PLE .CNIK CREATED HUMANE AND GRACEFUL CIVIC SETTINGS FOR THE EXERCISE OF THE DEMOCRATIC IMAGINATION
The time has come to take closer account of the extraordinary work of the great and unjustly neglected Slovenian architect and town planner Joze Ple. cnik. His practice in Slovenia and at Prague Castle, in the inter-war years of the last century, constitutes a brilliant demonstration of the possibilities of an architecture and art of urban space, and its principles are perfectly adaptable to the civic, political and spiritual needs of the city centre today.
In his home town of Ljubljana, and in Prague during the early years of the first free Czechoslovak republic, Ple. cnik created humane and graceful civic settings for the exercise of the democratic imagination. Buildings, spaces and objects were arranged and configured in sequences that drew upon a profoundly progressive understanding of both Classical architecture and Baroque urban design, comprehended within an idiosyncratic - but essentially Modernist - vision of the modern city.
In both locations he was primarily concerned with creating the conditions for what might be described as perambulatory subjective narratives - and with inscribing those necessarily personal passages within a broader, historical, public story.
'Subjective' here should be taken to describe individual experience that goes beyond purely personal thought and feeling to include the consciousness of political reality and public events.
Those aspects of the greater histories within which we live our everyday lives are, at different times, more or less central or peripheral to our imaginative life.
No writer has explored this aspect of our common experience more deeply than WG Sebald, in whose 'novels' the recurrent narrative framework consists of a walk through historically charged topographies; the personal and historical are fused. For there can be no meaningful subjective experience of democratic politics without an awareness of history and a sense of both local and national identity, developed within a broader consciousness of others who may not share those histories or identifications, but with whom we share a responsibility for the world.
Ple. cnik accepted the professorship of the new faculty of architecture at Ljubljana in 1921. That year, the new state of Slovenia had freely elected to join the Yugoslav confederation, formed after the final collapse of Austro-Hungarian hegemony.
Thereafter, for 20 years - with the support of the dynamic director of municipal construction, Matko Prelov. sek, and the influential architectural historian France Stele - Ple. cnik was effectively both the city architect and principal urban designer of Ljubljana, and could realise at least some components of a visionary programme intended to transform an undistinguished provincial town into a distinctive capital city.
After an earthquake in 1895, two major architect-planners, Camillo Sitte and Max Fabiano, had proposed separate detailed plans for the broader development of the city, and Ple. cnik's own masterplan of 1928 was based on a creative synthesis of these, with an expansion northwards that took account of industrial growth.
His governing concept was of a radial city of tree-lined avenues, complicated and humanised by neighbourhoods of small streets, whose basic grid layout between the radial axes was modified and softened by curves and crescents (image 2). A peripheral road would run through a green belt of trees and fields, market gardens, small-holdings and allotments ('at least half a thousand vegetable gardens providing the greenery which is always needed in a modern city').
This larger vision of humanely spacious suburban environs - with its special emphasis on sustainability and green breathing spaces, oxygenizing the atmosphere of a developing industrial city while providing its inhabitants with fresh vegetables - would remain largely unrealised. But at the city centre, mainly through a programme of tree planting and the maintenance of green spaces, Ple. cnik was able to maintain this visionary eco-architectural theme as an element in an integrated programme of interventions that create a brilliantly imaginative, exemplary urban ensemble.
His scheme for the central city is articulated in a subtle axial relationship with the river, the Ljubljanica, organised in relation to the bend of the river around the steeply rising hill with its summit castle that dominates the east bank - the site for which Ple. cnik proposed a new Slovene parliament building in 1947.
To the west, between the busy characterless main thoroughfare and the river, before it curves sharply eastwards, Ple. cnik created a configuration of roads, buildings, monuments and walkways that links the green inner village-suburb of Trnovo, situated at the southern limit of the original Roman city, to Congress Square, the modern central civic space, and thence across the river at the heart of the Baroque city.
Its central trajectory follows a broad quiet street, which, after beginning at a tree-lined bridge (image 4), progresses through a belt of inner-city market gardens (still in use), passes by a number of historical monuments designed or modified by Ple. cnik (images 6 & 7 ) and is then faced by the raised terrace and monumental west facade of his greatest masterpiece, the National and University Library - a building of particular significance to a nation defined essentially by its linguistic culture (image 8).
Thereafter you walk past the College of Music, the main university buildings, and into Congress Square. Here, at its north-east corner, Ple. cnik projected a propylaeum monument to Alexander, King of Yugoslavia (assassinated in 1934), to be the gateway to a small square and colonnade that would link down to the historic open piazza facing the river in front of the Baroque town church of St Mary's.
In front of you, Ple. cnik's spectacular Triple Bridge (image 1) crosses the river to connect in one direction with his Neo-Classical colonnaded riverside market (image 18) close by the Baroque Cathedral and in the other to the Old Town Hall and the untouched, essentially Medieval old town, whose narrow single main street, lined with fine old Baroque town houses, winds back round the base of the steeply rising castle promontory, remaining in line with the river's east embankment.
