In 1955, the artist Nicolas Schöffer conceived of La Tour Spatiodynamique et Cybernétique with the help of Jacques Bureau, a friend and engineer at Philips Société Anonyme (Philips SA) in France and the musician Pierre Henry. Considered one of Schöffer’s earliest spatiodynamic towers, the structure was constructed and commissioned by the Mills company for the first Salon International des Travaux Publics et du Bâtiment. The tower, which responded to the urban environment around it, was outfitted with recording devices that transmitted stimuli and changes—in temperature, humidity, wind, colors, light, sounds, and variations due to photocells—to a homeostat.1 The sensors continuously provided this information to an electronic brain, which then regulated a tape recorder and a set of associated amplifiers on the tower in real time. The structure mixed, processed, diffused, and spatialized the sounds it collected using more than a dozen speakers—generating sound and light back to the city. This project constituted the shift from object to process—from a static to kinetic art object. It was an attempt to rupture with traditional representations of life in art. Schöffer, instead, believed he was actually creating life—an all-encompassing and totalizing vision about harmonizing the arts, architecture, and modern society. Out of this initial project a long-lasting research collaboration emerged between Schöffer and Philips SA—resulting in multiple collaborative projects in which the corporate group ensured technical and financial support.
Philips SA had shown growing interest in co-developing experimental arts, and Schöffer’s experimental research and objectives were congruent with the firm’s interest as a commercial enterprise. Since the early 1950s, Schöffer worked to produce cybernetic sculptures that could act autonomously without any subsequent human intervention. By adjoining electronic motors and sensors to his sculptures, he introduced real movement and an element of indetermination to the plastic arts.2 Philips SA developed its own research facility, Natuurkundig Laboratorium (Natlab), at a very early stage and began multiplying its collaborations with various experts, such as architect Le Corbusier, all-rounder Iannis Xenakis, and composer Edgard Varese, for its pavilion at l’Exposition Universelle in Brussels in 1958—all aimed at creating an immersive environment to showcase the company’s technological progress through an automated, audiovisual-multimedia spectacle.3 The company continued to collaborate with pioneers from various fields, like technological artist Edward Ihnatowicz, who was commissioned to create a cybernetic device called Senster for the company’s new technology center Evoluon in Eindhoven.4 5
“Free and master of my work, the company having the choice to give me means or not. It is a collaboration of a new type which, in my opinion, foreshadows the one to come between the artist and big companies or the state. Only then can he (the artist) can come to terms with himself, there is no other solution.”
– Nicolas Schöffer quoted in Philippe Sers, Entretiens avec Nicolas Schöffer (Paris: Editions Pierre Belfond, 1971), 148.
In various statements Schöffer has emphasized the importance of collaboration in the creation and realization of his work. Schöffer strongly advocated for changing the role of the artist and for what he termed création future. He believed the artist had to undergo a social and intellectual conversion to adapt to group work—that artistic freedom relied on partnerships, between scientists and engineers, and large corporations.6 Schöffer insisted that future artists be responsive to interdisciplinary work—engaging both with the world and with fields outside their own, and relying on the expertise of technicians.7
Schöffer’s obsessive advocacy of collaboration began with his own participation in the group “Espace” formed by André Bloc in 1951. The group consisted of various architects, painters, and sculptors, working together to promote constructive art concerned with improving living conditions for the individual and the collective in society.8 Calling for a more radical approach and rupture with the existing stance on plastic arts, which he accused of being uninvolved, Schöffer gathered members from Espace to form “Néovision” in 1954—among them, the young graduate architect Claude Parent (one of Schöffer’s earliest adherents on the therapeutic effects of architectural utopia), musician Pierre Henry, choreographer Maurice Béjart, and Philips SA engineer Jacques Bureau.9 10 According to Schöffer and the Néovision group, the implementation of technology in art work would be curative and reformatory for society.
Schöffer sketched his vision of La Maison Spatiodynamique for the second Salon International des Travaux Publics et du Bâtiment of 1957 as early as 1955. The fair, which consisted of over 500 exhibitors, intended to illustrate the transformation of building by the development and application of new building materials. La Maison Spatiodynamique actualized Schöffer’s theory of spatiodynamism—the constructive and dynamic integration of space carried out by the fusion of light, movement, color, sound, and electronic technology all coordinated by scientific developments.11 On an urban scale, Schöffer wanted art to transform the customary aspect of the modern city and reorganize collective life.12 In order to achieve this, he imagined an inhabited environment oriented towards flexibility, immateriality, and non-formalism. On a larger scale, Schöffer proposed that the expansion of cities be controlled according to the information that conditions them.
