Same Old, New Old: How Traditional Values Keep Slovenian Design Innovating

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Human-focused, staying resourceful, always talking: At Ljubljana’s Museum of Architecture and Design, old-school ways of thinking feel fresher than ever.

What do an oven in the middle of a forest, a church with sewage pipes for columns and a folding plywood chair all have in common?

You’ll only find them in Slovenia, where innovation, pragmatism, a belief in dialogue and a focus on people have been energising architecture and design for a nearly a century.

Matevž Čelik, the Director of Ljubljana’s Museum of Architecture and Design (MAO), and Maja Vardjan, curator of architecture and design at MAO and the co-curator of the 2017 edition of Ljubljana’s Design Biennial, are uniquely positioned to talk about the pioneering nature of Slovenian architecture and design. Guardians of Slovenia’s design heritage, they’re also leading the way in making it relevant for the future.

Maja Vardjan & Matevž Čelik – images courtesy of Tomas Skale for Dnevnik & Leon Vidic for Delo

Slovenia has a rich architectural and design heritage dating back to the early 20 century. Today’s talent owes a great debt to one designer in particular, Jože Plečnik, whose unique style emerged during his involvement with the Vienna Secession art movement at the end of the 19th century. After making his name in Vienna, Plečnik worked on prestigious projects in Prague, before returning to his birthplace of Ljubljana in 1921. He became a founding member and professor at the city’s School of

Architecture, where he taught until 1956, the year before his death.

The mark of Plečnik’s human-centered approach

No one has shaped Ljubljana like Plečnik. His improvements to the city’s public spaces and his many iconic structures, from the famous Triple Bridge, to the city centre’s riverbanks, its covered market and the National and University Library are an essential part of the city’s fabric. As a teacher, he also profoundly influenced a way of thinking about architecture and design that endures today.

Plečnik’s human-centered design is difficult to transfer into today’s world, yet his approach was resolutely contemporary

“Plečnik was unique in his way of thinking, the way he was structuring the city and spaces,” says Vardjan. “You cannot easily copy or transfer his ideas into new work,” she says, but “even today you can still feel his approach.” Čelik describes this simply as “human centered”, while for Vardjan it was about seeing architecture everywhere, in “everything from the spoon to the urban plan”.

Thinking up Ljubljana’s future quality of life

When Plečnik arrived in Ljubljana in 1921, he was faced with a city that was much poorer than Vienna or Prague, with no overall strategy for the city’s design. At the School of Architecture, he drew up a plan to change it based on his own experience of moving through the city, walking from his house to the centre, to the university, or along the river.

“From today’s perspective it was really contemporary,” says Čelik. “Now we want our cities to be more pedestrian-friendly, but he already did this a long time ago.” While this master plan was never officially adopted, in practical terms he transformed the city with his many interventions and improvements.

Central to Plečnik’s practice were nature, and easy access: most of Ljubljana was pedestrian well before any other European capital

Plečnik reconsidered how people move through buildings, conceiving it as “a series of spatial sequences”.

Čelik points to the National Library design as an example of how beguiling and revelatory this approach could be. For such a large building, the library has a surprisingly small entrance that takes you into “quite a small, dark, lobby without much daylight,” says Čelik. From the lobby, however, “you see a staircase built of black marble, the top of which is bathed in natural light emanating from the reading room. You slowly walk up this staircase and enter the large reading room, which feels very domestic because you enter under the bridges connecting the bookshelves. It feels nice and homey; there’s a wooden floor and wooden furniture. But then you walk along the reading room and you notice that you have entered a ‘church’: it’s really a great, monumental room with large windows on both sides.”

Ljubljana’s National Library, designed by Plečnik – images courtesy of the NUK

Another design value Plečnik prized was resourcefulness: extracting the best from whatever was available. This is perhaps best celebrated in his design for the Church of St Michael in Črna Vas, built on Ljubljana’s southern outskirts. To deal with the marshy ground, Plečnik decided to put the church itself on the building’s first floor, accessed via a grand external staircase. “It’s monumental, like you’re climbing into heaven,” says Čelik. The church itself is mostly made of wood from local villages, and is reminiscent of a Japanese Shinto temple.