Roughly parallel to this highly charged itinerary is what has been called 'the river sequence', which also begins in Trnovo but follows a small tree-lined and countrified tributary down to the Ljubljanica and proceeds along the west bank to where, between St James' Bridge and the Triple Bridge, Ple. cnik has narrowly enclosed the river between concrete embankments, with upper and lower walkways and landing places (images 11 & 12).
This stretch affords a glimpse of the National and University Library and passes by the back of the Opera House to finally meet the upper itinerary at Preseren Square in front of St Mary's.
As the river swings eastward under the Triple Bridge, the west bank continues as a little linear park, fronted by a street of cafés and shops, which faces, on the opposite bank, the rear screen-wall of the market colonnade (image 20 ). Ple. cnik intended this to be divided at its centre by an entrance on to the unrealised Butcher's Bridge, a continuation over water of the colonnaded market. The sequence concludes with the Egyptian-style lock gates on the Ljubljanica to the east of the city centre (image 21).
In their respective perambulations, these parallel south-north sequences symbolically emphasise civic, political and cultural life on the one hand, and the pleasures of playful recreation on the other. At two points this scheme is met by transverse trajectories which reflect its experiential duality. The first crosses St James' Bridge to a small square and thence proceeds through the southern streets of the old town and a serpentine pathway up to the castle. The second (only partially completed) would have begun at the Triple Bridge and proceeded westward by a broad promenade to Tivoli Park and its mansion museum.
Three characteristic motifs continuously accentuate Ple. cnik's 'sculpture of space': steps and stairways, bridges and columns. At every opportunity these are deployed as key elements in spatial structures that presuppose the significance of personal narrative in the experience of the city.
Steps and stairways have deep significance in this respect for Ple. cnik, enacting, as they do, the passage upwards and downwards with many symbolic possibilities. At their simplest and most functional, as in the narrow stepped corridors down from Congress Square to the river embankment, they exploit the natural pleasure of emergence from urban enclosure into open riverine space (image 26 ). At their most symbolically charged, as in the National and University Library, they ascend from the quotidian street in a ceremonial passage through a dark marble stairwell to the hypostyle landing and the sanctuary of the Reading Room, a place set aside for study and contemplation.
Bridges are points of crossing. For Ple. cnik they perform other civilising functions. His Ljubljana bridges are variations on the theme of the bridge as building, the bridge as a place.
The floor plan of the Shoemaker's Bridge (a pedestrian crossing between St James' and the Triple Bridges) is that of the double cube, the Classically perfect space of an urbane saloon. The bridge is a charming piazzetta - a colonnaded room whose ceiling is the sky, a graceful conversation-place above the water (image 13).
The Triple Bridge is a uniquely elegant urban centrepiece, a place to stop and look at the river and at the different townscapes on either side. Separating pedestrian from wheeled traffic, it safely and ceremonially facilitates the walker's progress from new town to old, from shops to open market, from the bridge itself to the lower embankment galleries. Butcher's Bridge, just upstream, was to have been the bridge as covered market.
Ple. cnik is the playful virtuoso of the column and capital, his innumerable variations and inventions being ironic subversions of those aspects of the Classical and its orders that signify imperium. Columns abound in Ple. cnik's work: they represent above all his allegiance to the values and aesthetics of the Classical Mediterranean world, as opposed to those of the Germanic imperial and military civilisation of the centuries-long Hapsburg domination.
At any point along the pedestrian itineraries I have described, it is columns that provide a compositional unity to the view, dignify the context of ordinary activities, solemnise a progress on the business of the day, or create a theatrical setting for the pleasurable promenade.
The experience of perambulation is central to Ple. cnik's thinking on urban space and public architecture. He recognised the passage from one situation to another, from one condition to another, through space and time, as the ontological reality of human experience. His architecture and urban design take account of this phenomenological reality to a greater extent than that of any other Modernist architect. And his imagination is essentially dramatic: his Ljubljana city sequences have the aspect of an open-air architectural theatre, within which the pedestrian 'passenger' enacts his own perpetually unfolding unique personal drama.
As his forms, sometimes playfully, sometimes gravely, modernise the Classical (and the antique), so do his spatial dispositions of buildings and monuments modernise Baroque conceptions of urban space. History lives on in the present of his architecture.
In thus projecting the democratic possession of public space, and proposing the means by which the urban environment may be enhanced for the citizen as experiencing subject, Joze Ple. cnik - the pragmatically democratic visionary of Prague and Ljubljana - may be of greater relevance to our present needs than his much vaunted contemporary, the mechanistic utopian, Le Corbusier.
Mel Gooding is the author of National and University Library, Ljubljana:
Jo. ze Ple. cnik (Phaidon, 1997)