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22 September 2016

Plečnik House in Ljubljana

An intimate tour through the renovated home of Jože Plečnik

The Slovenian architect Jože Plečnik (1872–1957) left a significant mark on three European capital cities: Vienna and Prague, and especially his native city of Ljubljana. He worked there from 1921 until his death and largely realised his vision of a city transformed into the national capital based on Classical models.

Ana Porok, Curator of Architecture and Design of the Plečnik Collection based at the Museum and galleries of Ljubljana, gives us an intimate look into his recently restored house.

Photo MGML Archive

Plečnik’s home is a complex of houses located at 4–6 Karunova Street in Trnovo that Jože Plečnik marked with original links among the structures initially intended for the family living quarters. Plečnik’s original architectural idiom resulted from his assiduous studies of classical antiquity, from remodelling classical architectural elements and testing a variety of building elements and their combinations as well as from applications in his own home of prototypes deriving from various projects.

Photo MGML Archive

Plečnik never raised his own family. For him, creativity was the most precious value, and he maintained his creative freedom by pursuing a solitary life. He himself dubbed the house in which he lived from 1921 until his death in 1957 “a testing hotbed”. Many of architectural experiments from Trnovo were later applied to other projects. Alongside the renovation of the house, Jože Plečnik planned to situate his drawing room on one of the storeys of the added tower, in a big round room with large windows facing the garden. Here as well as in the other rooms of the house where he lived an obstinate life of a man dedicated to art and creativity, he produced visions and plans for the renovation of Ljubljana.

The complex of Plečnik’s houses is today a cultural monument of national importance. After Jože Plečnik’s death, his legacy was carefully taken care of by the architect’s nephew. Upon his death, the property and all the original furnishings were purchased by the City of Ljubljana. In 1972, the city established the Ljubljana Museum of Architecture, with the house first opening up to the general public as a museum in 1974. After the complex was designated as a nationally important monument, the responsibility for managing Plečnik’s house was given to the Museum and Galleries of Ljubljana in 2010. Since the recent integral and interdisciplinary renovation, done between 2013 and 2015, this unique museum is now complemented by a new museum exhibition about Plečnik’s work and life, a study centre and newly arranged areas for temporary exhibitions, presentations and educational programmes for varied focus groups. With the renovation, the Plečnik House became a starting point for the exploration of Plečnik’s Ljubljana and the creative spirit of the great master – an icon of the Slovenian capital.

Plečnik's house today. Photo M. Paternoster / MGML

The intention of all bodies included in the renovation was to present Plečnik's house in the original form Plečnik left it in 1957. Of great help to the reconstruction were documentary photographs taken soon after his death.

Photo M. Paternoster / MGML

Plečnik's house at 4 Karunova Street is located just 1 metre away from a vast parish church garden. From the street side of Karunova street the brick façade with inserted details of cut stone from different periods draws attention to the fact that this is the house of an artist. Plečnik designed the façade in the 1930s with the help of his student Edvard Mihevc.
Through the iron gate in the northern part of the house a path leads us to the main entrance in the house. The pavement consists of concrete panels left over from construction of the stadium, while the roofing is made of cheap undulating asbestos shingles; the artist thereby simply did away with the annoying cleaning of snow and ensured dry access to the entrance.

Before and after the restoration. Photo MGML Archive. M. Paternoster / MGML

The entrance veranda was arranged in 1927, and at first it had an opening in the wooden roofing which is now indicated by a dormer. Plečnik wanted to create the impression of the atrium of a Roman house, and along the wall of the old house he planted vines and ivy, which are still growing today. Upon entering the room, the visitor is overwhelmed by the monumentality of the columns, erected in three pairs along the longitudinal walls. Plečnik was always interested in the motif of the column erected beside a glass wall. Numerous objects are arranged around us, with each carrying their own interesting story. To the left of the door a stone base carries the sculpture of St. Joseph, the work of the sculptor Božo Pengov, which originally adorned the altar of the pavilion of Jožamurka in the park of the Begunje castle in the Gorenjska region; it was brought from there to Plečnik's house after the Second World War. During the warmer months, Plečnik liked to chat with his closest friends on the wooden bench beside a simple table whose surface is made of Podpeč stone. Different capitals placed one upon the other serve as the table's foot.
All around lie different samples of stone, older architectural fragments, Roman tegulas and other finds from ancient Emona, statuettes, clay and plaster models. The image of the crucified Saviour placed on a wall draws special attention and speaks of his deep religiousness. Božo Pengov designed the sculpture along with the two angels fixed to the column beside the wall.
Several steps lead to the house's entrance door that brings us to the long hallway of Plečnik's extension to the old house. The space axis concludes with the conservatory on the southern side of the house, which was built in 1929.

