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Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Dr Damjan Prelovšek: “Plečnik imagined the National and University Library (NUK) as a temple, wrapped in a colourful ‘carpet’ of stone and brick”

By: Lucija Kavčič

We spoke with Dr Damjan Prelovšek, the greatest connoisseur of Plečnik’s works about the exhibition Plečnik’s Library: Created for All Times, which will be on display at the National and University Library (NUK) in Ljubljana until November 12th this year. He said that Plečnik was based on Semper’s theory of dressing, but at the same time he always incorporated elements of Slovenian folklore into his constructions.

DEMOKRACIJA: Mr. Prelovšek, before we move on to the exhibition Plečnik’s Library: Created for All Times, I would like to ask you what used to be on the site of today’s NUK? What kind of building used to stand there?

Prelovšek: On the site of today’s NUK, there once stood a late-Renaissance Prince’s castle, which was built by the Auerspergs in the middle of the 17th century. It was partially damaged during the 1895 earthquake. Because it was taking the light opposite the Slavija bank, which was run by the mayor Hribar, it was knocked down. In this place, the municipality of Ljubljana, according to the plan of the Croat Josip Vancaš pl. Požeški planned to build a palace of offices, but that did not happen. It is interesting that during the digging of the foundations for NUK, they found now lost silver-gilt plate with an interesting Latin inscription: “Respect luck”.

DEMOKRACIJA: Can you take us around the exhibition?

Prelovšek: Plečnik initially planned to build an entire university with a library and student dormitories in Tivoli. Kozler’s heirs were ready to sell the land, but this did not happen because Belgrade hindered the development of the Slovenian university for a long time and did not allocate money for it in the budget. That is why the city of Ljubljana ceded the current location for the library free of charge, and the construction of faculties between Gosposka and Vegova streets did not happen.

The schoolwork of Plečnik’s student Aleksander Dev, where Plečnik developed his concept of library design, is also on display.

DEMOKRACIJA: There were more plans for the library then if I am not mistaken?

Prelovšek: Of course, Vurnik’s project can also be seen at the exhibition. When Plečnik published his project in a special booklet in 1933, Vurnik immediately published his counter-project, which was supposed to be much more functional. A tall tower would be built that would house the books and could be raised further. Since the library management could not decide, both plans were sent to Switzerland to the famous architect Otto Rudolf Salvisberg. He assessed that Plečnik’s project was completely outdated, while Vurnik’s was better, except that some things should be corrected. So, he himself proposed how the building should look. Of course, he did not know the situation in Ljubljana at all…

DEMOKRACIJA: How did Plečnik’s plan prevail then?

Prelovšek: Since Plečnik’s plan had already been sent to Belgrade and the ministry had already approved it, the rector of the university decided to stick with Plečnik’s plan. The fight for the university library became a fight for the national establishment of Slovenes within the Balkan kingdom. The students, gathered in the Action for the University Library, also contributed a lot to securing the money for the construction. There was also an argument that the late king had promised the Slovenes a library. Unexpectedly, problems arose in Ljubljana itself, when neighbours complained about Plečnik’s plan, saying that the building would take away their light. Negotiations lasted until the university management convinced them that the library would stand on the site of the former princely castle and that nothing would change here. The three windows of the large reading room were opened towards the neighbours only in 1947 under the so-called people’s rule, when the opinions of the neighbours were no longer important.

DEMOKRACIJA: So, when did they start building the library?

Prelovšek: The exhibition also includes a photo from October 5th, 1936, when the first shovel was used for NUK. Ban Marko Natlačen is on it, and in the background is Plečnik’s student and colleague Vinko Glanz, who drew plans based on the professor’s sketches. Later, this task was taken over by his classmate from Plečnik’s studio, Edo Ravnikar. The photo is also interesting because it was fairly faithfully coloured with a new digital programme. I would also like to draw attention to the exhibited copies of the plans, which, thanks to colleague Maja Blatnik, are of such high quality that they are almost indistinguishable from the originals. A year later, they built another foundation stone and placed a blessed bottle in it, which contains a document with the names of dignitaries and the architect.

DEMOKRACIJA: We can see more of Plečnik’s plans for NUK; which ones?

