Jože Plečnik. We say the name infrequently, but always in revered tones. In one of those few but memorable conversations with Michael Graves, (whom I consider a substantive but problematic and flawed architect) he said that Henry Hornbostel was an architect who reminded him of Plečnik.
Plečnik was a strategic move in the conversational chess game. Are you ready to have a conversation about Plečnik? That day in 1997, I was not. I’ve gone through various stages of hazy recognition over the years, and only recently have I really submerged myself in Plečnik’s work. Even had I known such a thing at that moment, I still had all of Hornbostel before me, and I would not have been ready to sell him out in favor of a second-tier Secessionist. But today I am ready. In fact, I think Hornbostel’s brand of Beaux Arts architecture may be Secessionism with out the Seceding, but that’s another discussion. Hornbostel may have had a few dramatic skills here and some high points of construction there, and there may yet be a couple of books on those. Plečnik, though, was a blistering genius through a broad range of skills.
Take drawing. Plečnik’s Church of the Holy Spirit rendering of 1910, in addition to being a building of notably non-canonical innovations in both structural and spatial conception, also shows an absolute control of line and contour in drawing that Hornbostel could never hope to match in all his scratchy bravado. Even for that one church, Plečnik’s works on paper show a range of techniques from the mechanical through the expressionist, from the sketchy through the rendered, all of which reveal some kind of surgical control of calligraphic line in the service of a precise alchemy of representation and art.
The real proof is in building.
For today and for the format, one splendid building to consider is the National and University Library in Ljubljana. It’s tucked along a public square and against a group of rowhouses. It barely rises above their height, but it expresses its monumentality in its odd brick and rubble construction, its singular full-height column at the entry, and the modified frieze and cornice. Yet within each of these elements and their combination is a deep and nuanced rumination on design, tectonics and identity. That one column is medievalizing for its tall slenderness, and it is willfully Slovenian in the curly specificity of its volutes. Actually, the capital itself is a multifarious rumination on the cultured and the primitive combined in one synthetic, not to say unresolved, package. As if to emphasize the intersection of history and modernity, it bisects a vertically emphasized window-wall that speaks to high rises and steel frames. Tradition and modernity, the medieval and the Enlightened clearly come together here.
A compelling syncopation of a similar message emerges in the wall. Much of it is brick, articulated in Flemish bond. But an irregular infusion of ashlar masonry, in the sort of random appearance that must be precisely calculated, pervades the fabric, with a further differentiation of rough cut and smoothly polished stones. The windows here are bisected squares which push out at an ever so slight angle between cast stone sills and lintels, a recollection of Plečnik’s work a few decades earlier in Vienna at the Zacherlhaus.
Inside, the main staircase is flanked with smooth Tuscan columns of beautifully smooth black stone with just a slight marbling. But the flanking top floor benches upset the consistency with fluted Doric columns (or at least their oddly truncated tops) alternating with a more pre-classical version of what we might call the Slovenian order. These are not thrown together arbitrarily. They are juxtaposed with the seriousness of a scholar and the diction of a rhetorician. It is a rarely broken rule of classical architecture that Plečnik engages with the rumination and artifice of a national poet.
The reading room is a multi-height hall of long narrow dimensions that faces out through the tall glass of the entry. This is a largely austere volume, but its few flourishes include metal columns (supporting slab bridges) and handrails in delicate iron joined by jewel-like joints in Secessionist-influenced brass. A variety of wheel and lantern shaped light fixtures hang from the ceiling in delicate iron. Yet the tables are supported by thick stone cylinders with reverse entasis.
The cabinetmakers art is visible in marquetry on doors throughout the building, and many of the door handles are zoomorphic vignettes. The building is cohesive in its willful multiplicity. It is a thoughtful building of commanding repose in plan and section, with their corresponding procession. Yet it is finished with an appreciation for design and detail at the level of craft throughout that always brings the substance of hands on skills to the forefront. It is a masterpiece, and it is only one in a substantive oeuvre.
I still like plenty of what Hornbostel did, and I still have at least two books to write, the short one on the College of Fine Arts and the longer one, based on my dissertation discussing his career. But if you want to look at an architect who had a distinctive ability to capture the essence of a place, to design buildings of monumentality and drama, to put his signature art in details as well as facades, look at Plečnik. Hornbostel will come around soon enough.