Jože Plečnik, architect

The architectural legend of Slovenia

Tu pride flash
Jože Plečnik (1872-1957) holds a special place in the history of the Slovene nation. He became one of the leading architects of central Europe, creating innovative work of originality and brilliance that has outlasted major trends of the period and led to a rediscovery by the post-modernists. He has been referred to as the "Slavic Gaudi" (F. Achleitner), an original genius who "created his own impressionistic legacy - idiosyncratic, hermetic and inimitable" (W.Singer) and given the apt title of "modern classicist" (P. Krečič)

Friedrich Achleitner compared Jože Plečnik to Antonio Gaudi: "Like Gaudi, he inhabits a frontier zone between cultures; he is an 'architectural fundmentalist', but also an artisan, a technician, an inventor, and a landmark figure for a newly developed national architecture. In his work, he was always fully conscious of his ethnic group and his region, while remaining critical with respect to 'popular' as well as 'noble' culture, and even able, through extreme self-control, to integrate emotional phenomena such as kitsch into his field of reference".

Peter Krečič, the foremost Plečnik expert in Slovenia today sums up the significance of this great Slovenian architect: 
"Plečnik's contribution to the formation of the national Slovenian ideology of Modernism is substantial, yet it was also European, even international in scope. There is almost no form in his art that springs exclusively from Slovenian vernacular sources. From the end of the 19th century, when the new cultural and political leaders were at the helm of smaller stateless nations, there was a widespread search for national art as a means of achieving cultural legitimacy.

Plečnik felt he should contribute to such aims. In his personal artistic program, he consciously sought inspiration in the classical Slovenian tradition, in the vestiges of antiquity, in the ancient Emona, in the traces of Italian Baroque found in Ljubljana. Indeed his entire vision of Ljubljana as the new Athens was based on his perception of Ancient Rome, of the Italian renaissance and Baroque periods, and the Mediterranean. At the same time he never lost his northern touch, his mystical and mythical self, which he expressed most eloquently in his realisations in wood. This side of Plečnik stems largely from the Viennese Secession and Expressionism, but it also owes much to Slovak and Slovenian rustic tradition.

Thus Plečnik embodies and reconciles two artistic natures, two fundamental artistic moods. The meeting between North and South rightly takes place in Slovenia and particularly in Ljubljana, its capital. Jože Plečnik in synthesizing these traditions, natures and moods, should thus be considered one of the greatest - and possibly one of the last - universal artists."

Debra Schafter defined Plečnik's work in terms of the Postmodernist movement and present day viewpoint:

"Plečnik's pluralistic and inventive vocabulary juxtaposes tradition with innovation in a manner we come to associate with the postmodern attempts to collapse styles through a process of appropriation and divestiture. Indeed, like the architects of the modern era, Plečnik did not use historical references 'naturally' that are to establish his monuments as a part of some immediately recognizable tradition, but 'critically', as a means to revitalize forms through new and unexpected references. Plečnik reorganized traditional codes according to new paradigms that could allow modern concepts regarding structure, function, space and viewer to take place in a vast cultural, historical and architectural heritage."
Plečnik was born in Ljubljana, the son of a Slovenian cabinet-maker, was to follow in his father's trade and never thought of becoming an architect. However his talent for drawing was recognized early, when he received a scholarship at the newly opened vocational school for industrial arts and crafts in Graz, Austria. It was the first step toward the architectural profession. Here he met his first true master, the architect Theyer, who befriended him and made him his assistant. With Theyer's help Plečnik moved to Vienna, where for two years he designed furniture and supervised production for a large furniture company. He tried unsuccessfully to enroll at the School of Decorative Arts and frequented museums, galleries and exhibitions.

The decisive moment in Plečnik's life occurred, when he saw at an exhibition Otto Wagner's plans for the new cathedral in Berlin. When he became Wagner's student, he was on his way towards an extraordinary career.

As architect Plečnik was a visionary and a reformer. He was a pioneer in urban planning, an innovator in the use of new building materials and their potential for attempting new structural and ornamental building solutions. While highly original, experimental and individualistic in his building designs, he simultaneously sought to incorporate the historical dimension and achieve a continuity of established traditions.

During his career he created architectural masterpieces, leaving his stamp on three central European capitals - Vienna, Prague and Ljubljana. They represent three distinct stages in the development of his genius. In each city he rose to new challenges and created monumental buildings, which amazed his contemporaries and are still astonishing today.

In Vienna (1894-1911) Plečnik completed his studies and made his mark as one of the most exciting and accomplished secessionist architects and designers of the time. His Zacherl Palace (1905) established his reputation as an original, innovative and brilliant architect - and a foremost exponent of expressionism.

