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Ljubljana’s Plečnik – a sketch

The architect who gave the capital of Slovenia its modern identity was idealistic, successful and highly empathic

▴ Žale Cemetery by Jože Plečnik (1940)

Jože Plečnik (1872–1957) had the career that the 20th century inflicted on Communist Europe. A visionary of the same generation in Slavic-speaking lands, Ivan Vurnik, would invite Plečnik to found the Ljubljana School of Architecture. Plečnik found himself thrust into one unprecedented commission after another, uprooted and challenged repeatedly.

Although his work was carried out wherever he lived – in Vienna under Otto Wagner and Prague through his Czech friend Jan Kotĕra – he left his greatest mark on Ljubljana. And despite the huge disruptions of history, he displayed extraordinary consistency. From the 1901 Villa Langer onwards, his buildings were transformed into a comprehensive piece of art, while keeping in line with the local spirit. The vast majority of his coetaneous architects favoured function over ornament and his dissident political views – Plečnik was a conservative and fervent Roman Catholic – made him unpopular. By the time of his death, his ideas were out of favour but despite the social pressure, he did what he thought was right. His is a career of awe-inspiring self-determination.

▴ Ljubljana Central Market by Jože Plečnik (1944)

Almost everything that is known about Plečnik suggests a person of considerable humanity and dedication. He came from a craftsman’s family in Ljubljana. Plečnik’s father Andrej married to Helena Molka and had a joinery shop in the Ljubljana suburb of Gradišče. His mother’s Catholic upbringing and a deep sense of duty to do an honest day’s work marked the future architect for life.

Plečnik was not the most talented or ambitious of students. Surprisingly, he left grammar school early, in his first year, and then toiled in his father’s woodworking workshop for several years. However, he moved to Graz (Austria) and while attending the Joinery Department at the State Trades School, he encountered civil engineering and architecture and proved himself an exceptional draftsman. By the time of his father’s death in 1892, he had left for Vienna and started working for the renowned company of J. W. Müller as a furniture designer.

▴ National and University Library of Slovenia (NUK) by Jože Plečnik (1941)

Encouraged by his family, Plečnik presented his designs to Otto Wagner, who had then started his professorship at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. Wagner quickly noticed his extraordinary drafting talent and accepted him into his studio, which later led to his full-time enrolment in the Department of Architecture at the Vienna Academy. By 1898 Plečnik had graduated as the best student in Wagner’s class and was awarded the so-called ‘Roman grant’ that in 1898–99 enabled him to go on a study trip to Italy and France.

Adolf Loos was also amongst the local architects who admired Plečnik:

‘The prize [the Rome Prize of the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna] has not been awarded to a square metre of drawing paper but to the man Plečnik. And he is the rarest of people, someone in need of Italian air like a morsel of bread. Because Plečnik is the hungriest of our young architects. That is why he needs to be fed. We can be sure of one thing: Whatever he will consume he will return it to us a thousandfold.’

The most important episode in his career, rightly acknowledging Loos’ prediction, was his founding of Ljubljana School of Architecture in 1919. It meant that after years in Austria, Italy, France and the Czech Republic (for almost a decade), Plečnik would return to Ljubljana – for good. During his time in Slovenia, Plečnik managed to draw an extraordinary range of aesthetic approaches into a unified style. Ljubljana offered, at different times and in different projects, the opportunity to be redefined from a provincial city into the symbolic capital of the Slovenian people. Plečnik somehow kept it together, despite its growing rivalry with Vurnik, and in the face of bitter hostility from politicians and the public.

▴ University of Ljubljana, Faculty of Architecture by Jože Plečnik (1920)

Plečnik’s beginnings in Ljubljana were modest. He arranged his own home in the Ljubljana quarter of Trnovo (1923–1925) and soon started to receive important commissions: the construction of the church of St. Francis in the Ljubljana quarter of Šiška (1925–1930), the Chamber of Commerce, Crafts and Industry in Ljubljana (1925–1927) and the Mutual Insurance Society in Ljubljana (1928–1930). The works Plečnik carried in the capital of the new state of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenians between World War I and World War II present an example of a human-centred urban design. His architecture embodies a compelling human vision for the city where the older and newer buildings coexist to serve the needs of emerging modern 20th century society. 

In designing Ljubljana, Plečnik tried to use modern approaches while modelling the city on ancient Athens. His style – innovative even by today’s standards – is characterised by the use of classical architectural elements, such as pillars, lintels, balustrades, and colonnettes, redesigned and combined in the architect’s own special way. His excellence and excitement over Antiquity is best represented in the National and University Library in Ljubljana (1936–1941), a complex of mortuaries at the Ljubljana Žale cemetery (1939–1941), and the Ljubljana open market (1940–1942).

▴ Cobbler’s Bridge by Jože Plečnik (1932)

After World War Two, Plečnik mainly designed monuments of the National Liberation Struggle, renovated several churches and fitted out several baptisteries and chapels. The most prominent tasks of his late creative work are the renovation of Ljubljana’s Križanke open theatre (1952–1956) and the construction of a pavilion on the Brioni islands (1956).

▴ Križanke open theatre by Jože Plečnik (1956)

The career, in short, was a triumph of the highest interest. The challenge, however, is to understand the human qualities of his architecture beyond the intricate aesthetics of his work. Take the Triple Bridge for example, the purpose of adding two other sections was so pedestrians could cross the river safely. This human touch later made the bridge an iconic symbol of the city, but that was rather the consequence, not the intention. Plečnik also made the progressive decision to close the city centre to motorised traffic – something other European cities would not do for decades. Instead, he put pedestrians and public spaces first.

▴ Triple Bridge by Jože Plečnik (1932)

Plečnik is a man that never married. When presented the opportunity to do so – a friend asked him to marry her through a written in a letter – he replied, ‘I am already married to my architecture.‘ Arguably, his only loyal companion was Sivko, a West Highland White Terrier. Plečnik was a loner who devoted his life to loving others through his architecture.

Most of the expressions of enthusiasm by friends for Plečnik in person fall back on his undoubted greatness as an architect. He died on 7 January 1957 in his home in Trnovo, and he is buried in his family grave in the Ljubljana Žale cemetery.

▴ National and University Library of Slovenia (NUK) by Jože Plečnik (1941)

Edvard Ravnikar, his student and a central Slovenian architect after Plečnik, appraised Plečnik’s creative principle: 

‘He was an idealist and he measured the present with a measuring stick of the past, he was conservative and saw his role models in the past, and perhaps that is why he managed to establish the firm discipline that is needed for any path to the future. Many times during his life he stood to the side, looking for his non-existent Renaissance prince, while showing with his diligence and engagement how the work should be done. Many people see in him a designer of ornamental details and small articles; while he also showed how to correctly and firmly lay stone upon stone, which is the essence of an architect’s knowledge, and is more important than the style in which this is done.’

Plečnik created a unique architecture utterly different from the prevailing style of the time – and changed the way we think about cities. The city, for him, was not to be built anew but improved with small- or large-scale interventions – new architectural ensembles, buildings and urban accents. And the idea still is: decent cities arise from a proper understanding of materials, purposes and context.

Note: In 2021 Plečnik’s works entered on the UNESCO World Heritage List under the title ‘The works of Jože Plečnik in Ljubljana – Human Centred Urban Design’ and thus became recognised for their exceptional universal value.


Check the map below for inspiration or download the Free Architecture Guide of Ljubljana.

12 thoughts on “Ljubljana’s Plečnik – a sketch

  1. Pingback: The Free Architecture Guide of Ljubljana (PDF) | Virginia Duran

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