Looking downriver toward Prešeren Square
Ljubljana, like many a European city, has its 500-year-old buildings, but what makes it an interesting place architecturally is the richness of its architecture in three specific styles, all of them more recent: the Baroque, the Viennese Secessionist (Art Nouveau to us Americans), and the strongly individual modernist style of Slovenia’s great 20th-century architect, Jože Plečnik. All three are represented in the picture at the left, looking down the Ljubljanica toward Prešeren Square. Each of these distinct heritages owes its richness, at least in part, to an earthquake — literal in the first two cases, metaphorical in the third.


Fountain of the Three Carniolan Rivers and Cathedral Church of St. Nicholas
Most of the city was leveled by an earthquake in 1511, at a time when the Holy Roman Empire already had numerous problems on its hands. The Turks, extending their reach into Europe, had subdued the Balkans and were moving against Hungary, all of which they had under their control by 1540. They had no intention of stopping there. The Habsburg emperors also felt threatened by the advance of the Protestant Reformation, regarding it as yet another enemy to be fought off. The struggle against the Reformation was over in Ljubljana by the end of the 1500s, but the Habsburgs went on fighting the Turks for another century. At the end of that time, the Turkish threat was securely contained. Austria had grown in political, economic, and military strength, and, with no further need to fear for its survival, was ready to flourish. Some of the ruined churches in Laibach (the name of Ljubljana in the imperial language, German) had been replaced during the 1600s, but others, including the cathedral church of St. Nicholas, were built in the early 1700s, after prosperity and confidence were fully restored. They were mostly the work of Italian architects, sculptors, and painters. (A sizeable chunk of Italy was within the boundaries of the Empire at that time.)


The Hauptmann House in Prešeren Square
Some buildings in grandiose Neoclassical style were added to the city during the 19th century, but another earthquake struck in 1895, damaging or destroying about 10% of Ljubljana’s buildings (fortunately without much loss of life). The town was prosperous enough to recover quickly, and during the period from 1896 to 1910, 436 new buildings went up; others were repaired or rebuilt in the newly dominant contemporary style. In the Austro-Hungarian Empire, this style was given the name Secession because the leaders of the movement associated with it had publicly “seceded” from the artistically conservative Society of Viennese Artists and formed a group of their own. But the artistic movement was international: it was called Jugendstil (‘Youth Style’) in Germany and Art Nouveau (‘New Art’) in France. English-speaking countries adopted the style too, but borrowed the French name. Ljubljana’s revival after the earthquake of 1895 left it a more beautiful as well as a more modern city; not only its artistic aspect, but its administration, its social and educational services, and its prosperity had all advanced.


(This is long, but he’s important.)

The third “earthquake” to affect the architecture of Ljubljana was the peace settlement after World War I that ended the Habsburgs’ Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy and made Slovenia part of a new South Slavic nation. For reasons of language and history, Slovenia was a major component of “The Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes” (as Yugoslavia was named for the first ten years of its existence), and Ljubljana enjoyed the status of a provincial capital.

The national self-discovery of the 19th century had awakened a desire to assert the claim of Slovenian language and culture to the world’s respect, a desire that Slovenes had in common with the peoples of several other new nations that at the Great War’s end emerged from the dust of German defeat, Russian revolution, and Austro-Hungarian collapse. One consequence of this cultural assertion was the foundation of a national university. Slovenes had been petitioning and planning for one since the 19th century, with the reasonable wish that lectures and classes would be conducted in their own language instead of German. But the Dual Monarchy was less than friendly to minority languages and politics, and none of these efforts bore fruit. A committee established in 1890 stayed in touch with Slovene academics working abroad and maintained a list of scholars who could serve as the basis for a university faculty. When World War I ended, almost before the smell of gunpowder had dispersed, a rejuvenated committee drew up plans for the University of Ljubljana, and in the early months of 1919 they persuaded the legislature of the infant South Slavic state to grant it a charter.

Jože Plečnik in 1920
The head of the new Faculty of Architecture, Ivan Vurnik, wrote to Jože Plečnik, a Slovene architect then living, teaching, and working in Prague, and urged him to bring his skills and talents back to his homeland. Born near Ljubljana in 1872, Plečnik had studied woodworking and furniture design in the Austrian city of Graz, and then entered the Vienna School of Architecture, where Otto Wagner, one of the founders of the Secessionist school, became his mentor. But Plečnik ultimately chose to work in a style of his own that was less ornate and more avant-garde than what the Secessionists were doing (and also, following a visit to Italy, was strongly influenced by classical prototypes).

