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6. 10. 2003

Recent Architecture in Slovenia

Blaž Križnik
A quick in-sight for beginners

When talking about architecture in Slovenia, foreigners and Slovenians as well, first recall the architecture of architect Jože Plečnik. As the most known Slovenian architect he had put the country on the architectural world map next to such architects as Otto Wagner or Antonio Gaudi for instance, which were his contemporaries. On the other hand had Plečnik succeeded to establish architecture as part of Slovenian culture and identity. After all, Slovenia is one among few countries that have an architect on a national banknote, which maybe illustrates well, how Slovenians feel about Plečnik. Yet identities in a runaway world today seem rather constructed than inherited and global influences get easily mixed with local traditions and practices. Thus very recent architecture in Slovenia shows little, if any, ties with its own architectural tradition and heritage.

In order to understand a broader context influencing contemporary architecture in Slovenia, one has to go beyond developments within the architectural profession itself. It becomes necessary to understand what substantial transformations Slovenian society has undergone in the beginning of the nineties. With the constitution of the independent state in 1991, the change of political system from one-party communist regime towards social democracy was followed by transition from socialist-controlled economy to a neo-liberal capitalist production. Some sociologists even came to claim that we started to live ‘in an economy’ rather than ‘in a society.’ Although such a notion may seem somehow exaggerated - Slovenia is still considered to be a rather successful social state today – it is true that in the nineties economy began essentially to influence and determine every part of our society, including the architecture. Values such as materialism and individualism praised in everyday life have become very much present in architecture too.

Two important shifts directly related to the production of space and architecture occurred in the past decade. During the transitional period in the early nineties the old spatial plans were abandoned because of either political reasons or they have simply become outdated. At the same time new regulations and plans were not prepared or were delayed. Such a vague situation was, and still is, a breeding ground for market speculations particularly in Slovenia’s capital, the city of Ljubljana, where most of money – and architects as well – are concentrated. A city cannot but reflect conditions, where traditional coherence of an urban landscape is being eroded by turbo economic developments looking for new investment opportunities, rigid regulations in historical city centre, its chronic traffic inaccessibility and numerous changes occurring in the society. The peripheral zones of Ljubljana have recently prospered a lot, whereas the old historical town is loosing its central position.

The second shift is related to the source of the invested capital. In the sixties and seventies for instance, the state was the main and often the only important investor related to the production of architecture. At that time the country was experiencing an economic boom caused by liberalisation of former centrally planned socialistic economy and it is not surprising that the period of the late sixties and seventies may still be considered as ‘the golden age’ of modern architecture in Slovenia. Often commissioned by the state and thus working with higher budgets, architects like Edvard Ravnikar, Milan Mihelič, Savin Sever, Oton Jugovec and others have created some of the ‘heroic’ buildings of Slovenian architecture. Much of their work still represents important references for contemporary architectural production.

Yet blossoming economy was not the only cause for prosperity of architectural development – in the late sixties and seventies the architectural discourse was simultaneously very much part of the broader political and social debate, thus having an important position within a public sphere. Later, following the general crisis in society, which had culminated in the late eighties with the collapse of the former federal state, architectural profession got into deep trouble too. Postmodernism proved itself of not being capable to provide all the answers and architects were diligently looking for the ‘true origins of profession’ within the very discipline. Even nowadays the architectural discourse is often shrunk in a same way to a kind of insiders self-sufficient debating clubs, where professional and political elites in a ‘top-down’ manner discus the so-called ‘public interest’ and the role of architecture.

The state nonetheless continues to remain an important investor, yet private capital has gained the ground on the market substantially. On one hand the state invests mainly in transport, energy and social infrastructure – a lot of schools or sport facilities for instance have been recently built, ambitious state programmes for national freeway network and electricity works are under construction – on the other hand private capital is mostly busy investing in offices, shopping malls, multiplex cinemas, hotels etc. In many cases the budgets are often very tight and economic efficiency of a project is their prime concern. Another important and hot issue coming up recently is a housing problem, which is elaborated in another article by Matevž Čelik later in this issue.

Though it may sound paradoxical but it is these very same economic constraints and this unpredictable chaotic character of the suburbia that inspire and challenge some young architectural practices to accept the dirty reality as hard facts of the architectural design process - to go beyond market demands and come up with new provocative plans and fresh architectural solutions. It is probably not a coincidence that most of the architects belonging to the younger generation have completed their professional training abroad, in London, Amsterdam, Barcelona or Helsinki. In this way they were influenced not only by different cultural attitudes and concepts in architecture – studying abroad they have also developed a more reflexive and critical views towards Slovenian reality in general and Slovenian architecture in particular. There is little romanticism left concerning the past architectural tradition and culture.

