Slovenia remembers its great architect - and his timeless appeal

Jože Plečnik

To mark the 50th anniversary of the death of its greatest architect, Slovenia has unleashed a flurry of exhibitions and symposiums abroad to try to bring more recognition to Jože Plečnik. With shows currently running in Belgium and Japan, Slovenian architects are also hoping to breathe new life into the so-called Slovenian School of Architecture.

Jože Plečnik's imprint can be seen across the small Slovenian capital city of Ljubljana: the stark red-and-white National Library, the Church of St. Franics, the city's iconic Triple Bridge, and a host of civic improvements ranging from kiosks to markets to office buildings. His prolific building throughout the 1920s make him to Ljubljana what Baron Haussmann was to Paris, or Robert Moses was to New York: a singular force that reshaped the face of the city.

Plečnik's style was classical but unconvential; he's also been described as anti-functional – delighting in strong visual imagery. During the early part of his career, he managed a number of successes, including new secessionist buildings in Vienna and the rennovation of Prague's renowned castle. Shortly thereafter, he became a professor in Ljubljana, where he began his many years of transforming what was then a city in Yugoslavia.

Like many Slovenes, Plečnik had to deal with the problem of repressed national identity. Indeed, the fact that he was a Slav prevented him from succeeding the great Otto Wagner at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, under whom he studied. Likewise, Plečnik's design for a monumental Slovenian parliament – a cathedral of liberty – found little enthusiasm in Yugoslavia. (It still exists only on paper, and now on the Slovenian 10-eurocent coin.)

The architect's classical leanings and devout Roman Catholicism led to dwindling support in post-war communist Yugoslavia, and the great architect slowly slipped into obscurity.

It has only been recently, and with the rise of postmodernism, that has seen a new spark of interest in Plečnik. While the 1960s saw his star fading, a major exhibition in Paris in the 1980s marked the beginning of his return. Last year, the 50th anniversary of his death, saw a surge in exhibitions that was then accelerated by Slovenia taking over the EU presidency. This month, the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in the EU's capital, Brussels, has launched a summerlong exhibition of the great Slovenian architect.

Rok Klančnik, head of the Slovene House in Brussels, says that Plečnik's works have true lasting power – especially compared to the 1960s -- and that Plečnik's appeal is timeless.

«The popularity, the art, the beauty, never vanishes – something we can't say about the architecutre of the 60s. Just take a look at it now in Ljubljana, or Vienna, Prague, Belgrade. The architecture of the 60s is today considered very, very boring, or even archaic. While Plečnik's works today are considered very beautiful and a great cultural heritage.»

The Art Gallery of Tokyo University is also hosting a Plečnik show this summer. In conjunction with this, a symposium will be held in which Slovenian and Austrian architects will present Plečnik's architecture to their Japanese peers. According to Klančnik, the appeal of Plečnik's is universal:

«Architecture and art for him were a universal thing, a global thing. Not in the sense of today's economy, or as globalization right now – but as a universal thought. As a state of mind. And this is a truth that even the architects in Japan, in New York, in Brussels, or say, even in Pretoria in South Africa, can adhere to and agree with.»

Slovenian officials are hoping that the increased exposure will give Plečnik the recognition and standing they believe the architect deserves but did not receive in his lifetime. Plečnik died in Ljubljana in 1957 in relative obscurity. As a consolation of sorts, he was buried in the city's main cemetary of Žale – a cemetary that he himself had designed.