Alles ist Architektur [All is architecture][1] Hans Hollein declared in 1967, seeking to underline that we can perceive the whole world as an architectural phenomenon. In its attempt to decode the visual phenomenon and to use nature’s lesson in the production of art, architecture or design, the Sigma Group from Timișoara (1969–1978) represents a marker for the Romanian cultural and pedagogical-experimental context, as well as for the international one.

In 1969, artists Ștefan Bertalan[2] and Constantin Flondor[3] had the initiative to continue in another form the experience of the 111 Group, disbanded when Roman Cotoșman[4] remained in the West, setting up a new group which would work as a team.[5] “Soon, I will notice that something happened with us: the need to work together,”[6] Flondor recalls. The Sigma 1 Group, i.e. a sum of units, later called just Sigma, composed of artists Ștefan Bertalan, Constantin Flondor, Ioan Gaita,[7] Elisei Rusu,[8] Doru Tulcan[9] and mathematician Lucian Codreanu[10] came about in this way. The presence in Timișoara of the Circle of Bionics,[11] led by professor Eduard Pamfil, attended regularly in the 1960s by Bertalan and Flondor and subsequently by the other Sigma members during the 1970s, contributed to the arousing of their interest in interdisciplinarity. The Circle gathered, on a weekly basis, psychologists, artists, mathematicians, writers, professors to discuss topics which went beyond the strict area of a field or a specialisation.

A first stage of the Sigma pedagogy derives from the research experience undertaken by the 111 Group in the mid-1960s. The group had participated in 1968 the Milan 14th Triennial and in 1969 the Biennale of Constructive Art from Nuremberg and in the exhibition Konstruktivismens Arv from the Henie Onstad Art Centre in Høvikodden, Oslo, exhibiting optical and kinetic works with mirrors and ribbed glass (Flondor), light-dynamic objects (Cotoșman) or objects with nylon threads, plexiglass and nails (Bertalan). This constructive stage is visible in the first exhibition of the Sigma Group from 1970 at the Helios Gallery[12] in Timișoara where the group built a spatial visual ambient generated by the constructive forms through the kineticism imprinted to these structures or the kinetic virtuality determined by the beholder’s movement. The works are based on mathematic and architectural research and they embrace or rethink structural principles with the help of new materials such as aluminium, nylon, plastic, ventilator, spotlights.

The Timișoara Arts High School Exhibition at the International Marketing Seminar. Photography from Sigma archive. Courtesy of the artists

In this stage, the activity of the Sigma Group is closely connected with its pedagogical activity. The elaboration of new teaching methods and new education curricula led to the establishment of an experimental high school. Starting from the pedagogical vision of the Bauhaus School, the group proposes a new curriculum for the local artistic education, based on several core principles: teamworkthe student being part of this team, nature study, experiment, processuality, interdisciplinarity, concern with functionality.

With the consent of professor Mircea Malița, Minister of Education at the time, the Arts High School in Timișoara receives the official status of experimental school, operating for 4 years, starting from 1970–1971, on its own curriculum, different from that of the art high schools from the country. At the same time, the Architecture Specialisation is established as part of the “Traian Vuia” Polytechnic Institute of Timişoara, where Bertalan will make a significant contribution.

In the case of Sigma pedagogy, the student is not just a receiver of information, but an actual partner. The emphasis is placed on research, the use of new materials and methods, the transfer of ideas and investigations from various fields. The bionic study replaces the classic observational study. Nature is analysed with the intent to extract lessons related to forms, functionality, laws. From the observation of a plant’s evolution to the way in which an insect is composed, to its locomotion systems, the study of nature joins direct observation with the understanding of the principles of movement, growth, structure, solidity. The investigation is made by means of drawing, as well as by means of photography or film. The photographic material is subject to subsequent interventions of drawing, notes, clarifications, Leonardo-type diagrams. The analogies and comparisons between the compacting systems of bee hives, the structure of the dandelion, the cigarette packs, the soap bubbles, the ping pong balls, the empty or sand-filled cardboard rings, also found in the film of Constantin Flondor Soap Membranes from 1972, are ways of understanding the formal universe and mathematical or physical laws which determine specific structures and configurations.