Later referred to as La Maison à Cloisons Invisibles—designed in collaboration with Philips SA and Saint-Gobain, the French industrial glass and fiber glass producer—the project forecasted a new kind of housing adapted to a rapidly changing society. With the technical support provided by Phillips SA, the project, in its quest to find new forms of housing and renew existing architectural typologies, was relatively free of material constraints. Philips SA considered Schöffer’s vision of future housing as a laboratory to test new technologies emphasizing ambiance and sensation in architecture on a broader public and to meet future market demand.13 With La Maison à Cloisons Invisibles, Philips SA was able to exhibit their corporate ambition to create a technologically advanced environment. In fact, Schöffer even argued that corporate, industrial, and commercial efforts would contribute to the democratization, self-regulation, and normalization of society.
Philips SA played a fundamental role in the realization of the project. The company was not only the prime contractor, but it also offered technical guidance as Schöffer’s supervisor—presumably exerting major control over the design process itself. Philips SA and Schöffer corresponded constantly and meetings were held with all parties for design modifications on the layout, construction, and interior finishing to ensure that acoustics, insulation, sonority, coloration, and climatization would suit and accent Schöffer’s intended effects. Various construction firms were commissioned to help: Rigyps (Saint Gobain) for revetting the ceiling of the cold zone; Isocolor for revetting the ceiling of the hot zone; Lyvertex for façade panels; Airwell for air conditioning; Fibriver (Saint Gobain) for glass mats; and Solesmes for completing the steel structure. The experimental house acted as a billboard, advertising not only a vision for future housing but also the materials which constitute it—with the sensual experience of architecture at the center.
The project materialized spatiodynamism and enacted its effects on people, taking into account the complex interplay between physics, physiology, and psychology. The building enacted Schöffer’s belief that architecture was a carrier of sensations and presented a path towards the complete dematerialization of the built environment.14 La Maison à Cloisons Invisibles presented a single-family household as a single environment with two different atmospheres marked architecturally by two volumes. The engineers managed to develop a system of sensory stimulation based on acoustics, temperature (heat and air conditioning), and lighting. In the circular space, heat was distributed through radiation; twenty-two infrared radiation emitters with high irradiation power were installed in the ceiling. In the trapezoidal space, cooling and dehumidification were controlled by air convection from two autonomous air conditioners installed at the back of the space. In this schema, Schöffer imagined parents inhabiting the cold and silent trapezoidal space—between 18 and 20 degrees Celsius—with florescent blue lighting. Children inhabited the other atmosphere: a warm, noisy, colorful, and circular space with temperatures between between 35 and 40 degrees Celsius.15 Schöffer chose warm red and orange tones (based on color psychology) for the circular space, reinforcing the effects of vibrancy of noise and heat resulting from the electric lighting.
Since there were no partitions, Schöffer and his team had to design a way to stop the mixture of air between the two spaces. Airwell provided two AW40 air conditioning units that cooled a total volume of 1800 cubic meters of air per hour as a fan blew it over the evaporator on the interior. Meanwhile, the heat drawn from the interior dissipated into the environment on the outside, while an aspiration system blew 900 cubic meters of exterior air over a condenser back into the interior. Half of the conditioned air was introduced at overpressure at the lower end of the trapezoidal space, whereas stale air was evacuated from the ceiling of the circular space at the opposite end. An air sweep prevented the penetration of hot air into the cold zone.
Knowing they were unable to completely stop the propagation of noise from the hot to the cold zone—since there was no heavy, continuous physical barrier to stop the movement of sound waves through the air (the keyhole-shaped floor plan was not enough to achieve an acoustic separation between the two spaces)—the question instead became how to slow the movement of sound down. Pursuant to Jacques Bureau’s planning, no direct sound source—emanating from two acoustic columns installed at the point of intersection between the two volumes—penetrated the trapezoidal space. The controlled propagation of sound was achieved by the careful placement of the acoustic columns in the “blind spot” of the trapezoidal space facing the hot zone and by the easy adjustability of sound frequency. Additionally, the surfaces of the walls facing the columns were treated with glass fiber mats and perforated boards to absorb the noise and prevent it from reflecting back into the room.16 Schöffer’s proposition for housing broke with the traditional perception of architecture and positioned the experience of architectural space at the center of his project. His technological experiments on sound, lighting, and temperature, coupled with the improvements in the building and electronics industry at the time, had massive implications on housing—clearing the way for the emergence of home automation in ideas on domestic well-being.
