The Washington Post

July 7, 1994, The Washington Post

Cathedrals of Freedom

From Ljubljana to Prague, they're dusting off the memory - and drawings - of Joze Plecnik

Soon after Slovenia fought a 10-day war for its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, the image of a bizarre, cone-shaped building appeared on the new country’s first postage stamp. A cross-sectional drawing of the building now adorns Slovene bank notes.

The monumental structure was designed by architect Joze Plecnik nearly half a century ago to be a Slovene parliament. It was never built.

The belated symbolic attention accorded Plecnik by the nearly three-year-old independent state represents a rare convergence of culture and politics: a posthumous triumph for an eccentric figure who sought to infuse his works with beauty and grandeur to instill in his countrymen a sense of their own dignity.

A student of the Viennese fin-de- siècle architect Otto Wagner, Plecnik forged his unique idiom based on a deep knowledge of the classical past.

“Like a spider,” he said, “I aim to attach a thread to tradition and beginning with that to weave my own web.” His ingenious reworking of historical elements found esteem among postmodernists such as Michael Graves, Robert Venturi and James Stirling in the mid-1980s, when his work was featured in exhibitions that traveled around Western Europe and the United States.

This recognition beyond the Central European cities where Plecnik’s designs were built between 1900 and his death in 1957 ignited new interest among the Slovenes. The architect’s model of the proposed parliament, which he described as a “Cathedral of Freedom,” has become the centerpiece of the Architectural Museum of Slovenia. And two Plecnik-designed lampposts from one of his recently restored bridges in the heart of Ljubljana decorate the entry to Slovenia’s new consulate in midtown Manhattan. “The rediscovery of his plans for a Slovene parliament became a symbol for a common Slovene home,” said Culture Minister Sergij Pelhan.

Renovation of many Plecnik works is underway in his home town of Ljubljana and in Prague, where in the 1920s Czechoslovakia’s founding president, Tomas Masaryk, commissioned him to turn the ancient Prague Castle into the symbolic pinnacle of the country’s new democracy. Plecnik unified the castle’s disparate range of Gothic, baroque and rococo styles, interweaving them with his own elements. Under communist rule, much of his creation fell into disrepair or was altered insensitively. Under Czech President Vaclav Havel, the castle interiors have been restored and the Plecnik-designed gardens on the castle ramparts overlooking the city reopened to the public.

Although his largest project, the capitol plan, was shelved by the Slovene communist authorities, Plecnik succeeded in transforming Ljubljana in the years before World War II. Few cities are so indelibly stamped by a single architect. He fundamentally altered Ljubljana’s urban layout and created lush green parks and squares. To achieve a sense of visual coherence, he scattered specially designed lampposts and public benches around the city center. Plecnik delineated the Ljubljanica River running through the old town with new embankments and promenades.

At the city’s heart, he modified a mid-19th-century stone bridge by adding two footbridges fanning out from either side toward a central square. The span of the Tromostovje (Three Bridges) is lined with terrazzo balustrades crowned by a series of lampposts atop enlarged Renaissance banisters. Nearby, Plecnik placed a colonnaded market that hugs the gentle curve of the riverbank. Existing chestnut trees were replaced with willows, poplars and sycamores, whose shapes Plecnik used in an architectural manner to echo his designs or screen off buildings he found distasteful.

It was natural that Plecnik, coming from an area bordered by Italy and Austria, assimilated the architectural traditions of northern and southern Europe. The German architect and theorist Gottfried Semper further influenced Plecnik’s synthesis of Venice and Vienna. Plecnik heeded Semper’s call for a transformation into architecture of decorations from traditional arts and crafts, such as textiles and pottery. Since he was originally trained as a furniture marker, high standards of craftsmanship are evident in all his work, which included furniture, lamps, candlesticks and bejeweled chalices for use in his many churches.

The parliament building was planned in 1947 to house the National Assembly of Slovenia, then part of communist Yugoslavia. Plecnik’s vision called for an elongated cone-shaped roof supported by 12 inward-leaning columns. The building would tower 392 feet above the ground, with a diameter of 164 feet. Its spiral exterior recalls Brueghel’s “Tower of Babel” or Vladimir Tatlin’s “Monument to the Third International.”

This design found admirers, but according to Lev Kreft, the National Assembly’s current vice president, such a grandiose structure would have alarmed the federalist leader Marshal Tito, so the Slovenes shrank from carrying through with it. “They knew they could not afford to build something like that,” Kreft said.

Ultimately, a more modest parliament was built in 1956, featuring bronze sculptures of workers and Socialist Realist murals. Plecnik’s plan was put in a drawer and forgotten. He died lamenting that he had been supplanted by a generation of Modernists who prefered the International Style.

“They wanted to hide his example,” Peter Krecic, director of the architectural museum, said of the communist authorities. “But young people were curious about his work. Because he was rejected, he became even more of a legend.” When Slovene independence was finally achieved, an unofficial congress of emigre Slovenes met in June 1991 and urged that the time had come for the parliament to be erected.

“The idea still lives,” said Krecic. Nonetheless, Slovene officials give little sign that it will become reality given the small country’s budgetary constraints. Culture Minister Pelhan said the existing parliament sufficed to meet current needs. “Our primary concern is that Plecnik’s buildings be preserved as part of our heritage,” he said.

Krecic suggested that in the end it may not really matter whether the cone-shaped parliament ever rises over Ljubljana. “We should not turn it into a Tower of Babel with all of its ambitions and pain. We need to view it with a bit of humor as something we could do. Perhaps it may be more fruitful if the idea remains alive on paper and in our minds.”