Ljubljana, Slovenia's capital, is a magical place, situated between the Alps and 63 square miles of marshland, and bisected by the Ljubljanica River. Think of any city in the world, and chances are you immediately call to mind an iconic skyline or building. This cultural uniqueness is called “genius loci,” which means the “spirit of a place.” Ljubljana's spirit is defined by its location at the crossroads of Europe's main cultural and trade routes, and the architecture that has evolved from its multifaceted history.
People Are Culture is pleased to present this conversation with Ljubljana architect Špela Kuhar, who shares her expertise and insights into the rich architecture of this Central European jewel. Špela works as an independent architect in architectural planning, education and architectural journalism in Ljubljana Slovenia. She is the co-founder of the Center of Architecture Slovenia, the educational program Playful Architecture, and the brand Gift of Slovenian Architecture (Darilo slovenske arhitekture). Špela is a member of the organizing committee of the international architectural conference Piran Days of Architecture and a member of the working group Women in Architecture (Chamber of Architecture and Spatial Planning).
Among her many accomplishments, Špela was a co-curator of the exhibition Architecture. Sculpture. Memory. The art of monuments of Yugoslavia 1945–1991. She’s received several awards with various groups of co-authors highlighting her commitment and dedication to architecture. Špela has been both an author and a co-author for notable books and articles and continues to contribute to the architectural cultural scene.
In this fascinating interview, Špela recounts her start in architecture, and shares her pick of Ljubljana’s greatest buildings. She offers insight into the Slovenia architects who have had notable impact on the city, and have inspired people like her to pursue their passions. Read on to meet Špela Kuhar and learn about the architecture of Ljubljana Slovenia!
Meg: How did you become interested in architecture?
Špela: My aunt subscribed to several architectural magazines that I enjoyed looking at when I was a kid. I had one single book about interior design that I loved. Because I was a creative person, I chose to study design and photography in high school. My mentor for the seminar in industrial design was Breda Dobovišek, who was an architect by profession. She suggested that I join the architectural faculty in 1986.
The Architectural Image of Ljubljana
Meg: How and why did Ljubljana Slovenia evolve as such an architecturally rich city?
Špela: Ljubljana Slovenia is a city with a rich history. It has been interesting from an architectural point of view since prehistoric times. It started first with settlers and pile-dwellers from the end of the New Stone Age until the Middle Copper Age. Archeologists discovered several settlements on the Ljubljana marshes. They found remains of the piles, tools, boats, clothes, pottery and weapons. They also found the remains of the world’s oldest wooden wheel with a wooden axis dated from 3350 and 3100 B.C.
In the next important period, the Romans came from Italy. They established a colony at the intersection of trade routes, which soon became the prosperous Roman trading town of Emona. Emona was partially demolished in 452 AD by nomadic Huns.
The medieval town developed under a 1,200-foot promontory known as Castle Hill, and originally consisted of three parts. Each square had its own wall connected to the fort. The houses were small, made of wood and covered with straw. Because of the simple structures, not many remains from this period are preserved. Ljubljana was first mentioned in writing in 1124 by its German name Laibach.
After the end of Turkish raids, Ljubljana Slovenia was a strong trading centre and the city prospered. Italian artists were invited to build the most beautiful baroque churches and palaces. The new art influenced the town inside the walls.
The citizens built upper floors in the medieval houses; facades were rebuilt; combining two or three narrow houses and building them into more spacious town places; and decorating their fronts and interiors with richly ornamented furniture.
Aristocracy gained more power in this period, which they displayed by building ornate places with luxurious parks outside the town walls. The Baroque period was one of the richest styles that marked the architectural image of Ljubljana until today.
Classicism was the next notable period influencing the architectural legacy in the city. The beginning of the 19th century was marked by a short period of French rule. They began designing public parks, such as Letterman promenade and the first promenade along the Ljubljanica.
Between 1849 and 1857, a part of the railway between Vienna and Trieste was built, which changed the urban development in the city. A new railway station was built and many industrial companies built their plants near the railway. At the end of the 19th century, the city centre saw many new public buildings designed in classical style, as it was Kazina or in historical style that search for examples in Antique, Renaissance and Gothic eras, such as the National Museum, Opera House, and the Slovene Philharmonic building.