After a predominantly positive response in the press, which praised Schöffer’s vision to ameliorate housing conditions and break with architectural tradition, a visit by Bernard Chochoy, the State Secretary for Reconstruction and Housing of France, and an award by the Soviet Ministry of Construction, Philips SA decided to rebuild an enhanced version of the project at l’Exposition Universelle of 1958 in Brussels.17
In preparation for rebuilding the project, an internal survey was issued by project leader and Philips SA engineer Jean Candau. The report insisted on instating a more strategic approach to publicize the project commercially in professional journals and to broaden public exposure to the project. Candau indicated that the project, now called La Maison aux Cloisons Invisibles, would be rebuilt only if all the previously involved companies were commissioned anew.18 In 1957, John Jacques, the Belgian Building Centre director and Philips SA collaborator responsible for rebuilding the project in Brussels, disclosed (in a letter to Schöffer) the various obstacles that jeopardized the future of the project. In his letter, Jacques admitted that the promoters of the fair were not interested in a built project by Schöffer but had reached out to him to create a “tropical” atmosphere and ambiance similar to La Maison aux Cloisons Invisibles that experimented with sound, lighting, and temperature to enliven the gardens of the Belgian-Congo’s official exhibition site. There were also marked differences in the French and Belgian branches of Philips SA in terms of the funding and distribution of responsibilities within their scope of action. While considering an alternative location for rebuilding the project, an early estimate projected significantly higher costs to exhibit—install, maintain, and dismantle—the project in Brussels than in Paris. The project was abandoned altogether in the end.19
Schöffer continued to collaborate with Philips SA over the course of thirty years—a partnership prolonged by the serial production of objects like the Lumino: a combined lamp projector and screen for producing luminous images. By 1963, Schöffer joined the “Département Technique d’Ambiance” at Philips SA in France, as an artistic consultant. Schöffer quickly renamed the division “Département Ambiance Programmée”; he believed that there should be no division between artistic, industrial, and scientific creation (and creativity).20 Schöffer’s thinking aligned with the ideals of humanist modernism, which sought to implement technical and scientific achievements in service of society.21 In this role, Schöffer was able to develop and apply a methodological and scientific approach to the gadgets he conceived of at the company. His collaboration with Philips SA signaled a shift in the company’s market strategy from a rational producer of electronic products to a more vivified marketer of ambiance—from functional attribution to artistic postulation. It even questioned the relevance and need for artists in creating “ambiance” and imagining future ways of living.22 This collaboration did not completely mark a shift in scale and direction in Schöffer’s work. Throughout the 1960s, he managed to develop several serial products for Philips SA while continuing his theoretical explorations at an urban scale (he worked with architect Claude Parent on a vision of the cybernetic city). That said, Philips SA continued to advocate for the role of the corporation in the production of new ways of living—insisting that the responsibility of imagining future societies rested not in the artistic field but in the corporate sphere.23
“The new paradigm [of Ambient Intelligence] is aimed at improving the quality of people’s lives by creating the desired atmosphere and functionality via intelligent, personalized, interconnected systems and services. […] Transparency indicates that the surrounding systems are invisible and moved into the background of our surroundings.”
– Emile Aarts, former department head of the Media Interaction Group of the Philips Research Laboratories in Eindhoven.
