Iannis Xenakis composes in glass
Architecture is a form of composition. As Geraldine Bedell describes in her excellent new book The Handmade House, (Penguin ISBN 9780670914258) the word 'architect' derives from the Greek architekton, or head carpenter, while the Sanskrit and Chinese words for an architect - sthapti and chientsu-shu - both translate literally as 'master builder'. Frank Gehry, architect of the Bilbao Guggenheim and the Los Angeles Disney Concert Hall, has said that his vocation was sparked by playing with construction toys as a child, and Le Corbusier's abstractly-sculptured chapel at Notre Dame du Haut was an early influence on Gehry's own style.
Xenakis had studied engineeering in Athens before joining Le Corbusier's office in Paris. Music and architecture were inextricably linked for Xenakis; his music used Le Corbusier's Modulor system of proportions, and his design work used rhythmic priciples. These links are found in the structure of his first mature work, Metastasis, which is based on the design for the surfaces of the Philips pavilion built for the Expo 1958 in Brussels. Xenakis's obsession with mathematics reflected a credo expressed by Le Corbusier: Mathematics is the majestic structure conceived by man to grant him comprehension of the universe.
La Tourette (above) was commissioned by the visionary Dominican Father Marie-Alain Corturier who also collabarated with Marc Chagall, Fernand Léger and Amédée Ozenfant. The design remains pure Le Corbusier while acknowledging the influence of the Cistercian monastery at Le Thoronet in Provence. Xenakis' most visible contribution is the spectacular pans de verre ondulatoires, the vertical windows of the main façade and the cloister. The uneven horizontal divisions between them were determined using Le Corbusier's Modulor system, and apply musical principles of harmony and rhythm. (See photos at head of article and below). It is delicously ironic that Le Corbusier's once said that the history of architecture was 'the struggle for the window'. At La Tourette he clearly gave up the struggle and delegated the windows to his second-in-command.
In his highly influential book Le Modulor and Le Modulor 2 Le Corbusier recognised the value of Xenakis' synthesis of architecture and music with these words: This tangency of music and architecture, evoked on countless occasions in relation to the Modulor, is now consciously expressed in a musical score by Xenakis: Mestasis, composed with the modulor, which lent its resources to musical composition.
Now playing - Erato's 2 CD set of Xenakis. This super-budget release (£10, $18US or less) is a superb introduction if you don't know his extraordinary music. All the right names are there - Pierre Boulez, Michel Tabachnik and the Ensemble InterContemporain. But it is the second CD that contains the real gems - four works composed for harpsichordist Elisabeth Chojnacka (left) where the sounds are as crystalline as the Xenakis' pans de verre ondulatoires at La Tourette. There are some seriously beautiful things here, in particular Komboi in which the amplified harpsichord plays a duet with a huge array of percussion. This music is a million miles from Le Corbusier's 'White World' of architecture, which he explained as pure, streamlined, and calming. Komboi means 'knots', and Xenakis' compositions can sometimes be as frustrating as unpicking a knot, but the ends results are very well worth the effort. The radical architect Robert Eisenman once said his buildings were 'designed to shake people out of their needs.' That is also a pretty good summary of Xenakis' music.
* All the photos above are of La Tourette, and are copyright Galinsky.com. For more excellent photos and information of the monastery do visit their web site.
* Visit Iannis Xenakis' website via this link, Foundation Le Corbusier via this link, and for an explanation of Le Corbusier's Modulor system of proportions follow this link. The beautifully illustrated Walking Through Le Corbusier, A Tour of His Masterworks by José Baltanás (Thames & Hudson ISBN 0500512337) is an excellent resource on the architect's work, including La Tourette.
* I mentioned the influence of Le Thoronet on the design of La Tourette. The Stones of the Abbey is a remarkable work of the imagination that recreates the building of the twelfth-century abbey at Le Thoronet through the eyes of the monastic master builder who created it in the days before the architectural profession was conceived. The author of this scrupulously researched work of fiction, Fernand Pouillon, is himself a notable architect who studied the building of the original monastery. My copy is the now out of print US Harvest Books edition (ISBN 0156851008), but there are also English editions with the title The Stones of Le Thoronet. The book was originally published in French as Les Pierres Sauvage.
* Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid is essential reading for anyone interested in the relationship between music and mathematics. (Penguin 0140289208)The book is full of delightful Esheresque sleights of the intellect. One quite unnerving puzzle in the book (in the dialogue Aria with Diverse Variations) is the speculative scenario of an author who writes a book and chooses to end it without actually stopping the text, as is the usual procedure. An author cannot make a sudden ending (sudden from considerations of plot, that is) come as a surprise, because the physical fact that there are only a few pages left in the book is obvious to the reader. So the author might conclude the main theme, and then continue writing, but drop clues to the reader that the end has already passed. These clues may take the form of wandering and unfocused prose, mis-statements, or contradictions (does that sound familiar?). The speculative book has become an experiment in the interplay of form and function, just like the music of Xenakis, the text of Gödel, Escher, Bach, the score of the Art of Fugue, the buildings of Le Corbusier, and, on a much more modest scale, this blog.
* Another outstanding contemporary monastery is Novy Dur in the Czech Republic designed by John Pawson, who in a convergence of threads has also published a remarkable photo essay on Le Thoronet titled Leçons du Thoronet.
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