The period that also strongly marked the city was Secession, which followed the earthquake in 1895. After that time, the architect Jože Plečnik worked in Ljubljana. He certainly left the strongest author’s mark on the city’s image; it is sometimes called Plečnik’s Ljubljana. An architect who remodeled the city after World War II was Edvard Ravnikar. Today, many excellent architectural offices are reshaping the city, primarily at its boundaries.
The Best of the Best | Architecture in Slovenia
Meg: Could you single out six examples of Ljubljana's architecture that you consider unique and noteworthy and explain why?
Špela: I will introduce six examples of Ljubljana's distinctive architecture, starting with the newest. First, a new Mosque was finished last year that was designed by Bevk Perović architects. It is a beautiful building designed in a modern and clear architectural language. Being big scale, it can be seen from different points of view from the edge of the city centre. This area had been degraded and the Mosque became a generator of development for the whole area. The importance of this project is also the demonstration of acceptance of different religions in Slovenia, which is mainly Christian.
A second example is the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Slovenia, built in 2000 by Sadar Vuga architects, a milestone in modern Slovenian architecture. Young architects won a competition and built a monumental and unconventional building, published in all important architectural magazines at the time.
Third, at the end of February 1942, the Italian fascists began to enclose Ljubljana within a barrier of barbed wire fence to separate the city from the hinterland. The ring around the city was 30 km long and remained until the end of the war. In 1985, the Path of Remembrance and Comradeship was completed, a path 4 meters wide and 33 km long. There are 7400 trees planted along the path, with 102 memorial stones in the positions of bunker signposts, informational boards and ground plaques. This path is a vibrant recreational area for the citizens all year round.
A fourth example is the Square of the Republic. Called the Square of the Revolution during the socialist period, it was designed as a new political centre of the socalist republic. This demonstrated the progress and new architectural approach achieved by the socialist society. Architect Edvard Ravnikar won a competition and created a Square with two tall buildings, symbolising a new gate to the city opposite of the parliament. Nearby he also built the Maximarket and Kongres centre Cankarjev dom. He connected all buildings around the Square with an underground network of passageways. The western side of the square ends in a park with a monument for the revolution.
My fifth example is a building on Miklošičeva street, the Cooperative Bank, built in 1922 by architect Ivan Vurnik. This building is important for Slovene architecture as it’s one of the rare examples of national style. The architect’s wife, Helena Kottler Vurnik, richly decorated the facade with segmented elements of windows. Garland stands out in stylised folk motifs in red, blue, white, and yellow colors. She also painted the interior walls on the ground floor.
Lastly, We can not forget architect Jože Plečnik, whose work marked the Ljubljana city centre. It’s difficult to choose just one from the wide range of buildings he created. Žale Cemetery is one of his most important buildings in Ljubljana. A monumental propylon with a two storey colonnade leads to a complex he called ''city of the dead.” Instead of a typical cemetery chapel design, he designed a park with chapels in different architectural styles; from a primitive tumulus to an antic temple, from a renaissance pavilion to a byzantine church. They are connected by footpaths with standing lamps, benches and wayside shrines. This work is innovative rethinking of classical cemetery architecture and one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the world.
Jože Plečnik | Architectural Influences
Meg: Jože Plečnik is considered to be a huge influence in Slovenian architecture. Can you share a little bit about him and his legacy?
Špela: The architectural period between the two World Wars was largely marked by architect Jože Plečnik. His personality, as well as his approach and allies at the Ljubljana construction office, gave him an opportunity to bring his ideas to reality. He had a vision of the great Ljubljana as the capital of all Slovenes.
Plečnik studied architecture in Vienna under professor Otto Wagner at the Academy of Fine Arts. His scope of skills included urban planning, landscaping, architecture, renovation, interior design, furniture design and applied arts. He designed a number of buildings in Vienna, Prague, Ljubljana and other parts of Slovenia and former Yugoslavia.
