Eternal Architect: The Life and Art of Jože Plečnik, Modernist Mystic
A slightly-hunched figure, dressed all in black, leans on a cane, as he shuffles northward along the Ljubljanica River. From his home he passes crouched willow trees, their leaves bending gently against the breeze that spins along his embankment. Above his long white whiskers, bearded like an Assyrian king, below his ubiquitous tall black hat, he admires his creations, in the city that bears his signature as much as any city in the world can be the fruit of a single architect. He nods towards a chapel of his design in a neighborhood composed almost entirely of vegetable gardens. A medieval monastery that he converted to a concert hall. A library, clad in a brick façade that undulates with projecting window bays, making it look like a sea in choppy waters. He walks a street that he lined with autumnal trees and sculpted busts of his forebears. He crosses a bridge spiked with columns that support naught but the air, only to later cross another bridge, also his, that is not one but three separate, angled walkways above the water, one each for cars, pedestrians and cyclists. He circles towards a star-shaped park, glancing up at a monastery, a promenade, and a high school, all by his hand. Then he turns, entirely at leisure, greeting most of the passers-by, on his way to the central market, which he fitted with the sort of long, arched arcade that he had admired when he first visited Italy, so long ago. If he had the energy, he might hike up the hill to the castle, which he renovated, though he had other, grander ideas for what to build in its place, upon that hill. If his legs do not tire, he might continue further up the river, a river he once imagined covering entirely with a single, long bridge that ran its length, transforming it into a promenade or serpentine piazza, to see the sluice gate, which he decorated with the forms of the ancient architectures he admired: Etruscan, Greek, Egyptian. Though he worked at the time of Modernism, he was never hemmed in by movements or the expectations of his era. He was a single shining star, not part of a constellation. He knows the story of the Baroque master sculptor and architect, Gian Lorenzo Bernini. When Pope Urban VIII summoned Bernini to meet with him, for the first time after becoming pope, he said: “If you are happy to see me pope, then I am more proud yet that you live under my pontificate… You are made for Rome, and Rome for you.” The same might be said of Ljubljana and Jože Plečnik. Slovenians should be proud of their genius loci, who determined not to pursue glamorous opportunities abroad, in order to work in his homeland. This is his city, and it is to the city’s great benefit that he is its architect. Visitors to Ljubljana cannot help but encounter the work of Jože Plečnik. He designed an incredible number of buildings, public spaces, and even portions of the city, which had been badly damaged in an 1895 earthquake, and so offered opportunities for new development. What Gaudi is to Barcelona, Plečnik is far more to Ljubljana, and to Slovenia as a whole, for his work can be found throughout his homeland. He was, far and away, Slovenia’s greatest artist, in any medium. But his work long remained out of the sightlines of critics and admirers, due largely to geography: He began in Vienna, worked for a time in Prague, but most of his buildings are in the territory now called Slovenia, which was part of the Habsburg Empire when he was born, transformed into the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, and then morphed into Yugoslavia. He remained the darling of architectural historians and connoisseurs, as well as the fortunate and wise tourists who made the trip to the “sunny side of the Alps” and encountered his work. But it was only posthumously that he rose to true international prominence, considered among the 20th century greatest architects. This book came about because Plečnik was selected as a focal point for the promotion of Slovenian tourism for 2017. I was encouraged by Blaž Peršin, director of Ljubljana’s City Museums (which includes an award-winning museum developed in Plečnik’s house, to publish my dissertation as an image-rich book, in order to help introduce Plečnik to a wider audience abroad. I’m delighted to do so. I’ve been called “Slovenia’s biggest cheerleader,” as an American art historian often in the media, and having lived for many years in this beautiful country, which I genuinely think is the best place on earth to call home (if you’d like a more general introduction to Slovenia, consider my travel/memoir/guidebook, Slovenology: Living and Traveling in the World’s Best Country). I’m honored to represent Slovenia and delighted to introduce its wonders to others. And of all its wonders, the architecture of Jože Plečnik is what strikes visitors most, and resonates in them, long after they have left.
Published in 2017 by Totaliteta and the City Museums of Ljubljana. Available in lavishly-illustrated Slovenian and English editions.