The restructuring of the school syllabus conceptualises the formative directions and the connections among disciplines. This is based on the comparative analysis of a design curriculum from Belgrade,[13] the structure of the Bauhaus School, as well as on the experience already gained with the students between 1968 and 1969. The specific proposals of the school curriculum introduce new disciplines such as the Grammar of Form and specialised workshops such as Visual Communications, Aesthetics of Useful Forms or interdisciplinary and photography classes which reflect the constructive approach. Thus, the school curriculum was divided into two major sections: basic training and workshop specialisation. Further, the basic training had three directions: Grammar of Forms, Study of Colour, Environment. From among the three initial specialisations, one was the Aesthetics of Useful Forms, which we would call today “product design.”

The curriculum aimed at “the establishment of the awareness that an individual can generate knowledge, that the individual can construct an intellective system for himself,”[14] the necessity of a complete training through readings from various fields, discouraging the learning based on mimicry; a “pedagogy of signs, a pedagogy of the paragon and a pedagogy of the process”[15] (Bertalan) or “the development in students of a prospective thinking, of an algorithmic and constructive thinking” (Flondor). Professors must disseminate in the classroom concepts in which they believe and they commit themselves to. There is no discrepancy between the topics they approach in their studio as artists and those proposed to their students in class. A state of emulation is generated in this way, in which professors and students conduct the research together.

The easiness of corroborating the research from various fields can be noted in the artistic practice of the Sigma Group and in their pedagogical practice as well. There are no restrictions related to intervention, language or working material. There is, however, a rigour of their conduct as artists. This is firstly related to a Cartesian spirit which seeks the laws, the order, the reason of things that establishes the connection between meaning and form through the operating principles. At the same time, there is an immense joy in experimenting, in being part of the process per se. “With all the logical procedure, the results are not to be searched in chains of causal relations (as in the strings of scientific research), but also in the unexpected solutions (incentive for the actual work),” notes Flondor about the constructive thinking which reaches surprising solutions starting from familiar premises.[16]

Interdisciplinarity combined with the functional direction naturally led to the analysis of the contemporary pursuits in the field of architecture. The function, the form, then the semantics are conceived as interdependencies. The form determines the function and the function determines the form. There is no project which establishes these relationships at random; they are discovered or developed based on certain principles. The concept of interdependence of the elements and of decoding the relationships among them as part of a whole certainly pertains to structuralism, to its multiple influences theorised and recognised in all fields.

Sigma Group and the Informational Tower. Elisei Rusu and Ștefan Bertalan in the studio of Constantin Flondor, 1970. Courtesy of the artists

In The Informational Tower (1970), Sigma proposed a modular-structural as well as a cybernetic construction, scaled on seven floors each with distinct roles, a media centre composed of a fixed metal structure, aluminium plates and a variable complex of light, sound, electronic displays, fluorescent tubes. The tower should have been integrated in the urban space and it should have become a communication-information landmark of the city. The photography of the scale model was exhibited in the exhibition Romanian Art Today, organised by the Richard Demarco Gallery in 1971 as part of the Edinburgh Festival and in the exhibition Art and the City, New Gallery, Bucharest, 1974.

We find common topics, approaches and points between the Arts High School and the Faculty of Architecture from Timișoara. Projects such as the City of Tomorrow proposed town-planning principles and architectural concepts based on the constructions of polyhedrons, mathematical ratios, elements and principles of generating the form which combined technological innovations from the field of cybernetics with the effort in preserving the natural environment. The study of basic spatial forms, of polyhedrons, of equipartitions of the surface provided the basis for subsequent solutions in the applied projects. There is no precise delimitation between the bi-dimensional and three-dimensional themes; they are usually elaborated in conjunction, as different facets or expressions of the same problem. Plato’s polyhedrons, Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes are essential benchmarks of this experimental journey. Constructive principles are understood by means of repeating and experiencing the discoveries of research.[17]

Artist Laurențiu Ruță working on the “Playground. Study of Polyhedrons and Equipartitions,” 1972. Workshop theme proposed by Constantin Flondor to the students of the Timișoara Arts High School

The topic of the habitat is also approached in microclimate projects, such as the theme of the Dwelling Cell (Constantin Flondor for the students of the Architecture and Urban Planning Department as part of the discipline Study of Form, 1971–1972), which raises the question of producing, based on the study of polyhedrons and bi- and three-dimensional equipartitions, a three-factor relational structure: economy, functionality, aesthetic degree.[18] The theme involved data research, a geometrical and mathematical approach, spatial development drawings. The functional constructive criteria, the multiple functionality, the involvement of the beneficiary (the future possible resident) as a coauthor, as well as the aesthetic criteria, as a result of the best ratio between economy and functionality, are just a few of the stated requirements.

