In the 1930s, Slovenia’s Jože Plečnik created a unique architecture utterly different from the prevailing style of the time – and changed the way we think about cities.

After Slovenia’s capital city of Ljubljana was devastated by an earthquake in 1895, an innovative architect reimagined the city in a way that not only improved it but set a standard for other European cities.

Slovene architect Jože Plečnik had already worked with notable designers of the era in Vienna and Prague before returning home to rebuild the capital in the 1930s. His plan was inspired by ancient Athens – he even called it “The Slovenian Acropolis”. Art historian Peter Krečičv explained that Plečnik’s design had direct analogies to ancient Athens: the Ljubljana Castle was the acropolis; the Žale cemetery was the necropolis; Congress Square was the agora, or gathering place; and Ljubljana’s market incorporated the stoa (a covered portico).

But Plečnik didn’t stop there; though Modernism and Functionalism were popular at the time, he wanted something different. “Both styles satisfied basic functions or needs but did not have the spiritual component Plečnik was looking for,” said Ana Porok, director of the Plečnik House Museum. So, inspired by ancient cultures, and by Baroque and Renaissance art, Plečnik created a unique architecture utterly different from the prevailing style of the time.

“Plečnik rearranged classical elements, such as columns, arches and wreaths. These were practically banned under Modernist orthodoxy,” said Krečičv. “Nevertheless, Plečnik uses them as the basis of his modern visual language.”

Plečnik also made the progressive decision to close the city centre to motorised traffic – something other European cities would not do for decades. Instead, he put pedestrians and public spaces first, creating a promenade for walking through the city (which passed by some of his other renowned designs, including the Slovene National and University Library) and along the Ljubljanica river, as well as many squares, parks and bridges.

“The city’s uniqueness is in the humanistic approach to its design: open spaces, streets, parks, and arrangements created for all people, and of course Plečnik’s timeless architecture, which can’t be found anywhere else,” said Porok.

Plečnik’s vision transformed Ljubljana and made it a prime example of how classical and modern styles could be combined to serve the people who lived there. In July 2021, Unesco recognised his achievement and inscribed his works in Ljubljana and his “human-centred design” on the World Heritage List. “What stands out isn’t a singular building, but rather the connection of his architecture with the city’s life,” Krečičv said. “This concept should inspire us when designing [cities] today.”

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