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Restore meaning

02 of May '22

Review fromA&B issue 03/22

During one of last year's debates, which included architects, urban planners and critics, the moderator asked the participants to try not to use the extremely popular recent term "spatial order," because first of all, few people know what it really means, and secondly, it discourages listeners, deters and alienates. This minor incident perfectly illustrates the trouble we face when trying to discuss important issues. Because the problem of the vagueness of terms, the lack of a universal language and the confinement of debates in industry or environmental bubbles applies not only to architecture, but actually to any of the contemporary important issues that move us.

In the case of architecture, or more broadly, the shaping of space, the lack of a unified set of terms and fundamental rules of the game and canon of principles that everyone understands not only creates confusion in the debate, but has a real, physical, literal impact on how our surroundings are shaped, what space we live in, how we use it and what influence we have over it. It is this crisis of the value system and the language used to talk about architecture that is the starting point for Czeslaw Bielecki's book "ArchiKod", published in late 2021 by the National Institute of Architecture and Urbanism . The nearly four hundred-page richly illustrated book is, as the author himself said in an interview, "a great call to understand the form and content of architecture," which (as Bielecki has been arguing for decades) we stopped seeing properly a century ago, with the birth of modernism. The great stylistic and ideological transformation that took place in the first decades of the 20th century was described very vividly by Bielecki as early as 1978:

A city built for centuries on the basis of streets and squares made of a tissue similar to Swiss cheese was challenged in the 20th century. The cheese was crumbled and scattered across the table.

These are the words from Bielecki's article-manifesto titled. "Continuity in Architecture" published in the magazine Architektura, one of the most important texts for the development of Polish contemporary architecture as not so much a criticism of modernism, but an important break in the dominant paradigm of the time. In it, Czeslaw Bielecki called for a return to the rules of shaping space developed over the centuries, to continue developing the art of building based on concepts from the time before modernism "turned the tables" and cancelled them all.

Most of the misfortunes of 20th century architecture resulted from the stubborn attempt to reduce reality to the level of an imaginary model, to subject synchronous processes to the logic of linear reasoning. This logic gave birth to the idea of defining the art of architecture through its non-artistic functions and in them finding the ultimate and objective justification of the shapes used, Bielecki wrote in his book "Game of the City," published in 1996.

Because "ArchiKod" is not the first book by this author - Bielecki is one of the few Polish architects writing, and many of his texts remain in the canon of very valuable and significant insights into changes in architecture. Starting with the "DiM Charter" distributed at the 1981 Congress of the International Union of Architects UIA in Warsaw, in which, in addition to a return to the traditional rules of shaping space, the authors (Bielecki was a co-author here) called, among other things, for the restoration of the due status of the architectural profession (they wrote: "An architect is neither an omnipotent creator nor a slave to universal or local spatial and cultural patterns. The proper role of an architect is to interpret them within the civilizational continuum. Reducing architecture to a purely utilitarian function deprives it of its role as a means of social communication"), to journalistic texts and books, such as the aforementioned "Game in the City" or "More than Architecture. Praise of Eclecticism." All of them could be called emanations of the architect's expressive views, if it were not for the fact that the theses Bielecki puts into a broad historical and cultural context, proves, convincingly motivates.

It seems that among the architect's publications published so far, "ArchiKod" has the chance to most fully show the ideas to which the author has been trying to convince for years. First, because today Bielecki's thoughts have become more up-to-date than they were in the 1980s, and second, "ArchiKod" is written with a wide audience in mind, including users, not just creators or researchers of space. In his own words, the publication's audience should be representatives of four interest groups: users of architecture; architects, designers, all those who aesthetically define space; investors and developers; as well as planners, officials, decision-makers, politicians. With an eye to the way each of these four groups looks at things, the author has structured the book based on four triads, issues, each of which is further divided into three sections. Places, networks, life - this is the first of the triads, through which space is usually seen by the user. The second deals with beauty, proportion, form and content, i.e. the buzzwords that make sense of designers' work; the third is meant to relate to developers and covers issues of ownership, construction and development. The fourth, the one seen through the eyes of planners and politicians, covers the plan and its transformation, as well as public space.

Czeslaw Bielecki explains that he created this structure, which is broken into many subsections, to emphasize the importance and significance of those issues selected and illustrated in the subsequent triads. They are the foundation of the book, and it is their genre weight, relevance, meaning and content that the author wants to convey to readers, believing that we have lost them.

This book is an attempt to describe a canon of values and principles that we have not so much forgotten as lost. We have carried out an almost complete destruction of the language of architecture through newspeak [...]. The history of architecture has not only ceased to be a teacher of life, but has actually become a graveyard of forms and content peeled away from the banal present.

It is difficult not to agree with the thesis put forward by the architect that we have forgotten the meaning of many of the canonical rules and fundamental principles for the shaping of space, and the cultural code of architecture, which used to be the basis of all design activity, has now become blurred, no longer valid. As a result, today we lack a common language and a set of clear concepts with which to communicate.

In order to make the meaning of these canonical rules and concepts as vivid as possible to the readers, Bielecki uses examples. Thus, the book "ArchiKod" is de facto a collection of seventy-two short essays on works of architecture, infrastructure objects, monuments, public or urban spaces, created by man over the centuries. These mini-stories, reflections and insights can also be read outside the triadic arrangement created by the author. Each relates to a recognizable object (there are also realizations from Poland), and at least some allow you to look at familiar places in a different way, to see them in a different light or a broader context. Like the Roman Capitol, whose perfection of symmetrical order was worked out over centuries and was achieved after many modifications, like the monument at the site of the Treblinka camp, abstract and yet poignant in content.yet poignant in content, like the "reurbanized" after the fall of communism housing estate Behind the Iron Gate, Luis Barragán's own house in Mexico, captivating in its beauty and harmony, or the "relocation" of the river flowing through Valencia.

Boleslaw Stelmach called "ArchiKod " a "catechism of space." And indeed, the book can be read as a set of fundamental principles for shaping space, to which humanity should return. But opponents of code-setting will also find here a lot of thought-provoking insights and valuable comments. Because the author sees architecture not as a collection of volumes, but as part of the cultural heritage and achievements of our civilization. And such an outlook is still missing from the debate and reflection on what is built.

Anna Cymer

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