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6. 10. 2003

Successful Housing under Transitional Circumstances

Matevž Čelik
Slovenian housing in the shadow of policy

In the year 2002 Slovenian national architectural award, named after Jože Plečnik, the father of slovenian architecture and the founder of Ljubljana school of architecture, was granted to a project of two residential buildings in Ljubljana's old suburban quarter, forgotten and stuck between the city centre and the post-world war II suburban residential areas of the Yugoslavian socialist welfare.

At the occasion of this event many asked themselves, why two more or less conventional blocks of flats were awarded. The project brought no convention-shattering design and no "freshness" to those who stand for new young Slovenian architects, educated abroad in London and Rotterdam. On the other side there was also no citing of the old master Plečnik as well, inspite of his St. Francis church, situated right on the neighbouring site. Instead of that one might talk about a certain kind of intentional ignorance related to this architectural masterpiece; two simple cubes with upright windows. The truth is, that the concept of the awarded residential area contains much more. It's a result of acting, which is based on a great concern for the new residence inhabitants, diminished in the changing circumstances of the transition from one to the other form of economy.

Awarded architects Vasa Perović and Matija Bevk used different designing methods. They paid much attention especially to design of the facade, which is not considered as subject of attraction, but as a warm envelope, which you can partly open and close to the level you like. The architects developed precise details of the openings to protect the soft edges of the plaster and to hide the rails for the screen rolls. This fine and well-thought detail creates a simple and modest aesthetic expression of the two buildings. The whole site is designed as a nice garden with stripes of footpaths and greenery, which separates the two blocks, and creates a nice atmosphere between them. The famous Plečnik's church is considered only as scenery of high aesthetic quality behind a new unique living environment. Besides, this project is a proof that good quality is not a matter of expensive materials but of a well-organised space. For recent Slovenian situation this is a great achievement.

But from an aspect more distant to the architecture, a success in the housing business has even more different and important points of view. Not only the business point of view, which for investors in transition countries is the only important, or architectural, which we stand for. There is another point of view, from which especially young people cannot see a happy end of this real estate fairytale. There's also a political success, which is in this case very utilitarian. Politics should provide maximum good for everybody involved: the residents should get decent apartments for affordable money, designers, investors and building companies should make profit from their business and the politicians should get more votes. That's a simple recipe, which a successful politics should use to build a city skyline – a material expression of the culture and the image of a society.

In every state-housing policy there is a considerable part of a political interest. Even behind the iron curtain, governments always tried to at least maintain enough apartments for the working class. Just like in Slovenia, which used to be a part of this world. Before 1991 about 60% of the apartments in Slovenia were owned by the state and people rented them for an unreasonable small amounts of money. In 1991 Slovenian government passed a law, which enabled people to buy the apartments from the state for a price, which nowadays makes us laugh. That way the government established a free real-estate market, but it forgot to set rules and regulations to make this market working well. On the other hand the money earned on this apartments was not spent to build new ones. Public residential funds had no money to invest, but there were a lot of smaller private investors, who took a risk and started to build apartments.

But that was not easy to do. It was – and still is – very difficult to find a site to build on. On the other side there were many changes of laws about building and design practice. In this time no considerable urban planning was done. Old master plans were not useful in the time of new free market reality. So recent Slovenian residential architecture is not a part of large master plans. In most cases we speak about the projects for one or a couple apartment buildings. The other considerable problem is, that cities and towns also haven't invested much money in providing new infrastructure. Private investors were forced to invest money also in the infrastructure of the sites they were going to build on and that exposed their business to a greater risk than it seems on the first sight. To make this risk smaller many tried to compensate it by adding another floor or expanding the buildings to maximum. Considering all this troubles it is probably quite logical that after twelve years the prices of the apartments in Ljubljana got three times as high as they used to be.

There is still a lot to do to provide decent apartments for affordable money. Housing policy should consider the whole process of building: land management, planning, building and financial services for citizens. When all this is not well organised, there's always possibility of speculation which usually brings damage to everybody, except the one who speculates.

The problem to design a good housing in Slovenia is not really architectural. Young Slovenian architects are innovative and they go along with the latest world development in their practice. The real problem is a political. It's funny to develop new building types and new concepts of living, when you know the fact that there's still not enough done to build the apartments systematically.

So the selection for the Slovenian national architectural award might also be politically wise, because it was given to the project of housing, which after 1991 in Slovenia was – because of it's profitability – most exposed to uncontrolled greed of the developers and investors. In the time of so called "transition" it seemed like everybody forgot that residential areas speak most clearly about the level of development and culture of the residents and the whole country – about the way we understand the world and time we live in. From this point of view the award was not given only to the architects for their job well done. It should also be considered as a praise for the developer who was able to see the success in his business not only as a maximum profit from the apartments he sells, but as a sample project for his new customers.

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