Plečnik's Ljubljana

Silent poetry

Tromostovje - the Triple Bridge over the Ljubljanica river. Photo: Matjaž Prešeren

 

Plečnik's Ljubljana - The beautiful creations of Slovenia's greatest architect: in Slovenia and, before that, in Vienna and Prague

What is it that makes the biggest impression on the foreign visitor to Ljubljana? Almost certainly the Triple Bridge over the Ljubljanica and the market along the riverbank. Very few visitors know, however, who it was who embellished Slovenia's capital with these and many other creations of startling originality. It was the great Slovenian architect Jože Plečnik, who began his career in Vienna and Prague and then established himself above all in Ljubljana with wonderful architectural achievements that gave the city a noble new appearance after the long Baroque period. But almost ever major town in Slovenia – and many more out-of-the-way places too – can boast at least one of his works.  

Colossal transformation of Ljubljana

Ljubljana, NUK - door handle. Photo: Dragica Wedam

Plečnik changed Ljubljana  greatly, effecting a wonderful transformation. He chose his own original artistic path which, however, nevertheless followed classical architecture. Not only did the authorities agree with the majority of his plans, they provided broad financial support for his colossal artistic breakthrough. And indeed, how else could so many architectural marvels have been created? Those in the Slovenian capital alone were enough to earn it the lasting epithet 'Plečnik's Ljubljana'.

Revived fame in Paris and Prague

And yet after the Second World War Plečnik was largely forgotten in Slovenia until Europe began to rediscover his art in the early 1980s. The turning point came in 1986 with a major exhibition at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. Later, in 2006, a statue of Plečnik was unveiled at Prague Castle. The same year, a commemorative plaque was unveiled on 'his' Zacherl House in Vienna. The following year a Plečnik symposium was held in Kraków in Poland. The Czechs have even proposed his Church of the Sacred Heart for inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Following Slovenian independence, when Plečnik's works were re-evaluated, the new country chose his image for the 500 tolar banknote (until the adoption of the euro, the tolar was Slovenia's national currency).

Vienna, Prague and Ljubljana periods

Plečnik's arcades on the main market in Ljubljana. Photo: Darinka Mladenovič

Plečnik's career can be divided into his Vienna, Prague and Ljubljana periods. His rise began in Vienna, where he created eight works between 1901 and 1914: the Langer villa and apartment house, the Loos villa (in Melk), the Weidmann and Zacherl houses and the chapel of the latter, the St Charles Borromeo fountain and the Church of the Holy Spirit. Then came Prague, where between 1926 and 1933 he designed numerous architectural masterpieces. Among the most important are the Paradise Garden, the Garden on the Ramparts, the First Courtyard in Prague Castle, the Plečnik Hall, the official apartment of the President of Czechoslovakia, the park of the presidential summer residence, the Third Courtyard in Prague Castle, the Bull Steps and the Garden on the Bastion.

Yet his most numerous and greatest architectural and cultural achievements were created when he returned to his homeland, where, in 1920, he became a professor of architecture. His Slovenian period, which was above all a Ljubljana period, lasted until his death.

Wonderful results of a large-scale urban design concept

Mutual Assurance Company (now Zavarovalnica T). Photo: UKOM archiv

This was also the period when he first tackled the consolidation of a Plečnik’s special town planning concept for Slovenia's capital city included, above all, the interconnection of the city's squares and park areas interspersed by monuments and obelisks and characterised by a beautifully regulated environment. His main works were created as part of this design. One of Plečnik's most brilliant solutions is the Triple Bridge, which he created on the basis of an earlier stone bridge built in 1842. To this earlier bridge, Plečnik added two footbridges. These, however, are not parallel but follow the bend in the river and from above, from the Franciscan church and the square containing the Prešeren statue, they lead like a kind of funnel towards the famous Robba's Fountain  The fountain stands outside Ljubljana Town Hall, behind which rises another of the famous sights of the city: the Castle Hill topped by the medieval Ljubljana Castle.

Ljubljana contains several other masterpieces by Plečnik: the Stadium, the building of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry (now the Constitutional Court)  , the Mutual Assurance Company , and, connected to the already mentioned Triple Bridge in the very centre of the city, a very long, mainly two-storey building which on its lower level, along the river, also contains a fish market. Then we come to one of the largest buildings created by Plečnik in Ljubljana, the National and University Library. With the brick elements built into its classically inspired walls, this is Plečnik's bold yet characteristic architectural masterpiece. It stands a stone's throw to the west of Congress Square and the former Palace of the Province of Carniola, today the main university building. Next to the library, on Vegova Ulica, Plečnik erected monuments to Slovenian musicians and linguists. Around the corner, in French Revolution Square, he placed a monument to the poet Simon Gregorčič and an obelisk in honour of Napoleon and his Illyrian Provinces, of which Ljubljana was the capital. A few steps beyond the obelisk is the monastery complex of Križanke, the property of the Teutonic Knights from the 13th century, which was beautifully renovated by Plečnik in 1952. This building and the former park behind it have become the venue for Ljubljana's summer festival. The United States Embassy in Slovenia has chosen it for its annual Fourth of July reception to mark Independence Day. The courtyard of Križanke also contains the architect's only statue. The house where he was born, next to the church in Ljubljana's Trnovo district, today houses the Plečnik Museum.

And almost ubiquitous hint of Antiquity

Žale Cemetry. Photo: Katarina Krmečk

Another, even greater work by Plečnik is the breathtakingly beautiful arc of funeral chapels reminiscent of classical buildings at the entrance to Ljubljana's main cemetery. Other projects begun by Plečnik in Ljubljana included the remodelling of the high altar in the church of Saint Joseph, although unfortunately the post-war authorities decided to convert the church into a film studio. Plečnik's work also includes the stadium in Ljubljana, today somewhat neglected. For the occasion of the Eucharistic Congress in Ljubljana in 1935, Plečnik built the stadium's remarkably beautiful grandstand. The architect also left his artistic stamp on the church of St Francis of Assisi and on the parish church of St Francis in Ljubljana, into which he incorporated a classical temple with a Doric entrance and a hall based on Early Christian basilicas. Other works include Šentjakobski Trg (St James's Square), the renovation of the Aemona walls (in Roman times Ljubljana was called Aemona), Trnovo Bridge and the Shoemakers' Bridge. Plečnik also laid out the city's largest park, Tivoli. The columns topped by spherical lamps along the main path through the park are designed to look like people strolling.

Plečnik's works also adorn other parts of Slovenia. They include numerous churches around the country, a monastery, a savings bank, and a royal hunting lodge. He also designed memorials to victims of the Second World War in several locations around the country. He was responsible for rebuilding the twin bell towers of the church in Ribnica, which were destroyed during the Second World War. But his genius stretched even further afield, to other parts of the former Yugoslavia. In Croatia he enlarged the pilgrimage church at Trsat in Rijeka and designed the ground plan for the extension to the pilgrimage sanctuary at Marija Bistrica. He also worked on the church and monastery of the Sacred Heart in Osijek, the church of Our Lady of Lourdes in Zagreb and a pavilion for Tito's summer residence in the Brijuni Islands. He drew plans for the cathedral of Saint Joseph in Sarajevo and designed the church of St Anthony of Padua in Belgrade. After the war and the wartime devastation of Slovenia there were no longer any major commissions for Plečnik. Because of the lack of available funds, he did a lot of work free of charge. Even as a professor, he taught for a time without being paid. Despite the fact that, as a religious man, he was out of favour with the post-war authorities, in 1949 he received a Prešeren Award, still today the most important award for artistic achievements in Slovenia.  

Text by Juš Turk