Recently I traveled to Ljubljana, Slovenia, in search of the religious architecture of the celebrated (but largely unknown in the U.S.) Slovenian architect Jože Plečnik (1872–1957). I write a lot about the architecture of spirituality, and I was curious about Plečnik’s churches and chapels—what the architect’s idiosyncratic form of classicism said about faith in a Modern age. What I didn’t expect to find was the universal nature of Plečnik’s work as an urbanist: a re-maker of the Slovenian capital that holds lessons for us today.
Plečnik is a bit of a mystery to most architects. A Slovene native, he inherited an artistic bent from his carpenter father, went to Vienna in 1892 to work as a furniture designer, and came under the influence of the Viennese Secessionist architect Otto Wagner. Plečnik studied architecture at Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts and as the top student received a travel scholarship, filling scores of sketchbooks roving through Italy and France. By 1900 he was working as an independent architect, and in 1911 he moved to Prague, where he practiced and taught, raising his profile. He returned to Ljubljana in 1921, secured a professorship at the Ljubljana School of Architecture (where he taught for 36 years), and practiced architecture.
Plečnik designed and built projects all over Eastern Europe, but in Ljubljana he excelled as an urban designer. With his experience and study of architecture throughout Europe, Plečnik applied what he learned to Ljubljana to raise its architectural stature and give it a more Mediterranean quality. (With Yugoslavia’s dissolution in 1990, Slovenia became an independent country, with Ljubljana its capital). Plečnik did not create a sweeping, grand vision for a new city. Instead, for more than 30 years he worked incrementally on urban projects large and small, creating an accretion of interventions that offers valuable lessons in defining urban identity that effortlessly graphs onto an existing context, to which subsequent architects and urban designers have added.
Plečnik is actually tied with Frank Lloyd Wright in having the most works (eight) listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List of any architect, and all of Plečnik’s are in Ljubljana. In adding his works to the list in 2021, UNESCO described his work as “an example of a human-centered urban design that successively changed the identity of the city … based on an architectural dialogue with the older city while serving the needs of emerging modern 20th-century society. This highly contextual and human-scale urbanistic approach, as well as Plečnik’s distinctive architectural idiom, stand apart from the other predominant modernist principles of his time.”
Today, Ljubljana is most distinguished by its old center, the core of which is layered with streets that follow the twists and turns of the Ljubljanica River (at the core’s center the topography climbs up sharply to a hilltop castle dating from the 11th century). Plečnik’s interventions along the river as it carves through the city provide scale and a humane conviviality—enticements for wandering. Repeatedly, Plečnik devises inventive ways to bring you into intimate contact with the river.
For example, in the mid-1930s the river was deepened to alleviate flooding. Plečnik inserted graciously stepped terraces that appear to ripple the river’s lazy twists and turns. The terraces allow you to step down along the river edge and invite you to lounge. Above the terraces are greenswards, punctuated by rows of weeping willows that march along like columns (one of Plečnik’s favorite architectural elements). The terraces are a bit different on each riverbank, attracting different kinds of activities: sunbathing, fishing, picnicking. As the terraces narrow, you pass under a bridge to find a little coffee shop tucked into its abutment, with places to sit at the river’s edge.
As the river travels north, the urban density increases, the terraces disappear, and Plečnik channels the river between parallel stone walls. But he continues to devise ways to access it.
There might be the surprise of a small, rounded balcony (perhaps big enough just for two people) that bumps out of the wall, a respite from the flow of pedestrians that allows us to linger and take in vistas. You might discover a staircase carved into the wall that takes you straight down to the Ljubljanica’s surface, where you might board a small boat for a river tour. The river walls are topped with balustrades and belvederes of different designs, some classical and others modern, many by Plečnik but also by contemporary architects.
One of the best is Novi Square, designed in 2012 by the local firm Atelje Vozlic—a generous plaza that sweeps down to the river with a fountain, stepped seating, and ramps. All along these vantage points offering prospects of city landmarks are restaurants, bookshops, galleries, bars, retail stores, coffee spots, grocers, gelato stands, wine shops, with apartments above—every one of them with a view to the Ljubljanica and the civic life teeming around the river.
