#406: Plecnik’s Ljubljana

Colorful houses along riverfront, silhouettes of people at bottom.
Ljubljana, Slovenia

I spent a couple of weeks in Europe at the end of August, most of that time in Slovenia for a summer Building Beauty workshop at a once-abandoned farm. I’m still metabolizing the workshop itself, but Julia and I had a few days here and there to explore Ljubljana, the nearby capital.

What a pleasant city. And one shaped by Jože Plečnik. There is perhaps no modern architect who’s had a greater influence on the overall character of a city than Plečnik (1872–1957) – not even Antoni Gaudí on Barcelona. The guy is revered in Ljubljana. They even named the airport after him.

On one of our excursions away from the farm, we went on a Plečnikian tour of the city. We had the best tour guide; our instructor, Or Ettlinger, who also teaches at the University of Ljubljana, has studied the architect for decades. While Plečnik designed a number of churches and public buildings there, his influence is felt even more through his interventions on preexisting structures, most from the Austro-Hungarian era. He made spaces more coherent with relatively small moves – an arcade here, a colonnade there, embankments along the river, a pair of smaller bridges to flank an old one, new balustrades on top. Plečnik oversaw, too, the planting of poplars and willows throughout Ljubljana.

In the afternoon, a small group of us toured the Plečnik House, a house his brother first bought in the shadow of a cathedral, but that Jože turned into his own home and pseudo-workshop. He added a circular annex and an entry porch, the latter set up around windows he got for free. He also built a greenhouse – the “Winter Garden” – where he’d meet with students and guests he didn’t want to stay for too long. His room in the annex looks out onto the more-open outdoor garden, and he had a small and not-too-comfortable bed so he wouldn’t be tempted to laze. Models, material samples, books, and trinkets were strewn throughout, in pretty much the state that he’d left it. The home was modest, given his stature, by standards both then and now. And full of life.

On our last day in the city, I got to have lunch with Alenka Veler and Andrej Ilc, editors at Mladinska Knjiga, the Slovenian publisher of See You in the Cosmos (translated as Vesolje, me slišiš? – roughly, “Universe, can you hear me?”). The Slovene edition has done well; it’s earned their equivalent of a Newbery Honor – a rare feat for a book in translation. Andrej and Alenka gifted me a couple of English language books Mladinska has published about Slovenia, including a monograph on, yep, Jože Plečnik.

Revered, I tell you. And now I understand why.