Before the restoration. Photo MGML Archive
After the restoration. Photo M. Paternoster / MGML

Across from a wooden staircase, the door on the left side of the hall brings us to a modestly furnished kitchen, positioned in the old part of the house. Beside the brick stove, Plečnik himself designed the few pieces of furniture in the kitchen: chairs, a simple cupboard and a low chest of drawers covered with a heavy stone plate. He particularly liked the chair with a foldable shelf placed in the corner by the stove, where he liked to warm himself, do sketches and read. Also very special is the washbasin placed in the corner and made from artificial stone.
From the kitchen we step back into the hallway and through a double door straight into the rounded space of his study and bedroom, which are the areas the architect's personality left the greatest impact on.

Photo M. Paternoster / MGML

Attention is drawn by the wooden architrave leaning on the portals of the hidden wardrobe on one side of the room and the bathroom on the other and symbolically dividing the room into the sleeping and working parts. The motif is taken from Etruscan architecture. The large working surface of the table, leaning on sawhorses, and fixed with a vertical wooden panel, is covered with numerous paraphernalia: the drawing kit, different clay models, little boxes, guidebooks, little bottles and his famous wide-brimmed, black hat. There is also a box of Drava cigarettes and a coffee cup, his indispensable accompaniment during the long hours of designing. Among the objects there is even a tennis ball, which was his dog Sivko's toy. The right-hand part of the table is marked by the stylised bronze head of an eagle with wings and a cross, ornamented in semi-precious stones and standing on a base of Podpeč stone. A lamp veiled with fabric dominates the table’s left corner.
A modest bed is placed opposite the table with the headpiece facing east, and above it there is an in-built closet containing a rich library. He was interested in books and journals concerned with the history of art, primarily architecture. There is more room for books on the shelves and in concealed closets under and in between the windows on the western side of the room. By the bed there is an interesting brick furnace in the shape of a section of an ellipse; Plečnik himself designed the tiles.

Before the restoration. Photo MGML Archive. After the restoration. A Peunik / MGML

From the oval room one step leads to a small room where a bathroom is arranged. According to Plečnik's idea, this place was originally meant to be the bedroom in the shape of a monk's cell. Instead of washing in the bathtub that was built in at a later time, he preferred to wash with water from jugs, according to the Kneipp method. The furnace and the wardrobe are beautiful examples of his approach to design, which stems from the natural language of the material and shows sensible use of the form. Particularly original is the design of the wardrobe with its decorative hardware fittings and foldable shelves designed for keeping underwear.

Photo M. Paternoster / MGML

From the round room described above, we re-enter the hallway whose axis links the entrance veranda with the conservatory. Plečnik hung a simple, one-wing cross with the figure of the Saviour above the passage to the conservatory. On the right wall there is a graphic portrait of his teacher Otto Wagner with his famous motto: ARTIS SOLA DOMINA NECESSITAS and the year 1900. The opposite wall carries the photograph of the Greek temple in Paestum, a gift from Alice Masarykova. The washbasin in the hall indicates the entrance to the lavatory on the left. Just in front of the staircase a coat hanger is fastened with adjustable pegs for hats, a typical example of late historical furniture.

