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View from Ljubljana.

Relatively untouched by the Balkans conflict, the Slovenian capital Ljubljana has a wonderful legacy of architecture.

Ljubljana is the compact capital of Slovenia, a republic the size of Wales, which achieved independence in 1991, and has been spared the chaos that afflicted much of the former Yugoslavia. It was still a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire when the earthquake of 1895 destroyed or damaged most of the city, and the reconstruction was directed by planners and architects from Vienna. The humane scale and pedestrian-friendly plan owe much to the enlightened proposals of Camillo Sitte and Max Fabiani, a protege of Otto Wagner, and the centre preserves a high concentration of neo-Renaissance, Secession, and Jugendstil. Away from the old town, at the foot of the hilltop castle on the south hank of the Ljubljanica river, the capital is a marvellously diverse anthology of twentieth-century buildings.

For architectural pilgrims, the star attraction is Joze Plecnik (1872-1957) who studied under Wagner in Vienna, and enhanced the Hradcany casde in Prague, but devoted most of his long life to the improvement of the capital and provincial churches. Breda Mihelic describes him as 'an "urban artist" rather than an urban planner, using traditional architectural elements such as monuments, obelisks, fences, various kinds of pavement, green areas, and elegant details, to reshape existing urban spaces and combine them into a unified, but varied whole'. (1) You can get a quick overview of his career in the permanent exhibit of photos in the Architectural Museum at the restored Fuzine Castle, a short bus ride from the centre. Andrej Hrausky who co-authored an exemplary architectural guide to the city, (2) and runs the Dessa Gallery (3) is looking for a publisher to reissue a comprehensive, three-volume guide to Plecnik's work -- in the capital, the countryside, and abroad -- which is now out of print.

All you really need is a map, for Plecnik's work is unmistakable and one work leads to the next, providing a thread that leads you through the city. Tours are offered (on Tuesdays and Thursdays) of his modest house, where he slept in a truckle bed and practised in an interior of monastic restraint. Faded Alinari photographs of the Pantheon and Paestum, acquired during an early visit to Italy, recall the Classical models from which he derived his inventive blend of the rustic and refined. A bridge with statues and pyramids leads across a canal to the Krizanke, a monastery he converted to serve as a performing arts centre.

On the next block is his masterpiece, the National University Library. The stone rustication of the brick facades creates an abstract relief that catches the light and marks the block off from its conventional neighbours, and the column centred on the recessed bay of windows lighting the three upper stories is the architect's signature. A side door topped by an expressive bronze statue of Moses opens onto a grandiose grey marble staircase flanked by columns and urns that leads to the functionalist reading room. Plecnik juggles these diverse elements with masterly skill, achieving a harmonious balance of forms and textures.

He performs the same feat in two other important works of the late 1930s. Zale Cemetery has an imposing prophylae -- two stories of clustered columns -- leading to a walled compound of funerary chapels serving different faiths, including a plain 'Adam and Eve' chapel for atheists. At St Michael's in the Marsh, just south of the ringroad near the hamlet of Crna Vas, you climb a flight of steps, pass beneath the arch of a free-standing campanile, and enter the woodsy interior of the church, which is lofted above the flood-plain. Beckford would have adored the seemingly ruinous ivy-clad tower; Morris would have admired the peasant-style craftsmanship of the interior, with its patterned concrete sewer pipes supporting the exposed beams of the ceiling vault.

Plecnik's Mannerism complements the florid statuary, tiled and painted facades, and playful turrets of the earlier buildings that line the streets and embankment converging on Presernov Square (actually a cobbled circle) and the three bridges that carry traffic and pedestrians to the old town. This is the point at which the urbane diversity of Ljubljana snaps into focus and lifts your spirits high. The clocktower of the castle sails high above the wooded hillside, the loggia of Plecnik's market defines the further bank, and the baroque Franciscan church anchors the circle. This is a favourite gathering place for the young yet it's remarkably free of litter and of the graffiti that have spread like a contagious skin disease through every west European city. Only the lock gates, yet another of the master's works, seem to draw certain anti-social elements.

During the 40 years of socialism, there were some casualties and klutzy intrusions, but Ljubljana appears to have fewer eyesores than Prague, except on the outer fringe. The city remained small (around 330 000 today) moderating the demand for new housing, and heavy industry was located elsewhere. Nor has independence and modest prosperity brought anything more disruptive than a sharp increase in car ownership, and a great shortage of parking places. Tourism and international franchises are barely evident, and there's little flashy new development. Indeed, Ljubljana is such an exception to the universal erosion of civility that one is afraid to sing its praises too loudly for fear it be spoilt.

Two young architectural partnerships are maintaining the tradition of disciplined invention. Jurij Sadar and Bostjan Vuga have rapidly achieved success. Their Slovenian Chamber of Commerce (AR February 2000) is a transparent complex of interlocking volumes in which meeting rooms, reception areas, offices and a cafeteria are knitted together and opened up to views, internally and away to the hills. The two separate blocks of the National Gallery are joined by a steel framed glass atrium, much like Foster's addition to the Joslyn Museum in Omaha, Nebraska - except that Sadar Vuga's frame is more muscular, multi-layered, and boldly articulated. The silkscreened glass skin of a store for Dom Mueller in the BTC warehouse complex appears to undulate, and a second store, at the heart of the city, plays subtler tricks with the glass facade.

Ofis, the fledgling firm of Rok Oman and Spela Videcnik (who met at the AA in London) employs fluid geometries to augment existing buildings, notably a glass spiral ramp that winds up through the Neo-Classical city museum, linking scattered galleries and providing a viewing platform for Roman ruins that were excavated on site. A similar strategy transforms a reconstructed villa beside Lake Bled and animates their proposal for a cineplex in the provincial city of Maribor. Ofis has also contributed designs to the experimental Nordung theatre company, which recently staged a multi-media extravaganza in the bowels of a parking garage. Ljubljana is as alive to the present as it is respectful of its past.

(1.) Shaping the Great City: Modern Architecture in Central Europe, 1890-1937 (Prestel Verlag, 1999).

(2.) Architectural Guide to Ljubljana: 100 Selected Buildings (Andrej Hrausky and Janez Kozelj. Rokus Publishing, 2002).

(3.) Dessa Architectural Gallery (Zidovska Steza 4;
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Author:Webb, Michael
Publication:The Architectural Review
Date:Nov 1, 2002
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