Here’s part IV of my occasional series about Slovenia. In this installment, we’ll meet the second most-famous Slovenian after Slavoj Zizek, the architect Joze Plecnik. Then I suppose I’ll return to commenting about German for a while, since that really is the point of this blog, and I’ve got plenty of things to say. But let’s stay in Slovenia for just a little while longer, shall we?
Perhaps it’s just because my friends are especially cultured (lucky me); but many of the people I met in Slovenia seemed to do something creative for a living. There was Gregor the poet, whom I’ve mentioned before. Then there was Sergey, also a poet. Also Primoz, who had the high cheekbones, piercingly intelligent eyes, and luxuriant, prematurely-gray hair of a newscaster or covert agent. But he, also, was a poet. In one of Slovenia’s many bookstores, I found a biographical almanac of contemporary Slovenian composers. There were page after page of them — at least 100 in all, and obviously one or the other might have been overseen or left out. The Slovenian Academy of Writers has hundreds of members, even though there are apparently entrance requirements to keep the mere wannabes out. Slovenia has fewer residents than Berlin, but seems packed with artists and cultural producers of every stripe.
Creative people also dominate the national memory. The monumental sculpture in Ljubljana’s central square is to France Preseren, a 19th-century poet who wrote what is now Slovenia’s national anthem. The currency features illustrations not of generals or statesmen, but of explorers (Valvasor), composers (Gallus), painters (Ivana Kobilca, a talented, if not dazzlingly original, female Impressionist), and architects (Joze Plecnik).
Evaluating the quality of the poetry and the novels isn’t particularly easy, since the translations are few and far between, and some of the works seem to contain references that make little sense to a non-Slovenian. Fortunately, though, you don’t have to exhaust yourself to experience one of Slovenia’s most impressive contributions to the world’s cultural heritage. All you have to do is leave your house in Ljubjana and wander around the city that Joze Plecnik, the Slovenian architect par excellence, almost single-handedly designed.
Perhaps you haven’t heard of Plecnik yet. I must admit, to my shame, I hadn’t either, before I visited Slovenia. But you can’t swing a dead cat, as Texans say, without hitting a building designed by Joze Plecnik. Plecnik (pronounced PLETSCH-nik) started his career studying with Otto Wagner in fin-de-siecle Vienna, and absorbed some of the stylistics elements of the Vienna Secession, which can be thought of as a slightly more rectilinear and reserved branch of Art Nouveau.
After the First World War, Plecnik was given a more-or-less free hand to design Slovenia’s capital Ljubljana, finances permitting. He ordered the river coursing through Ljubljana to be dredged and supplied with stepped concrete riverbanks adorned by willow-trees. (see image) He designed a unique congregation of three closely-spaced bridges in the center, which provide ample opportunities for cars and pedestrians to cross at the center of the city. Although little-known outside Slovenia during his lifetime, Plecnik is now gaining a posthumous reputation as a visionary Gaudi-like synthetic iconoclast, mixing elements of Egyptian, neoclassical, and Byzantine elements into more-or less harmonious whole. Goethe once called architecture "frozen music," and the frozen music Plecnik created seems to veer from rollicking neoclassical warmth to eerie Oriental exoticism to atonal sound-clouds.
You can, and should, start by visiting Plecnik’s self-designed house, in the Trnovo suburb just south of Ljubljana’s center. Plecnik, a devout Christian Socialist, never married, and conducted an almost monk-like existence. Plecnik placed engravings of bees in the house to remind himself to get back to work. He designed most of his furniture himself, including a portable plug-in electric lamp. The house also contains fantastically detailed wooden scale models of projects he was never able to realize, for financial reasons. His bedroom is circular, with built-in cabinets housing a collection of books on all imaginable subjects. A cabinet built ingeniously into the curving wall contains a series of Japanese woodcuts, and a gilt angel hangs from the ceiling rafters.
Plecnik also designed several churches across Ljubljana and Slovenia. They do not resemble conventional churches at all. For instance, on the left is the interior of the Church of St. Francis in the working-class Ljubljana suburb of Siska. The pillars are composed of brick, and the altar is in the shape of an elongated pyramid (Plecnik was a Freemason). The tower itself has a pyramidal shape as well. In Plecnik’s house, you can see a model he designed of a crucifix in which Christ appears to be descending from the cross himself.
But perhaps Plecniks’ crowning achievement is the municipal cemetery of Ljubljana, called the Zale cemetery. The entrance to the mausoleum (r) is all cool, stately neoclassical elegance. The in dividual gravesites, whether by edict or zeitgeist, seem to echo this dignified, Art-Nouveau restraint, as you can see in the photo to the left.