiss architecture, music, the written word, fashion design and gastronomy. In Zumthor’s words, it was “an experience for the senses”, and “a welcoming place to rest, a place to just be, a place offering a tasty little something from Switzerland”. Walking around, one could bump into ‘house music ensembles’ slowly hovering around according to a precise, predefined scenario (the so called ‘three-times-three point catalogue’) established by the Swiss composer Daniel Ott. Interestingly, each day of the Expo had its own musical theme. Structured by the daily routine of this musical choreography within this ‘soundbox’ – punctually regulated, in a typically Swiss manner, by a stopwatch, time seemed to elapse at a different pace than in the rest of the Expo.

While the idea of an isolated space-time capsule is common to all the projects discussed above, Zumthor succeeded in implementing this concept without electronic media or advanced technology. The immersive experience in the Swiss Pavilion derived not from displacement or interactivity, but from the authentic experience of sound, smell and touch. Yet it was as open-ended and dynamic as the previous examples since its components never appeared twice in the same configuration. Built with elemental means, Zumthor’s ‘little city of sensations’ thus formed a true manifesto for the sensorial richness of architecture’s material presence in the digital era.


This is a slightly reworked version of an article first published as Sven Sterken, ‘Strategien gegen die Architektur: Temporäre Ausstellungspavillons von Xenakis, Stockhausen, Zumthor und Diller + Scofido’, Neue Zeitschrift für Musik 172 (2011) 5, 22 – 27, and republished in the 2021/22 edition of the BIE Bulletin, entitled 'World Expos: Architectural Labs".

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