Prague (1911-1920) became the arena of Plečnik's most ambitious and monumental building project, the restoration of Hradčani; the ancient and massive castle fortress of Prague. He was appointed The Castle Architect, given the brief by the President Stefan Masaryk to create a powerful symbol for the newly emerged Czech nation-state. The project took 15 years to complete (1920-1935) and was not only the most monumental but also the most challenging undertaking of his professional life. The Prague Castle is a colossal monument to Plečnik's philosophy of art, a brilliant example of combining tradition and modernity, and an enduring symbol of Czech nationhood.
While residing in Prague, Plečnik began regularly to visit his native country, discovering Slovenian architectural traditions, particularly the Karst region.
Ljubljana (1920-1957+) began to draw him. It was the city where he truly felt at home. In 1920 he accepted a professorship in Ljubljana in preference to a number of such positions offered to him. He was fifty and at the beginning of the most mature and fertile period of his life.

In 1918, when World War I ended, the Austro-Hungarian Empire broke into a number of nation-states. Slovenia became part of the Kingdom of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs. German cultural and political dominance over Slovenia ended. There was a tremendous upsurge in all the fields of endeavour for Slovenes, a time for national self-assertion. Plečnik was able to start work on the most astounding and enduring legacy of his life's work. His native city Ljubljana, the cultural and political centre of Slovenia, became the arena for his deepest desire: to create as an architect and as a Slovene a worthy capital for the Slovenian nation.

Plečnik believed that architecture had an important role in the life of the individual, the society and the nation. He saw the need to educate young architects to an awareness of the social role of architecture. A pedagogue at heart, his influence is still felt in Prague. In Ljubljana the school of architecture that he founded is still thriving on the Plečnik legacy and has produced generations of exceptional architects. It has been said, that he would have done the same for The Vienna School of Architecture, given the opportunity. Certainly Otto Wagner thought so, with unanimous support of colleagues and students.

In Slovenia Plečnik had the opportunity, rarely given to a master architect, for the urban development of a city. He fulfilled it beyond expectations. The legacy he left to his country has come to be known as - Plečnik's Ljubljana. With his designs, plans and landscaping he breathed beauty and style into the city core, covering the areas of the Ljubljana castle, old and new sectors of the city, embankments of the river, parks and squares throughout the city.
The course of Ljubljanica River was a project on its own, with redesigned and rebuilt bridges, new embankments along the river and landscaping. There were numerous special projects - the city squares and parks, which were given a new stylish appearance: the Tivoli Park, the Congress Square with Park Zvezda, Tromostovje (The Three Bridges) and the Market. A number of Plečnik's buildings are Ljubljana's major landmarks: The National and University Library, The Church of St.Francis in Šiška, Žale, The Church of St.Michael on Barje, The Baraga Seminary, and The Ljubljana Stadium.

During the decades following the end of World War 2 Plečnik was regarded as old-fashioned and outmoded, his role as Head of School of Architecture sidelined. However, he continued to work till his death, and the socialist regime on the whole honoured the old master. Then came the seventies and rediscovery of Plečnik's genius by the post-modernists with their search for historical forms and "the lost wisdom" of architecture. It was a path on which Plečnik had preceded them, finding interesting and exciting solutions. Plečnik, the "modern Classicist", presented them with buildings exemplifying the juxtaposition and tension between the tradition and innovation. Plečnik's Ljubljana was an outstanding example of the modern urban vision and creative ethics - a city that preserved in its older structure important stylistic predecessors - the ancient Roman Emona, the Mediaeval town, the Baroque town, the 19th century town.

Plečnik's work received high acclaim in 1986, with the great retrospective exhibition at the George Pompidou Centre in Paris. The exhibition was first taken to Ljubljana, where it had extraordinary success, then to Madrid, Munich, Karlsruhe, Milan, Venice, New York and Washington. In USA he was the first Slovenian artist to create such an impact. Subsequently the Paris exhibition became the foundation of a permanent exhibition of Plečnik's work in the Fužine Castle in Ljubljana.

Plečnik was a great artist and a visionary. He was also a great Slovenian patriot. Plečnik's Ljubljana is a monument to a man's love for his country and pride in his Slovenian heritage. We can say today that he lived up to the words he wrote in a letter to his brother on completing his first major project, the Zacherl Palace in Vienna. He hoped for success "for the sake of Slovenia". At a time when it was not politically correct to be a Slovene, he demonstrated with his achievements and pride in his Slovenian identity that a small nation can achieve greatness. That it is the quality of its people that counts and not the strength of numbers.


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.

Peter Krečič, Jože Plečnik, DZS, Ljubljana, 1992
Peter Krečič, Jože Plečnik - Branje oblik, DZS, Ljubljana, 1997
Peter Krečič, Plečnik's Ljubljana, CZ, Ljubljana, 1991
Burkhardt, F,  Eveno, C,  and B. Podrecca, eds., Jože Plečnik, Architect: 1872-1957, MIT Press, 1989
Slovene Studies, Journal of the Society for Slovene Studies, No.2, 1996