Modesty, deep Christian faith and devotion were Plečnik’s life principles and were present in both his professional and personal life. His works were often built with the use of inexpensive materials ranging from prefabricated industrial products, such as sewage pipes and steel gas pipes, concrete tiles to artificial stone, and remains from damaged houses. He respected clients and was careful with their budget. Through his whole career he followed his personal classical style and rejected modern architecture styles.
One destination not to be missed in Ljubljana is his house in Trnovo district. There, we can experience his attitude towards architecture and life; we could use the words “modest richness” to describe his home. The Plečnik brothers bought a simple house in 1915. Their intention was to form a home for the whole family, but in the end only Jože actually lived there.
After having bought the neighboring house and started renovations on both, he went on to gradually build several extensions, the most notable being the cylindrical annex built in 1924. He placed his bedroom on the ground floor. During World War II, he remodeled the first floor room as a drawing studio for his students. He later added a reception parlour on the north side and the winter garden in 1930. In the garden and the interior, we can find some elements from the construction of Plečnik’s projects. Jože Plečnik lived in his house until his death in 1957. The house was renovated in 2015 under guidance of architect Maruša Zorec.
In Ljubljana, we can find other interesting Plečnik buildings and landscape interventions. The most notable is his urban axis starting with his home in Trnovo, then the nearby Trnovo Bridge; Emonska and Vegova Street; renovation of the Roman Wall and not far away renovation of Monastery Križanke; the National and University Library, concluding in the Congress Square. In Ljubljana he also built two very interesting Churches, St Michaels on the Marshes and Church of St. Francis of Assisi in Šiška.
His selected opus in Ljubljana is currently in a procedure for inclusion in UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
How the Ljubljanica River Influenced Architecture in Slovenia
Meg: The Ljubljanica River is a distinctive feature of the city and has influenced its architecture. Can you share a few thoughts on how architecture has made the most of this natural feature of the landscape?
Špela: If we continue with Plečnik, he made a few interventions in the Ljubljanica River. Starting in Trnovo where he lived, he designed a long line of the Trnovski pristan embankment at the confluence of the Ljubljanica River and Gradaščica. As we continue to the city centre, Plečnik’s next intervention is Cobblers Bridge, designed as a square on the water with columns on the side.
His most important intervention on the river is the Triple Bridge. Plečnik was entrusted with the task for building a new bridge to replace the old one. He suggested preserving the old bridge and adding two pedestrian bridges, one on each side. All three bridges were furnished with identical balustrades to give the impression of three simultaneously built bridges.
In addition to Plečnik’s work along the banks of the Ljubljanica River is the Ljubljana Market. He designed the entire area to Dragon bridge. He designed this riverside site as a monument to the Roman city of Emona and its roofed trading area. Moreover, this monumental stroke followed the line of the medieval wall right along the Ljubljanica river. His last intervention on Ljubljanica River is Sluice Gate, a monumental structure lower down the river.
Ljubljana has changed a lot in terms of architectural and urbanistic style in the last 20 years, since Professor Janez Koželj became a city architect. He has changed Ljublana’s city centre by giving priority to pedestrians and bikers. Many new bridges were constructed to connect the two sides of the city centre and many embankment renovations were implemented.
The City of Dragons
Meg: Ljubljana is called the "city of dragons.” Can you explain the prevalence of the motif and its history and significance?
Špela: The legend about the dragon narrates the Greek hero Jason and his companions from the ship Argo as they were trying to escape from their pursuers. They took the wrong turn and found themselves at the mouth of the Danube River. From there, they continued up into the Sava River and on to the Ljubljanica River. Between present day Vrhnika and Ljubljana, the Argonauts discovered a large lake surrounded by marsh. It was on that lake that Jason fought and slew a terrible monster. This monster was the Ljubljana dragon which became the symbol of Ljubljana. Fortunately for Ljubljana and its people, dragon statues were erected on the Dragon bridge instead of the originally planned winged lions.
The Playful Architecture Project
Meg: Is there a project you've worked on that you are particularly proud of that you might describe?