Photo M. Paternoster / MGML

Plečnik received his rare guests in the small reception room. The walls are covered in pine panelling up to the ceiling, which makes the room look homely and warm. By the southern window two built-in closets are hidden, one to the right and one to the left. Beside the improvised table there are only two chairs, and in the corner there is a prototype of the chair designed for the meeting room of the Mutual Insurance Company (Vzajemna zavarovalnica). The table is adorned with an outstanding bronze sculpture of a dragon on a tower that Plečnik designed for the plaque of the Honourable Citizen of Ljubljana, which he himself was awarded in 1939. A metal chandelier on the ceiling belongs to Plečnik's Viennese period that was marked by the Secession. Behind the door there is a special built-in brick furnace with a built-in oblong metal water heater in its central part. When the furnace warmed up, the water also became warm. At the side of it there is a comfortable bench with Plečnik's spinning wheel from planed wood in the corner. The walls are decorated with two of Plečnik's portraits in charcoal, the first is signed by his Viennese friend Josef Engelhardt (in 1908), and the second, hung behind the door, was made by Ferdinand Andri (in 1905) and was created as a draft for the picture of St. Paul. Most of the furniture and internal equipment designed by Plečnik in 1927–1928 is made of pinewood.

Photo M. Paternoster / MGML

The window on the eastern wall is veiled by round stained glass inserted into a wooden frame. On sunny mornings a mystical light floods the room. This wall carries different gifts from Plečnik's friends: Matko Prelovšek gave him a cuckoo clock, and Niko Sadnikar, an antiquities collector from Kamnik, gave him a picture with a view of Velesovo and a metal bas-relief from the Mekinje monastery.
On the opposite side of the small reception area at the end of the hall, the surprisingly high and bright space of the staircase opens up on the right side. The circular staircase moves around its cylindrical centre, and most light comes through the window in the southern wall. The walls are ornamented with two wooden frames each with nine fields filled with photographs of masterpieces of antique and Renaissance Italian architecture. Plečnik brought them from his study trip to Italy, where he resided in 1898 using the grant he had been awarded with for being the best graduate under professor Otto Wagner.
In the corner of the staircase there is a statuette of the Czech royal lion on a sphere, fixed to the top of a tall metal stick with a heavy marble plate serving as the base. The wall is also adorned with two white Secession wooden frames with two-minute pictures under the thick-cut glass.

Photo M. Paternoster / MGML

Plečnik arranged several wooden and plaster scale models and clay models on top of the wooden staircase railing. Particularly beautiful is the statuette of St. George. He received it in 1932 as a present for his 60th anniversary, and Anton Suhadolc made the wooden base for it. On the upper floor level there is a ring going around the staircase cylinder, with an arrangement of different decorative plants.
At the top of the staircase there is a door on the right side leading to the small study that served Plečnik as a depository for his designs. Later, the room was used as a study by his nephew Karel Matkovič, who had moved into the house after Plečnik's death. In the room wooden shelves are placed on ingeniously built metal holders. A photographic portrait of Plečnik’s mother Helena to whom Plečnik was particularly attached also embellishes the wall. By the southern window there is an interesting, adjustable bed and a metal flower stand crowned at the top by a sculpture of the Ljubljana dragon.
Beside the study on the right side of the hallway there is the lavatory with an enamelled washbasin fixed to the wall in the hall in front of the door.
On the left side, there is the entrance to the upper round room designed for Plečnik's younger brother Janez. To the right of the entrance to the room there are two in-built triangular closets reaching into the space with their narrow sides. Between them, Plečnik placed his brother's bed and later replaced it with a large study table. Originally, the centre of the room was occupied by Janez' piano. After his departure, Plečnik arranged the drafting room here and placed a work desk in it. The design of the wooden ceiling is interesting for its use of dynamically twisted cassette fields.

Photo M. Paternoster / MGML

When in 1943 the Germans closed the door of the Faculty by force, Plečnik arranged the drafting room in this room, where during the Second World War his students came to draw. During that time, some tables were brought there from the Faculty of Architecture, along with some chairs and also a part of the library. Different objects displayed on the desks attract the view. Apart from drawing utensils: rulers, curve rulers, pencils, inks, brushes, ink bottles etc., a table light and a brass coffee grinder can be found.

Photo M. Paternoster / MGML

High wardrobes stand to the left by the entrance, and behind them there is a door to the small study whose equipment was not preserved. From the study there is the exit to the balcony, where a beautiful view of the garden opens up to the west.
The round room is also decorated with a tall cylindrical brick furnace. Under the four windows looking to the west, there is room for drawers and bookshelves.
The house is marked by the master's constant research spirit and asceticism, and many an architectural experiment later turned out to be the right solution for his later work. In his report to Suhadolc, Plečnik himself calls his house an »experimental mistbeet – not a building«, that is, a testing hotbed. He tested different combinations of home-produced materials and their treatments, as equipment he often used construction elements and prototypes of his other projects.

