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The Universal Architect: Jože Plečnik

Jože Plečnik (1872-1957) created a unique architectural style, mixing Baroque and Secession, Classicism and Modernism.

His legacy belongs to Vienna, Prague and Ljubliana. In an alternate universe where the Austro-Hungarian Empire hasn't collapsed in 1918, he could be the Chief Architect of His Imperial and Royal Majesty. Instead, he helped to shape the appearance of two new capitals, of Czechoslovakia and Slovenia. In each city he rose to new challenges and created monumental buildings, which amazed his contemporaries and are still amazing today.

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.

Jože Plečnik (photo: Archives of Architectural Museum Ljubljana) 1894

Jože 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.

Students from Wagner school (photo: Archives of Architectural Museum Ljubljana) 1897

Standing (from left): Fr. von Thiersch, A. Streit, L. Wagner, O. Wagner, M. Fabiani; seated: Fr. Matouschek, Fr. Dietz von Weidenberg, A. Ludwig, K. Liderhaus, S. Karasimeonoff, J. Kotera, L. Muller, R. Melichar, J. Plečnik, A. Hackl.

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.

Langer House, Vienna. 1900. Photo by HyoTsuk @ Flickr

In Vienna 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 House (1905) established his reputation as an original, innovative and brilliant architect - and a foremost exponent of Expressionism.

Zacherl House, Vienna. Photo by klausness @ Flickr

Prague (1911-1920) became the arena of Plečnik's most ambitious and monumental building project, the restoration of Hradčani, the ancient and massive Prague Castle. 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.

Bull staircase, Prague Castle, 1920s. Photo by r.wiesenberger @ Flickr

Church of the Most Sacred Heart of our Lord. Prague, 1928-1932. Photo by one-thirteen @ Flickr

While residing in Prague, Plečnik began regularly to visit his native country, discovering Slovenian architectural traditions, particularly the Karst region. Ljubljana 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.

Jože Plečnik - House & Studio, Ljubljana. Photo by evan.chakroff @ Flickr

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 Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (future Yugoslavia). 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.

St Michael church, on the outskirt of Ljubljana. 1930s. Photo by Karmen Smolnikar @ Flickr

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.

Ljubljana, National and University Library by Jože Plečnik. Photo by innismna @ Flickr

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.

Žale Central cemetery. Photo by Doctor Casino @ Flickr

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.

Plečnik colonnades of the market along the Ljubljanica river in central Ljubljana. Photo by Buileshuibhne @ Flickr

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.

Jože Plečnik in front of his home in Trnovo, Ljubljana (photo: Karel Repa) 1933

During the decades following the end of World War II 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.

The most important of Plečnik's unexecuted work is definitely his design for a Slovene parliament towering some 120 meters. The plans were drawn up in 1947 but the scale of the conical tower was deemed inappropriate for Ljubljana, then a provincial capital in Tito's Yugoslavia. The plan lives on, however, on the back of Slovenia's ten-cent euro coin.

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.

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 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."

Sources: thezaurus.com article by Aleksandra Ceferin; slovenia-life.com, plecnik.net

Headline photo: Church of the Most Sacred Heart bell tower window. Prague, 1928-1932. Photo by roryrory @ Flickr

See also: The Architecture of Jože Plečnik in Prague; Jože Plečnik pool @ Flickr

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Comment by lojzo on December 17, 2011 at 7:55am

Yes, Plečnik was a great Master. Thank you for reminder, lord K.

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