Plečnik’s Vienna

A synthesis of extremes - avant-garde and tradition

Plečnik was to follow in his father's footsteps as cabinet maker. He did not do well in his academic studies in lower gymnasium, however he was rather good at drawing and won a scholarship to the state school for industrial arts and crafts in Graz, Austria. There he developed his talent for draughtsmanship and eventually graduated in fine carpentry and furniture. He first assisted his mentor Leopold Theyer and later worked for the factory owner J.W. Muller. Then came the experience that gave his life a new direction. At an exhibition he saw the plans of the leading Vienna architect Otto Wagner in Vienna and enrolled to study under him in 1896. He worked hard and was soon on the way to the top of the class.

The Viennese period, comprising his studies and discovery of classical architecture, was marked by the search for his own style and architectural concepts. Plečnik declared as early as 1902:
"I yelled - now I am no longer yelling; I search for myself wherever I happen to be. Like a spider, I aim to attach a thread to tradition, and beginning with that, to weave my own web."

Study and work in Otto Wagner's studio marked the first period of his professional life in Vienna. His studies culminated in the winning of a major graduate competition, which enabled him to travel to Italy. The competition was regarded as the first significant victory for the secession movement. For Plečnik it was of greatest importance, since it brought him face to face with classical architecture. It was a turning point in Plečnik's development as architect. Subsequently he would always combine the timeless, the traditional and historical with the innovative, experimental and modern - defining him as the "modern classicist".

His work during the Vienna period is regarded as a major contribution to the foundations of modern European architecture. In his exceptional opus of Vienna sketches, which were partly intended for realization, partly entirely imaginative, he translated secessionist lines into dramatic expressionism. His sketches and realized work established him among the best designers of the time in Vienna. Plečnik was invited to participate in a number of major building projects, then came the great challenge. He was commissioned with designing and building the monumental Zacherl Palace (1903-1905) in central Vienna. Plečnik burst like a comet into public notice and fervent acclaim. He was now established as the foremost Art Nouveau exponent and expressionist.

The avant-garde celebrated it as a victory of modern spirit - "a synthesis of the extreme avant-garde and tradition". In his preceding renovation work on the Langer House and the design of the Zacherl House, he demonstrated that it is possible to individualize the façade artistically as a unique part of the architecture which can bear personal personal concepts, a note on materials, construction and structural cover of the building. Thus he executed the Zacherl Palace façade in polished granite with rich cornices of telemons and the arrangement of the roof elements. For the Langer House he created a scrolled and wreathed façade with embossed windows and balconies. He worked on a number of other buildings and created contemporary designs for furniture and household fittings. Plečnik undertook one more monumental and innovative building project in Vienna. He had discovered the early Christian architecture and started thinking about ways of reforming the modern sacred building. The outcome was the Church of the Holy Spirit in the workers' suburb Ottakring (1910-1911). The church came to be regarded as a milestone in modern sacred architecture, particularly for his pioneering use of concrete to reproduce such complex architectural elements as cupolas and vaults. It was not the kind of church the general public or some of the authorities were ready for, and it incurred considerable public resistance and animosity.
Otto Wagner named Plečnik , now a successful freelance architect, his successor as Head of Academy of Fine Arts. The proposal was supported unanimously by colleagues and students and subsequently repeated three times. His nomination was rejected primarily due to the opposition of Prince Ferdinand, who regarded the Slovenian architect as a subversive Slovene nationalist and disliked his style as "Slavic" and "barbarian".

In 1911 Plečnik decided to leave Vienna. He accepted an invitation from Jan Kotera the leading Czech architect, for a teaching post in Prague.


My thanks to Dr. Peter Krečič, the Director of the Architectural Museum of Ljubljana for advice, contribution towards preparation of the Plečnik articles, and the permission to use the photographic material in his publications.
Sources: Peter Krečič, Jože Plečnik, DZS, 1992
Peter Krečič, Jože Plečnik - Branje oblik, DZS, 1997
Peter Krečič, Plečnik's Ljubljana, CZ, 1991
F Burkhardt, C Eveno, B Podrecca, (ed.):
Jože Plečnik, Architect: 1872-1957, MIT Press, 1989
Slovene Studies, Journal of the Society for Slovene Studies, No.2 1996