Philips SA and Schöffer were uninterested in entering into exclusive contracts with art galleries but rather hoped to find the widest possible distribution for their products. Preferring department stores to galleries, they aimed to democratize art with their industrial objects. Schöffer explored this in his writings; his term socialisation came to describe the need to reform the arts and society by breaking with the narrow circuit of museums or collections and transforming “l’espace sculpté” into everyday objects. In many ways, socialisation was Schöffer’s justification for the commercialization of his work into products of mass consumption.24 With Philips SA, Schöffer found an ideal industrial partner to “pour” art into society.25 In later years, Schöffer tried to dispense with the possible negative connotations and misconceptions that came with this financial and commercial environment, attempting to explain that this way art could impact society, the city, and living standards—and ultimately help people transcend their materialistic conditions. He also stressed that the artist should strive to surpass the commercial aspect of production and not only be motivated by purely lucrative ends. Due to his concern over public misapprehension of his work, Nicolas Schöffer expressed later that the neologisms he created were absent any political content, and defended that art—not being merchandise—should not fall into the system of commercial speculations.26
By 1965, Schöffer formed “Groupe International d’Architecture Prospective” (GIAP)—a brain trust comprised of architects, artists, physicians, sociologists, psychologists, and various specialists, amongst others Jacques Bureau.27 The common goal of the GIAP was to break with traditional urban and architectural practices in order to reach new social living structures and enhanced spatial organizations in the city. The group devoted itself to research and to future architectural visions and demanded artists comply with their social responsibility. Together, they addressed issues such as the post-war population explosion, the spectacular acceleration of technical and scientific advances, the constant increase in living standards, the socialization of time, space, and art, and the ever-growing society of leisure. Through radical architectural proposals of a techno-political utopia, the group aimed to push architecture to its conceptual limits with constant inquiry and experimentation. GIAP never suceeded in developing a coherent program or a clear shared vision; it was rather unstructured, remaining solely on intellectual dialogue and occasional meetings.28 While the group dissolved in 1970, they paved the way for their intellectual successors such as Archigram, the Metabolists, E.A.T., and Architecture Machine Group.
In many ways Schöffer seemed to recognize that designing products with Philips SA was the shortest circuit with the broadest impact on society. He wanted to directly intervene in the general atmosphere of the individual. According to Schöffer, by designing environments, the artist could regulate the senses and rhythm of life. Thus, he imagined the project of the artist to be to aid man’s adaptation to his environment and help form a society of wellbeing.29 However, on an architectural scale, Schöffer realized that he could not influence the individual as much as he hoped as an artist. It was a consequential acknowledgment of the various obstacles and resistance projects incur when raising the scale of intervention. Nonetheless, his rational and scientific-inspired approach to arts—addressing the physiological impact of an environment, the individual experience of that environment, and the sensuous perception of space—was undeniably groundbreaking in the early 1950s. Schöffer bridged art, design, architecture, and urban design with his work. Being a strong advocate of interdisciplinary collaboration as a means to gather expertise and being obsessively optimistic about advances in technology as a means to ameliorate peoples’ lives, Schöffer, as an artist, contributed dramatically to architectural discourse; and his work paved the way for architectural research to address the physiological, psychological, meteorological effects of the built environment on the body and vice versa—questions that, before Schöffer, seemed to have been answerable to disciplines outside of architecture.
- 1. Nicolas Schöffer, Le Spatiodynamisme (Boulogne sur Seine: Editions AA, 1955). ^
- 2. Guy Habasque, Jacques Ménétrier, Jacques and Jean Cassou, and Nicolas Schöffer, Le Spatiodynamisme (Neuchatel: Editions du Griffon, 1963), 45. ^