Špela: In my career, I’ve worked on many interesting and different projects. Ten years ago, I started with my colleagues the Playful Architecture Project. Here, we work on several activities from workshops for children about architecture, to space and design; education for teachers; editing manuals, guided architectural tours for children, and more. I believe that architecture is one of the most important things in our life, since we spend every day in buildings. A designed environment influences our whole life, our well being and health. That’s why we need to educate our children so they will recognize the importance of the concept of space in their life.
Influences on Špela
Meg: Could you share a couple of particularly meaningful personal experiences that shaped your career/life in the context of culture/cultural heritage?
Špela: I think that space influences are very strong in our lives and also in our decisions. I lived in a house designed by an architect, which was not very often practiced in a socialist time. Most of the houses were made on standard general plans, which people adjusted in different variants. We had a huge terrace the size of a living room, where we spent a lot of time during the summer. This experience showed me how much private outdoor space is important for a quality life.
I also remember me and my sister’s room in the 70’s with vibrant colours. We had an orange floor, red bed covers, circle patterned green curtains, while the walls and furniture were all white. We had paintings from artist Henrik Marchel, who painted a few paintings just for our house. There was a big mural on the staircase in a 70’s abstract manner. The interior of our house definitely influenced my love of bright and strong colours and for the positive atmosphere.
I was strongly influenced by my primary school named France Prešeren in Kranj, planned by architect Stanko Kristl. This school is still amongst the best designed schools in Slovenia. I still remember bright classrooms with special systems for simple natural air conditioners; I remember patios that brought extra light into the corridors. I believe that quality space in which children spend a lot of time must be designed by the best architects possible, because it influences them so strongly.
I attended the high school for design and photography at the Monastery Križanke in Ljubljana which was renovated by Jože Plečnik. That place gave me the experience of living in an old building and awareness of how important it is to preserve old buildings with all layers that can bring reachness into the lives of users.
As an architect student, I have traveled a lot during my studies and later on. I’ve visited many countries and cities, which opened my horizons and expanded my architectural and personal world. Being open to different cultures is basic for being tolerant and broad-minded.
I must mention a very important person, who had a very strong influence on my view of architecture, Janez Koželj. He was my mentor in seminar during the 3rd, 4th and 5th year of my studies for architecture and my mentor for my final thesis. He introduced to me architecture as a way of life, not just as a profession. Second, he convinced me how important it is to think and act sustainable, years before sustainability became an important word in our everyday life.
Another part of life was introduced to me by architect Vojteh Ravnikar. Aside from the fact he was an excellent architect, he knew how to enjoy life. He worked hard, but also balanced it with relaxing moments with friends in pleasant restaurants, with good food and a glass of wine. This is another part of our culture, but not less important than architecture and art.
Young Love and Architecture
Meg: Your husband is also an architect. Could you share how the two of you met and a bit about his work, and whether the two of you collaborate?
Špela: We met in Vienna 34 years ago when I attended a German language course, just before I started my architectural studies. Robert came just for a weekend; Vienna is a common destination for Slovenians who love culture, interesting architecture, many museums and galleries. Plus, it’s only a three and a half hour drive from Ljubljana Slovenia. He had already finished his second year of architectural studies in Ljubljana. Since then, we have been inseparable. We have two sons, Vasja who is 20 years old and studies architecture, and Aljoša who is four years younger and going to school for design.
Robert started an architectural studio, called Ravnikar Potokar, with Vojteh Ravnikar in 1990. Since Vojteh passed away in 2010, Robert has led a studio with 10 architects in Ljubljana. They design mostly public buildings and urban spaces. He is also editor of the architectural magazine Piranesi and a visiting professor in faculty for architecture in Maribor.
Some projects I work on with him, usually the first idea stage. There was the Škocjanski zatok Nature Reserve, Public Bath Kolezija, renovation of the Kinodvor cinema, and more. We also work in the field of architectural promotion. In 2008, we wrote an architectural guide through Ljubljana called Let’s See the City. Our work together with designer Domen Fras was awarded for the most beautiful book of the year in the Ljubljana book fair in 2008.
Our latest project is the book The Stories of Slovene Architecture, published in 2020 by renowned Slovene publisher house Beletrina, also designed by Domen Fras. The book brings us closer to the history of Slovenian architecture. This is done through stories that include buildings, cities, squares, streets, architects and other artists. It outlines the background that contributed to the emergence of architecture and Slovenian space as we know it today.