The utopian city takes over the model of interdependency between form and function, as in the architectonic complex of the National Congress built in the capital city of Brazil, designed by Oscar Niemeyer, where each architectural shape (dome, overturned dome, high towers, underground tunnels) corresponds both functionally and symbolically to the activities conducted in the respective buildings (thinking, debating, creation, elections, resolution or implementation, communication of major legislative decisions). In this manner, the projects of urban structure propose conceptual correspondences between elements, as in the case of theme The City with Three Centres (Ștefan Bertalan, the Faculty of Architecture) which resumes the ideas of Eduard Pamfil’s triontic theory[19]. We can find correspondences with the bionic architecture of the Japanese metabolists, with the futurological pursuits of the French group GIAP (Groupe International d’Architecture Prospective) or the planetary urbanism theorised by Yona Friedman in the 1960s.

The relationship with architecture has a special place within the experimental curricula of the Arts High School. Students will investigate pictorial, structural and constructive problems as well in the interdisciplinary classes held by architects, introduced in the school syllabus. The architects Vasile Oprișan, Dan Chinda, then, for a longer period, Șerban Sturdza taught at this high school, contributing to the complex training of the students. Each of these professors had the liberty of structuring their own courses. Șerban Sturdza, a recent graduate of the “Ion Mincu” Institute of Architecture in Bucharest, arrives in Timișoara (1972) animated by the aspiration to get acquainted with the Sigma Group, as he had come in contact with its spirit through the exhibition organised at the Faculty of Architecture. Without being directly part of the Sigma Group, Sturdza maintained a permanent dialogue with the group members, and came to tackle issues related to structures and material, which he had not encountered until then; in his turn, he experiments with the students, creating reconstructions after Buckminster Fuller from geodesic domes to tensegrity structures.[20]

Sigma Group during the exhibition “Art and Energy”, New Gallery, Bucharest, 1974. Photographs from the archives of Doru Tulcan and Constantin Flondor. Courtesy of the artists

The configuration of complex architectural-visual spaces is continued by the Sigma Group at the Cibinium Festival (Sibiu, 1973) and at the exhibition Art and Energy (New Gallery, Bucharest, 1974) with a space woven and modelled with colourful threads and strips (Ștefan Bertalan), a rhythmic space structured from hexahedral networks, bars, hexagons, strips (Doru Tulcan, Ioan Gaita), knots and spatial bodies resulting from the study of the joining of prismatic triangular and pentagonal surfaces (Constantin Flondor). Spatial architectures become ephemeral structures in the Inflatable Structures environment from the Bastion Gallery (UNESCO Fine Arts Week, 1974), where slides and films are projected over inflated tubular and spherical transparent forms. Gradually, spatial experiments are transferred to the landscape. The land art interventions of the Sigma Group at the Timiș river, as well as the interventions made with the students during the summer camps practices enhance the topics.

The action conducted on the shores of the Timiș river (1972), which Bertalan called CityA Natural Environment, underlines the organic and necessary connection between the built space and the natural space. He reconstructs a topography of sand, cardboard, paper, wicker, dry manure, which subsequently becomes monumental through the use of photographic medium. The actions on the shores of Timiș continue also in the following years by creating pathways-bridges over water or other types of landmarks in dialogue with the natural space (river-sand-trees) in various interventions made by Bertalan together with Șerban Sturdza, by the Sigma Group or by Flondor (Ephemeral Fabric, 1975–1976).