After a few years in Vienna, he was uncomfortable with the increasingly Germanist tone of Austrian culture and policy, and besides, according to one account, Archduke Franz Ferdinand (not the last royal heir to take an interest in architecture) had turned an imperial thumb down on his modernist style. In 1911, the architect accepted an invitation to move to Prague, where being a Slav was no disadvantage. By the end of the Great War, his work was so well regarded there that Tomáš Masaryk, President of the new republic of Czechoslovakia, asked him to design and oversee the restoration of Prague Castle — once home to Bohemia’s Habsburg overlords and now the presidential residence. Plečnik was eager to take up an honored position at home, but he was also committed to the work he’d undertaken in Prague, and though he accepted Vurnik’s invitation in 1921, he spent the next eight years working very hard to balance both commitments until the Prague restoration work was finished. In spite of this divided focus, however, In the two decades between his return and the onset of World War II, Plečnik’s projects transformed Ljubljana.

Market colonnade
So many opportunities became available over time that he was able to flourish not only as an architect but as a city planner. Few architects have been able to leave so distinct a personal mark on a major city. His bridges and market colonnades define the character of the Ljubljanica’s course through its center. From the Shoemakers’ Bridge to the end of the market arcade just before Zaninović’s Dragon Bridge, his work is never out of sight. Plečnik’s stylized classicism combines modern simplicity of form and surface with time-hallowed shapes, paying homage to the past without simply imitating it. (In recent years, Plečnik has been hailed as a harbinger of Postmodernism.)

The architect’s unique style distinguishes bridges, colonnades, and even streetlamp standards:

Shoemakers' Bridge    Streetlamp in the University area    Lamps on the Tivoli Gardens central promenade    Balustrades on the Triple Bridge

National and University Library, statue of Moses by Lojze Dolinar
Plečnik’s masterpiece, the National and University Library, houses Slovenia’s literary and documentary heritage. Finished in 1941, it was the city’s only building to be damaged in World War II, when a German plane crashed through the large window in this picture. Fortunately, it was a small training plane and didn’t do much damage. The statue of Moses in a summoning pose is the work of a sculptor named Lojze Dolinar. It reinforces the symbolism that drove Plečnik’s design for the library: that of attaining a desired goal through an arduous journey and the conquest of obstacles. The entrance to the main reading room is a long and intentionally dark flight of steps, at the top of which the knowledge-seeker advances from a shadowy (but quite beautiful) hallway into a room bright with daylight.

According to one Web source, Ivan Vurnik, who had invited Plečnik to join the Faculty of Architecture, came to feel that Plečnik’s conservative Catholicism gave him an advantage in getting major commissions from Ljubljana’s civic as well as ecclesiastical leaders. Vurnik, a liberal influenced in the twenties by the Functionalist Bauhaus school, was less well connected and got fewer opportunities. But another source says that Plečnik was at first distrusted by the local politicians, and was not greatly helped with Church authorities by the fact that his brother, a priest in the Ljubljana diocese, had quarreled with the Bishop. His first major commission in Ljubljana, won in 1925, was a church. The Bishop’s office groused about the plans, complaining that the church was “not Catholic enough,” but in the years that followed Plečnik received numerous ecclesiastical as well as civic commissions. He had champions in Matko Prelovšek, an engineer who headed Ljubljana’s Municipal Building Department from 1914 to 1937, and France Stelè, Slovenia’s leading art historian. Prelovšek, according to one account, “was always being accused of giving Plečnik one-sided support.” It should be obvious to any objective observer that Plečnik had much more going for him than inside connections. If he did have such connections, perhaps they helped him gain the kind of influence needed to knock loose the funding for grandly conceived and visionary projects. We should all be thankful. If the city fathers and Reverend Fathers did any favors, it’s clear that Ljubljana was the prime beneficiary.

Gateway and niche at Križanke
Most of Plečnik’s work in the city was done in the two decades before war came to Yugoslavia in 1941. Conservative Catholicism was very much out of favor under the government that took over when it ended, and he lost his professorship at the University. Commissions were less frequent after that, but he did what he could. His last project, completed in 1956, the year before he died (only a couple of weeks before his 85th birthday), converted the courtyard of a former monastery into an outdoor performance space, Križanke. Among the colored decorations with which he adorned walls and gateways, he didn’t neglect to include the (presumably obligatory) red star, hammer and sickle. But, as with Ionic capitals and other classical details, he stylized it in a manner that made it entirely his own, and the irony of placing it next to the baroque image of a saint (as he did on each pillar of the gateway in the picture) was hardly unconscious.