The stories follow each other chronologically. We first enter the time of the pile-dwellers, and let ourselves be guided all the way to the architecture of the 21st century. Each story is an intertwining of facts and content connections to contemporary architecture and integration into space and time supported with rich photographic material. We hope that the translation in English will soon be released.
Independence from Yugoslavia Influences Architecture in Slovenia
Meg: Slovenia declared formal independence from Yugoslavia on June 25, 1991. Do you have any particular memories of this time period that might be insightful for future visitors, as far as the country's culture and history?
Špela: I remember Yugoslavia as a state of six Republics with rich culture and a multiethnical background. We were often traveling through the state; almost every Slovene family spent summer vacations on the Adriatic coast. It was hard to accept the fact that the Adriatic cost is no longer “ours” after the split from Yugoslavia. Our generation still looks on that period with some nostalgia at least on some aspects of life.
Architecture, for instance, was one of the important identities in socialist time first with modernism, later with brutalist architecture. The architecture from the period after the Second World War in Yugoslavia was introduced to a wider audience in 2018 through the global exhibition in New York City's MoMA, Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948–1980. It was a great success.
In 2019, I was co-curator of the exhibition and publication Architecture. Sculpture. Remembrance; The Art of Monuments of Yugoslavia 1945–1991, in collaboration with Gallery DESSA, ab-Architect's Bulletin magazine, as well as the platform Architectuul. We selected 33 monuments and memorial complexes from all the Republics and autonomous provinces of ex-Yugoslavia. The exhibition was prepared in collaboration with experts: authors, photographers, and institutions from the ex-Yugoslav region and beyond.
We wished to present and evaluate the exceptional architecture of the Yugoslav monuments, which aesthetic and structural innovation is enhanced by their idiosyncratic artistic expression. In the architecture and art of ex-Yugoslavia, the monuments to the victims of the People's Liberation War stand out. Through their extraordinary artistic language, they remind us of the dignity of human life and death. They are powerful markers of the once-common state's public open space or in an open field as landscape monuments.
Their unique architectural and artistic design has placed them on a field of timelessness which is not constrained by geographic and cultural borders, age, race, or political views. They were built and designed by Yugoslav architects and sculptors of the highest profile, such as Bogdan Bogdanović, Edvard Ravnikar, Vojin Bakić, Dušan Džamonja and many others. Instead of the regime's symbolism, their creations combined the present, the past, mystique, the elements of antique necropolises, ethnography and spatial poetics.
The Role of Architecture in Defining Culture
Meg: Culture means many things to many people. How do you define "culture" and what is the role of architecture?
Špela: I will focus on the architectural culture, which is a vital part of general culture, and about the importance of which I have been thinking about for a long time. I have been writing with my husband about architectural culture in the book The Stories of Slovene Architecture. Architects find that Slovenia is marked by poor architecture, which is often planned by people themselves, without architects. However, we are not surprised that this is the case, because knowledge of architecture, space and design is not part of general education. We can avoid any art, but architecture is always around us! That’s why it’s important to know architecture and to be aware of how strongly it affects us.
How often do we ask ourselves about the space we are in at the moment? What is our favorite place, do we know how to describe it, what is it that makes us love it? Is it the light, the view from the window, the height of the room or just a certain piece of furniture, plants or something else? How can knowing architecture help us design our home?
Perhaps the realization that the highest quality buildings were conceived and dreamed up by excellent architects, who in the creative process responded to the wishes of the clients and made the space tailored to them. It’s important that someone who has been involved in building design and studying architecture is more qualified to design the house or interior design than someone who seems to be able to do it on their own.
One of the important topics in Slovenia is also the protection of our cultural heritage. In our country, old buildings are too often demolished, for which the owners did not see a solution and the possibility of renovation for a modern way of living. But good architects, some trained only for renovations, can literally do wonders. The profession encourages people to preserve as many old buildings as possible to preserve the cultural heritage, which also strengthens the awareness of our national identity. And what is even more important in recent times, renovation is more sustainable than new constructions.