Before the restoration. Photo MGML Archive
After the restoration. Photo M. Paternoster / MGML

A fine example is his conservatory that he built adjacent to the house in 1929 on its southern side. From the dark staircase leading to the basement, a low passage with a semi-circular arch leads to the conservatory. Plečnik had to break through the southern wall of the house to make the connection. The window frames from reinforced concrete are placed on a low cornice with the necessary reinforcement at the corners. The four pillars in front of the glass wall were planned for the staircase of the People's Savings and Loans Bank in Celje that was then being built. The winter garden was paved in veneziana, where he composed a mosaic of different patterns of stones from nearby quarries. Further, he placed a hot air furnace made from red brick in the place with a stylised vase beside the hearth firebox. This is how he maintained an adequate temperature so that the Mediterranean plants he liked so much could also be kept alive on cold winter days.
He placed the exit to the garden on the northern side against the wall of the extension. Along the roof of the conservatory he trained a line of the grapevine; Emilija Fon from Kostanjevica upon Krka had provided him with different sorts of seedlings. The whole front of the extension was made green with the wild vine that typically changes its colour in different seasons of the year.

Photo M. Paternoster / MGML

Under the overhang of the circular tower on the northern side, the minimised bas-relief of an Atlantis is symbolically built in, which is the work of the sculptor Franz Metzner who worked with Plečnik on the construction of Zacherl's house in Vienna (1903–1905).

Photo M. Paternoster / MGML

On the western side of the house he paved a courtyard with the remains of stone plates of irregular shapes. Next to the extension there is a stone pillar with a vase that serves as a drinking trough for birds. On the border with the parish garden, he put one of the many pillars from Cobbler's bridge, concluded with an iron cross at the top.
Soon after the First World War, the well-known writer Fran Saleški Finžgar came to Trnovo as a priest. A deep friendship developed between him and Plečnik. They thought there should be no fences between good friends, which is why they did not renovate the fence that used to separate the parish garden from that of Plečnik. Finžgar often came for a visit. Plečnik liked his simple colloquial language, full of sayings and ingenuities, and his enthusiasm for any spiritual work.

Photo M. Paternoster / MGML

From the house straight paths lead to the garden that stretches to the west. They are edged with simple concrete water pipes, with the central one leading past the rock garden on one side and the beehive on the other to the vegetable garden. This is how the garden gradually passes from architectural orderliness to nature. For Plečnik, the garden was a place of rest and inspiration.

Photo M. Paternoster / MGML

Even today, Plečnik's house is considered a unique place in memory of this extraordinary artist, as well as a place of inspiration for different generations that know how to tune in to the numerous stories it tells.

The complete renovation of Plečnik’s home from the documentation to the museum layout took eight years, while the renovation of the house itself took two years (2013–2015).
Investor: Municipality of Ljubljana
Co-financing: Ministry of Culture, European Regional Development Fund
Project Manager: Jerneja Batič
Head Conservator: Irena Vesel, Institute for the Protection of Cultural Heritage of Slovenia, Regional Unit Ljubljana
Design and Planning: Arrea, arhitektura, d.o.o., Maruša Zorec, Maša Živec
Head Conservator of the garden: Darja Pergovnik, Institute for the Protection of Cultural Heritage of Slovenia, Regional Unit Ljubljana
Design and Planning of the garden: AKKA, d.o.o., Ana Kučan, Mojca Kumer
Conservation and restoration of the materials: Conservation Services of the MGML: Katarina Toman Kracina, Maja Banovič, Janja Gojkovič, Bojana Zavodnik
Conservation and restoration supervision: Mateja Kavčič from the Institute for the Protection of Cultural Heritage of Slovenia, Restoration Centre
Permanent exhibition: PLEČNIK
Producer: Museum & Galleries of Ljubljana, represented by Blaž Peršin, Director
Project manager: Maja Kovač
Creator of the exhibition Plečnik: Ana Porok

Publication date 22 September 2016