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How to civilise a city Joze Plecnik and the Making of a Capital At the Architectural Association, 36 Bedford Square, London WC1 until 30 October

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Joze Plecnik's remodelling of the Slovenian capital Llubyjana, the subject of this aa exhibition, amounts to a true 'book of the poor'. Its gestures, drawing on the Habsburg Enlightenment known as the Secession, and Classical ideals which the city's Roman origins make real, teach - through repeated experience and immediate sensory perception - the values of civil society.

Poor, in this sense, refers more to poverty of democratic tradition than lack of wealth. For while Britain, France and the United States started to evolve democratic practices, the Habsburg Empire developed the string quartet, the symphony and rather elegant uniforms. So, when the territory became an independent country after the First World War, and Plecnik became professor at the academy in 1921, a whole programme opened in front of him: how to turn this funny little provincial town, partly rebuilt after an earthquake in 1895 by Camillo Sitte and Max Fabiano, into the showcase for a nation.

Plecnik's strategy is so much more effective than the traditional way of doing such things: building a pompous parliament building, a supreme court and a president's palace. He turned existing spaces into meaningful experiences: changes of level become elegant staircases with carefully contrived views; street junctions are marked by discreet monuments; historical remains are incorporated into a contemporary programme. Those vital aspects of urban life are suitably marked: bridges have names like Butchers' Bridge and Shoemakers' Bridge, harking back to the traditions of Craft Guild- based urban democracy, but also marking the inevitable division of labour and incorporation of different skills into modern urban life.

Here Plecnik uses art and tradition to celebrate the everyday, to create a genuinely inclusive and operational public realm, in contrast to the promise of democracy and rule of law that a parliament and supreme court might carry. It's rather sobering that his work is more or less contemporary with La Ville Radieuse.

And he is capable of the dramatic set piece. The most notable is the National University Library, a cubic form whose brick walls and roughcast stone are already emotive, without the high window broken by an elongated column which introduces a refinement to the composition. Inside, that refinement continues. A grand ceremonial staircase lined with polished black limestone leads to the building's heart, a reading room whose elegant furniture completes the contrast with the exterior.

Encouraging a sense of belonging and intellectual activity should have augured well for national identity - yet that was not to be. Whether Slovenia can blame 50 years of misfortune on external forces, or was instead as fertile a breeding-ground for Fascists as its neighbours, the outcome is tragic. One can only hope for its future, and look to the issues which this exhibition raises which go far beyond Slovenia and the Balkans.

It is only through the filter of Franco-centrism (better known as the eu) that Slovenia seems to lie on the fringe of Europe. The Romans, Venetians and Habsburgs certainly didn't think so. And if architecture, the true 'book of the poor', has prospered there, it is not because the country lies on a geographic fringe but on an especially acute psychological fringe. It is located somewhere near that fine line between civilisation and barbarism that exists in every major city, although habit, custom, police forces, welfare provision and architecture often obscure it.

What makes this exhibition worthwhile is that it highlights how Plecnik (and his collaborator Matko Prevlosik, the city's director of construction) tried to deal with this psychological topography by manipulating the physical topography, turning the whole city into a demonstration of civic values. One only wishes they had succeeded; if they had, it would make arguing the case for architecture so much easier.

Jeremy Melvin is a writer and teacher

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