PRINT January 2023



Jože Plečnik, Church of the Most Sacred Heart of Our Lord, 1932, Prague. Photo: Nº8/Flickr.

WHAT IS IMPRACTICAL can never be beautiful,” architect Otto Wagner, one of the guiding forces of the Vienna Secession, wrote in his 1896 book Modern Architecture. And yet it’s hard to apply the rubric of practicality to the triple bridge at the heart of Ljubljana. The unconventional arrangement—a more traditional central thoroughfare flanked on either side by a scrawnier, slightly askew counterpart, like a blue whale and her two calves—was designed by Wagner’s Slovenian protégé Jože Plečnik (1872–1957), who used what he learned in Vienna to breathe new life into the Slovenian capital’s urban center. As strategic with open spaces as he was with built environments, the architect plotted out three central axes coursing through the city: the waterways, with their wide, terraced embankments and embarrassment of bridges; the cultural artery, which connected the university library and the philharmonic concert hall with several churches (as well as Plečnik’s own house in the suburb of Trnovo); and the symbolic axis, which carved a vantage point from the city’s fifteenth-century castle up through the Tivoli Park and its Jakopič promenade, refitted by Plečnik with his own terrazzo lampposts and now-iconic benches. The architect had intended the park as the site of his Slovenian parliament building, the Cathedral of Freedom, whose squat cylindrical core was to be topped by a large conical tower that would give the ensemble the appearance of a hunkered-down garden gnome. The design was never realized, and today the broad pedestrian avenue offers an unimpeded view of the Tivoli mansion, home to the International Centre of Graphic Arts.

While the city of Ljubljana could rightfully be considered Plečnik’s masterpiece, the architect’s projects also bind him to Prague, where he reconfigured the castle grounds, and Vienna, where, as a member of the Secession, he honed his skills under Wagner’s tutelage, working alongside architects like Josef Hoffmann and Joseph Maria Olbrich. In response to the Neoclassicism peddled by the Vienna Academy of the Arts (a historicism embodied in the city’s Ringstraße, which Adolf Loos—admittedly no fan of the Secession either—famously scorned as a “Potemkin city”), these architects aggressively wedded themselves to “the modern,” though without reaching any clear consensus as to what that might entail.

Plečnik’s home in Ljubljana offers another archetype of sacred space: the hermit’s lair.

If the Secession’s motto was “To every age its art, to every art its freedom,” Plečnik broke from his colleagues by unabashedly quoting from the past. This was particularly true with sacred spaces. Along with the clipped geometries, big gridded windows, and textured facades of his peers, the Slovenian artist’s work reflects a penchant for ancient Egyptian pyramids and obelisks, an enduring fascination with the catacombs of early Christianity, and a near-compulsive use of classical Greek and Roman colonnades. His cathedrals remain some of his most successful public commissions. The Church of the Holy Spirit (1913) in Vienna’s Ottakring district spurned the “jackassery” of the trompe l’oeil dome paintings Plečnik had observed in Italy to instead appeal directly to the working class with a commanding but functional space designed for gathering. His Church of the Most Sacred Heart of Our Lord (1932) in Prague features an interior hull modeled after Noah’s ark but pinned down on one end with a slablike bell tower. Its dainty copper cupola perches on a raft of chunky columns, bolstered by a girdle of dark brickwork that is fixed in the center with a comically large glass clock. The building cuts an unexpected silhouette against the sky, but its teetering proportions and profligate mix of materials can’t help but recall those libraries and student centers that pop up on university campuses after a substantial donation.

The architect’s home in Ljubljana—now a museum by the name of Plečnik House—offers another archetype of sacred space: the hermit’s lair. While in his urban planning, the designer attended to every detail, down to the curbstones lining the promenade, his own residence is stunningly austere in its mix of naked wood and white plaster. Plecnik lived there into the mid-1950s, forgoing such modern conveniences as electric appliances and cohabiting with his housekeeper, Urška Luzar, in as ascetic a fashion as possible.