“The materials are very cheap, things that were accessible at the time. The roof is supported by round, concrete columns that had actually been manufactured to be used as sewage pipes.” As well as using cheap, readily available materials, Plečnik would often reuse elements from old buildings. He also regularly collaborated with local craftsmen on details like door handles.

The Church of St Michael in the outskirts of Ljubljana – images courtesy of Gili Merin/Divisare

Innovation, resourcefulness & exchange: the language of Slovenian design

As Plečnik grew older, innovation and resourcefulness became the principal values of

Slovenian design, thriving in the face of war and the rise of Soviet Russia.

After the Second World War there was an extensive period of modernisation and urbanisation and large factories invested heavily in design. In 1948, Yugoslavia broke away from hard-line Communism of Soviet Russia, adopting a policy that favoured exchange with the West.

“It was socialism but with some Western-oriented market concepts,” explains Čelik. “Artists were allowed to take an experimental approach. Yugoslavia tried to present itself as a modern country. Radical concepts in architecture were really appreciated.”

The REX folding chair by Niko Kralj – images courtesy of Janez Kališnik/MAO

Slovenian designers created enduring classics such as the REX folding chair, made for the Stol Kamnik furniture factory out of moulded, perforated plywood. It was designed by Niko Kralj in 1952 and is now in the collection of the Designmuseum in Denmark and the MoMA in New York, as well as that of Ljubljana’s own MAO.

The policy of exchange led to the world’s first design biennial, launched in 1963 by the Museum of Architecture and Design in Ljubljana. Rather than simply offering a showcase of Slovenian designers’ achievements, the biennial—also known as BIO— functioned as “a kind of comparative exhibition of good design” says Vardjan. “Countries from both the East and West met here in Ljubljana and exchanged knowledge. It was a very important event.”

Reimagining the world’s longest-running design biennal

More than 50 years later, now under Čelik and Vardjan’s guidance, the BIO has regained international prominence, with last year’s event rated by Metropolis magazine as one of the ten best shows of 2017. Since 2014, BIO’s focus has returned to experimentation and exploration of new ideas, not simply presenting existing products. “Everything we do at the biennial is produced and new, with a critical perspective on how we live today,” says Vardjan.

Countryside reloaded, one of the episodes of BIO 25, illustrates the avant-garde experiments of Ljubljana’s design biennal – images courtesy of Delfino Sisto Legnani & Marco Cappelletti / BIO 25

For the 2017 edition, Vardjan and her co-curator Angela Rui took the biennial out into the countryside, setting up collaborations between local and international designers, curators and experts from outside design. One of these experiments led to the installation of a large Matali Crasset-designed tiled wood stove—the kind traditionally used to heat Slovenian homes—in a structure the forest of Kočevje. The unusual structure serves as a local meeting place, a bench, a bread oven, a picnic spot, a place to warm up after a chilly morning mushroom-hunting.

An experimental, ideas-based approach remains the trend in Ljubljana, with local designers asking the bigger questions about how to use design to improve people’s lives.

A project from the Future of Architecture Platform, of which BIO is part of, to support the best and newest in design throughout Europe

Partly due to the 2008 financial crisis, from which Slovenia has only recently started to recover, local talent has once again had to become resourceful. This has resulted in multidisciplinary studios functioning like co-operatives of young designers, and in new graduates taking a ‘guerilla’ approach, designing, producing and distributing their product on their own, often with the help of crowd-funding. Meanwhile, architects who went to work abroad are now returning with invigorating new ideas.

Čelik has become particularly aware of these changes with his involvement with The Future Architecture Platform, a Europe-wide initiative he has been leading for the past three years. The programme seeks to build relationships between up-and-coming architects and cultural institutions like museums and design fairs, to help develop their proposals.

For Čelik, what is clear is that architects are today preoccupied not so much with where, as how, we live. “A lot of the proposals are trying to address problems that are larger than architecture, “ he says. “They are aware that politics and global change have an impact on architecture in the end.”

That sounds like the kind of initiative that Jože Plečnik would surely have approved of.

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