The river banks are laced together with bridges (many of Plečnik’s design, along with some new ones) that encourage exploration. Where Plečnik couldn’t insert a new plaza because of the surrounding tight streets, he creates one on a bridge—Cobbler’s Bridge is a great example—wide, paved in stone, and lined with the architect’s trademark terrazzo columns (he chose this material for its economy and used it all over the city).
No detail seems to escape Plečnik’s invention; street lights are a good example. On bridges and exterior stairs, he concocts whimsical, ironic, romantic ways to light your way: a lamp might emerge from an Ionic capital (he had a weakness for the Ionic) or crown a skinny stone pyramid (another of his repetitive elements).
His Three Bridges, constructed in the early 1930s, deliver you from three different thoroughfares across the river to Preseren Square, the city’s heart. Why three? They replaced a single span that was too small, and instead of making one wide bridge, Plečnik, mindful of the scale, designed the middle span for vehicles and two outer pedestrian spans with staircases that take you down to the river—his homage to Venice.
A decade after the Three Bridges, construction started on Plečnik’s largest building along the river: the Market. Originally conceived as a stoa with shops for butchers, fishmongers, green grocers, and other retail, it stretches along the river for nearly a thousand feet, with two porticos that allow views of the river, shops that cater to the lunch crowd, and an open loggia on the west end for a farmer’s market. The Market rises directly out of the river, in Venetian fashion, gracefully curving to closely follow the bend in the river. A new bridge connecting the Market to the other side of the river was designed in 2010 by ATELIER arhitekti. Its steel-and-glass construction hasn’t aged well, in comparison with Plečnik’s masonry bridges. At the extreme west end of the Market is one of Plečnik’s little follies, a temple within a temple, originally designed as a flower shop.
On the other side of the river, Plečnik designed a tiny tobacco kiosk; he was a habitual smoker and coffee addict and peppered the city with such kiosks. Plečnik’s fascination with kiosks actually provides an insight into his approach to urban design. Plečnik had a visceral, direct connection to the city he designed, because he was an inveterate walker. Typically, he would leave his house and studio on Karunova Street and walk about a half-mile north to the architecture school. He then might continue his walk into the heart of the city, several miles along the river’s edge or along a major thoroughfare, and back home again. Plečnik knew the city with his feet, not just with his eyes or with maps. It’s not hard to imagine that he designed and took notes as he walked, a sketchbook and pencil always at the ready. The human-centered designs that flowed from his hand were the product of an architect who took his time, walking along the very ground where a bridge might cross the river, a staircase might descend, or a street light might guide the way.
Design by walking seems especially fitting for a place like Ljubljana, which took the radical step of creating a car-free zone in its city center. It’s the only European capital that has banned vehicles. In 2007, newly elected mayor Zoran Janković put forth a “Ljubljana 2025” vision plan that included eliminating cars from the old city core. Reaction from residents was outrage. A Slovenian architect colleague of mine remembers resistance to the ban. He recalled plazas and streets throughout the city center choked with cars, pointing to a spot where he used to park not far from where we were having a pleasant dinner along the river. Only 40% of residents supported the idea. Ten years later, 97% were happy with the car-free city center and wanted to preserve it. The ban covers some 42 acres but allows delivery trucks and service vehicles access between 6 and 10 a.m. There are also specially designed electric shuttles—diminutive, very narrow, and free!—for people with mobility challenges. By 2012, a bike-sharing system was in place (the first hour is free), along with more park-and-ride options for commuters, more bridges connecting pedestrian zones, and an electric car-sharing program. Pollution and noise levels plummeted. The city’s car-free policy was one of the reasons why, in 2016, Ljubljana won the European Green Capital Award. It’s as if Plečnik’s humanly centered urban design was waiting for the cars to leave to finally reveal its full potential.
Plečnik was known to tell his students: “No task, even the smallest, should be unworthy of the architect’s love.” His designs for Ljubljana’s promenade along the river, its bridges and plazas, its balconies and balustrades, its little kiosks and even its streetlights, are ample proof of this.
All photos by the author.