To mark the 150th anniversary of the architect’s birth, the Slovenian government declared 2022 to be “Plečnik Year,” with a suite of exhibitions and public programs dedicated to his legacy. To round out the festivities, curator Luca Lo Pinto and artist Olaf Nicolai entered into an imaginary dialogue with Urška, or rather an apocryphal version of her, for “I am only the housekeeper, but I don’t know . . . ,” an exhibition that invites twenty-five artists to infiltrate the architect’s hallowed living quarters. Per the rules of engagement, Lo Pinto and Nicolai could use only preexisting holes in the walls. At times, they went even further, slipping photographs by Giovanna Silva and Sophie Thun into the very frames Plečnik had hanging in his home so as to keep the disturbance to an absolute minimum.

If the point was for “things [to] talk to things,” as the exhibition’s text, a fictionalized letter attributed to Urška, states, the conversations are kept to a near whisper; some interventions are almost invisible as such. Take Monica Bonvicini’s All Places I Can’t Get in Anymore, 2010/2022, a loop of old keys slung casually by the door in the veranda, as if Urška’s. Inside, among the coffee mugs, crosses, compasses, and rulers scattered across the architect’s desk, is Manfred Pernice’s United Buddy (05), 2005, a snowman-shaped porcelain objet studded with paintbrushes. Nearby, Pablo Bronstein’s like-minded “Saint Sebastian” Pencil Holder, 2018—delicate ceramic columns pierced through with writing utensils—blends in seamlessly on the mantel. Nairy Baghramian’s Snags, 2013, stuffs a worn boot with a painted aluminum cast, while Carsten Nicolai’s Klopfen Plečnik (Plečnik Knocking), 2022, conceals a metronome under the architect’s old hat, so that the room resonates with a faint, rhythmic clicking. (Whether the artist knew that the master of the house once evicted his own brother over the sound of the latter’s guests’ high heels on the floors above is unclear.) Within this general harmony, Diamond Stingily’s braided telephone cord Double Dutchess, 2016, is conspicuously out of time—an object already anachronistic in today’s world, but also well in advance of Plečnik’s. It dangles down the wall, almost like a rosary.

Upstairs, on the wooden floor of the spartan guest bedroom, rests Mladen Stilinovic’s Pillow, 1994, a single, sad-looking cushion affixed with a scrap of paper. Perched on the writing desk beside it is Enzo Mari’s Vaso rotto/per forza di levare (Vase Broken by Taking Away, 1994). If this is a gesture of hospitality, it’s one that lacks the sweeping generosity of Plečnik’s public spaces. More inviting is chef Ana Roš’s tomato-salad recipe, which is recited out in the garden at the end of the house tour, just within sight of Untitled, 1985/2021, a wooden chair lodged in the branches courtesy of John M. Armleder.

Of course, the curators couldn’t resist their own gestures here and there. Lo Pinto slipped a copy of Claes Oldenburg’s 1969 Proposals for Monuments and Buildings, 1965–69 onto a stand in the architect’s bedroom and filled the stone sink in the kitchen with fresh vegetables (Plečnik purportedly refused to buy a refrigerator). Upstairs, a pair of movie tickets for Brett Morgen’s David Bowie documentary, Moonage Daydream (2022), are pinned to the front of a wooden cabinet alongside other notes, now faded to a deep brown. By folding in these sorts of speculative encounters with the architect, Lo Pinto and Nicolai preempt any conventional reading of the space as a portrait of its former inhabitant. In the imagined missive from Urška to her employer, the housekeeper writes in warning, or maybe hope: “You will find your house has changed a little bit now. You will also hear some stories. Please, do not be afraid or grumpy. Maybe you will see it as I do: a starting point.” 

“I am only the housekeeper, but I don’t know . . .” is on view through January 8 at Plečnik House, Ljubljana.

Kate Sutton is an associate editor of Artforum.