Friday, August 10, 2007

First multimedia show on earth: Poème Electronique (1958)

When I was writing about the preservation of digital heritage yesterday, I made the supposition, that large companies like Philips would take care of their industrial legacy. Usually large multinationals have their own company museum and they can easily retrieve prototypes of machines. So also with Philips, I thought. But then I was reminded of the Expo, which was held in Brussels in 1958. Everyone knows the Atomium, the daring aluminium sphere construction, which formed the entrance to the exhibition grounds. Not many people know about the daring pavilion and the first large-scale “multi-media” presentation of Philips.

In 1958 the Philips Company was represented at the World Exhibition Expo with its own pavilion; the pavilion was to show the strong points of Philips: lightning, acoustics, electronics and automation. The idea originated with Louis Kalff, an engineer who at the time was Philips’ director of arts. Under the umbrella of Le Corbusier’s concept for Poème électronique, a Gesamtkunstwerk was created, uniting the architecture by Iannis Xenakis and music by Edgard Varèse to Le Corbusier’s colours and images. The floor plan of the pavilion resembled the shape of a stomach, with a surface of 1,000m2 (40 x 25m), and a height of 22 meters. The construction technology used was innovative as a geometric construction of pipes and concrete slabs were used.

The interior was empty and dark. To facilitate performance all technological features were concealed. At each showing the pavilion could hold approximately 500 standing visitors, who experienced a shocking multi-media performance lasting 480 seconds. The visitors saw a slide show all around them and heard electronic music from 400 speakers.

The visitors experienced the Poème électronique, a history of mankind in 8 minutes show with light and sound effects. The show should have been a poem, blending images and sounds into a total experience. But during the long preparations Edgar Varèse got into conflict with the Philips sound engineers. The harmony aimed for at never came about. So when the show was played it visitors left the pavilion baffled. The multi slide show can these days been seen (not experienced) at YouTube (do not mind the Dutch text).

The pavilion was blown up. Officially as it was only intended for the exhibition. The project cost the Philips Company approximately three million Euros. After this the project went into oblivion, except for a piece of the architecture, which decorated the entrance to the Lightning factories for years. But in 1984 the Technical University of Eindhoven picked up again on the geometric architecture. And also the content was discovered again.

Since 2000 there is an initiative to reconstruct the Philips pavilion in Eindhoven (see drawing), creating a figurehead for both contemporary research and education in the field of images and sound. The pavilion would symbolically connect the ambitions of new Brainport Eindhoven to the research climate at the former Philips Laboratory NatLab. Plans are there to reconstruct the pavilion and in the meantime a reconstruction of the content and the performance has been made. In 2005 the Poème électronique could be experienced at the IST Conference in the Hague (the 400 speakers had been reduced to a few surround speakers).

Blog Posting Number: 835


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