- 3. Marc Treib, Space Calculated in Seconds: The Philips Pavilion, Le Corbusier, Edgard Varèse (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1996), 11. ^
- 4. Christiane Paul, A Companion to Digital Art (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2016), 77. ^
- 5. Katia Kwastek, “Aesthetics of Interaction in Digital Art,” in Artists as Inventors, Inventors as Artists, eds. Dieter Daniels and Barbara U. Schmidt (Berlin: Hatje Cantz, 2008), 191. ^
- 6. Philippe Sers, Entretiens avec Nicolas Schöffer (Paris: Editions Pierre Belfond, 1971), 131, 148. ^
- 7. Jack Burnham, Beyond Modern Sculpture: The Effects of Science and Technology on the Sculpture of This Century (New York: George Braziller, 1968), 340. ^
- 8. Michel Ragon, Monographie Critique d’un Architecte: Claude Parent (Paris: Dunod, 1982); and Hervé Vanel, “Visual Muzak and the Regulation of the Senses: Notes on Nicolas Schöffer,” in Audio-Visual: On Visual Music and Related Media, eds. Holger Lunds and Cornelia Lunds (Stuttgart: Arnoldsche Verlagsanstalt, 2009), 62. ^
- 9. Maude Ligier, Nicolas Schöffer (Dijon: Les Presses du Réel, 2004), 122. ^
- 10. Claude Parent, letter to Eléonore de Lavandeyra-Schöffer, January 1992. ^
- 11. Nicolas Schöffer, Le Nouvel Esprit Artistique (Paris: Editions Denoël/Gonthier, 1970). ^
- 12. Nicolas Schöffer, “Qu’est-ce le Spatiodynamisme?” in Les Visionnaires de l’Architecture, ed. J. Balladur et al. (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1965), 11–15. ^
- 13. Carlotta Darò, “La Matière Sonore: Propositions de Détournement des Propriétés Solides de l’Architecture,” Rue Descartes, vol. 2, no. 56 (2007): 108–117. ^
- 14. Pierre De Neville, “La Maison ‘Trou de Serrure’ à Cloisons Invisibles, Sera le Clou de l’Exposition,” France Soir, June 26, 1957. ^
- 15. Eléonore de Lavandeyra-Schöffer, interview with author, Villa des Arts, Paris, March 3, 2017. ^
- 16. John Jacques, “L’Habitation Spatiodynamique à Cloisons Invisibles,” Objectif 2006! vol.1 (June 1957): 4. ^
- 17. Jean Candau, ESE Engineer at Philips SA France, letter to Nicolas Schöffer, July 16, 1957; “Un Village Modele et Une Maison sans Cloison,” Le Jour, June 20, 1957; “La Maison ‘Trou de Serrure’ a Étonné les Parisiens,” Bonjour Philippine, ed. Claude Vallette, no. 7 (October–November 1957): 6; Eléonore de Lavandeyra-Schöffer, interview with author, Villa des Arts, Paris, March 3, 2017. ^
- 18. Jean Candau letter to M. Tondeur, SG Philips SA Belgium, November 7, 1957. ^
- 19. In his monograph of Claude Parent, Ragon mentions that Schöffer and Parent were planning to exhibit a housing project (for the third time) at the St. Cloud trade fair near Paris. They were interested in the idea of having two distant but interconnected buildings on the fairground exchange information. Because of disagreements with a backer of the project, they abandoned the project. See Ragon, Monographie Critique d’un Architecte: Claude Parent. ^
- 20. Arnauld Pierre, “I am the Dream Machine: Les Écrans Hypnogènes de Nicolas Schöffer,” Les Cahiers du Mnam, no. 130 (winter 2014): 42. ^
- 21. Sven Sterken, “Iannis Xenakis: Ingénieur et Architecte” (PhD dissertation, Gent University, 2003), 88. ^
- 22. Andrea Rovescalli, “The Domestication of Kinetic Art” (PhD dissertation, University of Geneva, 2014), 17, 23. ^
- 23. Emile Aarts, Réné Collier, Evert van Loenen, and Boris de Ruyter, eds., Ambient Intelligence, Proceedings from the First European Symposium, EUSAI 2003, Veldhoven, the Netherlands, November 3–4, 2003 (Berlin: Springer Verlag, 2003). ^
- 24. Emile Aarts, Rick Harwig, and Martin Schuurmans, “Ambient intelligence,” in The Invisible Future: The Seamless Integration of Technology into Everyday Life, ed. Peter J. Denning (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002), 237. Note: Emile Aarts worked for Philips Research from 1983–2012. ^
- 25. Schöffer, Le Nouvel Esprit Artistique. ^
- 26. Nicolas Schöffer, “Sonic and Visual Structures: Theory and Experiment,” Leonardo, vol.18, no. 2 (1985): 59–68. ^
- 27. Schöffer, Le Nouvel Esprit Artistique. ^
- 28. Larry Busbea, Topologies: The Urban Utopia in France, 1960–1970 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), 82. ^
- 29. Theodora Vardouli, “The Emergence of Participatory Techno-Utopias: GEAM, GIAP, and Yona Friedman,” Open Architectures, September 19, 2011, https://openarchitectures.com/2011/09/19/19. ^
Frédéric Schnee has a MSc in architecture from the RWTH Aachen University. Schnee is currently an assistant professor at the Institute for Architecture, Construction, and Theory at TH Cologne University. He has worked at BeL in Cologne, C-LAB at Columbia University, INABA Inc. in New York, and OBRA Architects in Beijing. www.fredericschnee.com.