Architectural practices such as Sadar Vuga arhitekti, A.biro, Bevk in Perović arhitekti or Enota have all in common a fresh and pragmatic architectural approach. An interdisciplinary work with different in-field specialists represents a driving force behind the design process, in which they frequently use diagrams as precise tools of communication with various parties involved. Design process as well becomes a matter of negotiation. Such architecture may be characterised as superficial and neutral, smooth and emphasizes direct sensorial experience of space, material and light. Buildings like the Chamber of Commerce in Ljubljana, the most frequently published recent architectural work in Slovenia designed by Sadar Vuga arhitekti, then the Primary School in Kočevje, designed by Nicholas Dodd, Tadej Glažar, Vasa Perović and Arne Vehovar or the Baumaxx Shopping Mall in Maribor, done by a Croatian Zagreb-based office Njirić+Njirić arhitekti somehow embody this attitude in a most radical way and thus represent an important break-through in recent architectural production in Slovenia.

Yet one might ask, what differs these buildings and such approach from the architecture built elsewhere in Europe? Talking about her project for the Stadstheater in Almeere, the Netherlands, the Japanese architect Kezuyo Seijima for instance explained that her building will be ‘very Dutch.’ Though the project is easily recognizable as ‘a Seijima project,’ the architect claims that the project is quite different as if it was built in Japan, referring by this to specific local Dutch practices, which are influencing the design process and its construction. Is it possible to claim the same for the recent architecture in Slovenia? Is there something unique that distincts architecture in Slovenia from other European contemporary architecture?

At this point it makes little sense to theorize more. It also brings no good, when trying to create some kind of overview of all interesting buildings recently built in Slovenia. Such selection of works would in any case be personal and subjective, which basically contradicts the idea of an objective overview. Rather than an overview of contemporary architecture in Slovenia two recent projects have been chosen, which at least in my opinion reflect the social, economical and spatial context of Slovenia and thus they represent the very embodiment of the current state of architecture. Maybe one may even say that the two buildings are somehow emblematic for the contemporary architecture in Slovenia.

The first one is Arcadia Lightwear Exhibition and Office building designed by Sadar Vuga arhitekti and the other is Šmartinka Multipurpose Building designed by Matej Blenkuš and Miloš Florjančič (A.biro). Both were build recently in Ljubljana at the outskirts of the city in a rather fast developing areas extending along the main roads. If the Šmartinka building still relates itself partially to the chaotic suburban surrounding, than the Arcadia building distances itself completely from it. In both cases the buildings have a simple, clear almost modest appearance, which on the other hand hides a complex content and organisation of the programme – an exhibition room, storage, office and a penthouse apartment in the case of Arcadia or shops, offices and luxurious duplex dwellings in the case of Šmartinka. Both buildings are in fact designed to be economically highly efficient, bringing as much profit as possible from the formerly undervalued undeveloped location. Whereas Arcadia was build by a smaller private company, banned previously out from its former location in the city centre, Šmartinka was build for the market by the company actually constructing it. In fact the apartments on the top of Šmartinka were sold immediately, returning part of invested money and leaving space for offices and shops to wait for better deals. If the very concept of Arcadia is what the architects call ‘conducted path’, a linear path offering different sensations leading from the parking on the ground to the apartment on top, then Šmartinka brings multiple paths organized in a very complex manner, which makes it possible for different programmes to operate simultaneously.

It is not surprising that both projects received not just a lot of professional but much of a public attention too. Architecture in Slovenia seems to be re-entering the realm of public sphere debate. Whatever (or whom) the two may represent at the moment.

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Članek je bil objavljen v prilogi o slovenski arhitekturi v 3. številki turške revije Portfolyo. Portfolyo izhaja vsake 3 mesece v Carigradu ureja pa ga Meral Ekincioglu.

Arcadia Office Building, Ljubljana
Sadar&Vuga arhitekti

Baumaxx Shopping Mall, Maribor

Slovenian Chamber of Commerce, Ljubljana
Sadar&Vuga arhitekti

Primary School, Kocevje
Nicholas Dodd, Tadej Glažar, Vasa Perović and Arne Vehovar

Šmartinka Multipurpose Building, Ljubljana
Matej Blenkuš and Miloš Florjančič (A.biro)

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