Urban Structure, The Aesthetics of Useful Forms, 1970–1972. Workshop theme proposed by Ioan Gaita to the students of the Timișoara Arts High School. Courtesy of the artist

In parallel, the summer camps practices of the Arts High School become open workshops for intervention into the landscape and cooperation with natural factors: from Strungari (Doru Tulcan, 1975), to Făget (Constantin Flondor, 1976), Moldovița (Constantin Flondor, 1977), Margina (Ioan Gaita, 1978), Gurahonț (Constantin Flondor, 1981). Under the generic name Nature as a Partner, the interventions in nature during the Făget practice targeted the collaboration with natural factors (light, wind, water): from the constructions of geodesic domes like a large dandelion to the installations which captured the movement of the wind in dialogue with the rye field, the sunlight and the water in relation to light and wind. The working materials were very diverse, from colourful or transparent sheets of plastic, cloth, plastic strips, string, metallic plates, mirrors, wooden sticks, paper, cardboard, to elements belonging to the natural environment such as grass, straws, soil, trees.

The summer camp practice of Timișoara Arts High School students, Strungari, 1975. “Nature As Sign of a New Attitude. Water and Sand. Water and Stone. Wind and Tree. The Hill,” workshop coordinated by Elena și Doru Tulcan. Courtesy of the artists

Ștefan Bertalan’s contribution to the Timișoara higher education of architecture is defining for the generations of students who had him as a professor. The courses of Study of Form or Representations created a window towards interdisciplinarity, experiment, research, providing new types of visual and conceptual investigations in an approach which goes beyond the boundaries of architecture, which allowed a comprehension of the whole universe through architecture. From studies of spatial structures, polyhedrons, equipartitions to projects of utopian urban planning, these topics reflected Sigma’s pedagogical vision of those years.

The interventions in nature conducted by Ștefan Bertalan together with his architecture students Membranes, Installation, Tensities from Pădurea Verde (1976) or A Visual Sunday. A Show for the Public in the Park (1977), Leonardo. A Show for the Public (1978) in the Central Park of Timișoara use sheets, nylon strips, geometrical bodies made of cardboard, constructions from bars, objects made of tensioned fabric, balloons. They aim at exemplifying precepts of Leonardo’s Treatise on Painting,[21] the phenomenon of the perception of colour, light, form. Bertalan notes down on the back of the 1978 photograph: “50 students worked on a project of ethical ecology that I felt as a necessity of the soul, of the body like a chlorophyll to which people will aspire.”[22] These experiments contributed to the training of future architects.

The pedagogical programme of the high school involved also a series of applied projects in collaboration with factories such as Elba (Electrobanat) for carrying out light signage projects or street lighting systems. Here, the concerns for visual communications and advertising converged with the those related to urban planning. A series of environmental designs, street architecture designs as well as designs for the decoration of interior and exterior spaces or furniture designsin kindergartens, schools, playgrounds, industrial spacesapplied constructive principles together with an extremely refreshing playful spirit. These collaborations and interventions in the public space also envisaged another component of the Sigma pedagogy, which was that of educating the community. The goal was represented by the training of an aesthetic and social consciousness, an active involvement in the life of the community, of the urban space.

The exhibitions presenting the pedagogical research from the high school, such as the exhibition from C Pavilion in Herăstrău Park, Bucharest (1970), the Museum of Banat (1971), the participation in the 5th International Seminar of Marketing at the West University of Timișoara (1972), the exhibition The Technology of Training at the “Ion Mincu” Institute of Architecture, Bucharest (1972), the Kalinderu Hall in Bucharest (1977), the participation with photographic documentation of the students’ projects at the Congress of INSEA International Society for Education through Artin Helsinki (1971), at the National Design Seminar from Bucharest (1974), the publication of articles about the new pedagogical curricula and of the works made by students in the East German magazine Form+Zweck (1973) or in the Arta magazine (1970, 1979) show the consistency of this school and are largely the consequence of the Sigma pedagogy.

Beyond any topics, the Sigma pedagogical programme meant promoting a participatory education, an open behavioural system, a prospective thinking, an ethics of studying, an enjoyment of experimenting, a risk-taking of approach and a respect for nature.

Andreea Palade Flondor is a researcher, a visual artist and a lecturer at the Faculty of Arts and Design of the West University of Timișoara.