Prelovšek: Plečnik’s first plan from 1931 is especially important. Contrary to the general opinion that the main entrance should be from Vegova street, Plečnik wanted to preserve part of the Roman city walls and therefore planned the entrance from Turjaška street. In the lower-lying Gosposka street, he was able to envisage larger ground-floor windows than those on Vegova street. Since it seemed that it would not be possible to fill the library with books soon, he also provided rooms for seminars, a janitor’s apartment and the like, while the upper floors were used for book storage. Nevertheless, the library quickly filled up with periodicals and book collections from all over the country during Yugoslavia. They soon had to increase the estimated half a million book units once again.

DEMOKRACIJA: When was the famous façade of the library built? Was it not in the plan right from the start?

Prelovšek: No, it was planned for later. As Plečnik wrote to his friend Franciscan Jos Markušić, he added it when the plan had already been confirmed and it would really happen. He explained to his assistant Valentinčič that it was a mixed technique: bricks and stones, which is typical for our Karst house. He always strove to incorporate something Slovenian into his work.

DEMOKRACIJA: More statues were originally planned to stand along the staircase leading to the reading room; can we see any of them at the exhibition?

Prelovšek: The surviving statue of Sapientiae represents only a quarter of what was then supposed to have been executed in stone and would have stood on the balustrade in front of the exhibition hall. Of the life-size plaster model of the statue, only the head was preserved, which was donated to the library by the descendants of the sculptor Boris Kalin, while they still keep the aforementioned smaller model of Sapientiae. Judging by the sketches, Plečnik also envisioned a rich relief decoration of the walls of the staircase of the library’s peristyle, but it was not implemented. We do not know whether the war was to blame for this or Plečnik’s disagreement with the sculptor’s work, who did not know how to adapt to the desired antique stylisation of the statues. Plečnik also worked a lot with the statues by the window of the large reading room and in the peristyle, but he later abandoned all these ideas.

DEMOKRACIJA: So, he made a lot of changes after the plan was already adopted.

Prelovšek: By changing the façade, Plečnik also changed the floor plan of the building. He abandoned the initially envisioned book storage above the reading room and instead of a wider three-armed staircase, which would have a smaller dome in the middle, he planned access to the reading room without an intermediate platform in a straight direction. For better accessibility, he added four smaller staircases to the building. In the corner facing the New Square, he built a profiled stone, which probably comes from the former Prince’s castle, with which he wanted to show the continuity of the building.

Dr Damjan Prelovšek (Photo: Polona Avanzo)

DEMOKRACIJA: This probably also stems from the habit that all the material was always used up, especially if it was stone. When they destroyed the old building, they built another one from the material.

Prelovšek: Also. Much of the stone on the exterior of the library comes from the former Prince’s castle, and some is also brought from elsewhere. As Plečnik’s student Danilo Fürst told me, Plečnik initially wanted to have more stone in the façade, but that turned out to be too expensive. The sorting of the stone and bricks on the façade was led by Edo Ravnikar, and many things were suggested by the workers themselves. The completed library was already opened during the Italian occupation in 1941. During the war, with great difficulty because there were not enough workers available, according to Plečnik’s proposal, the Roman wall in front of it was also restored.

DEMOKRACIJA: We also see a white chair…

Prelovšek: It is a model of the chair that Plečnik initially planned for the reading room, but he later decided on a different type. Since it is an unfinished draft, it is intentionally neutral white, as we do not know what kind of wood it was planned to be made of and what else Plečnik would have changed on it during production.

DEMOKRACIJA: When did the first books come to the library?

Prelovšek: Immediately in 1941. The books were brought from the lyceum library, which was stored in the high school building in Poljane. The books were brought in on carts and then arranged on the shelves with a human chain. It is often wrongly mentioned that the books were brought from Poljane to NUK by a human chain, which is absolutely impossible at a distance of almost half a kilometre. This would mean that an entire army of librarians would have to stand in a line. One may wonder how the books would survive if they passed through so many hands.

When it opened on Prešeren’s Day in 1947, the library was officially renamed the National and University Library. Plečnik also drew a Slovenian coat of arms for it above the entrance, which is artistically much more refined than the current one.

There is also a photo from the opening of the library. It features all the “cream” of Slovenian culture at that time, led by Josip Vidmar, Lidija Šentjurc, Miha Marinko and similar socialist “geniuses”.

There are also Plečnik’s plans for chandeliers. Originally, Plečnik planned only two chandeliers for the large reading room, but in the post-war renovation he increased their number to three. On this occasion, he also slightly changed the shape of the reading room ceiling and added door handles with animal heads.

DEMOKRACIJA: Can you tell us more about the plane crash that hit NUK?

Prelovšek: Photographs of an accident from early 1944, when a mail plane from Trieste, which had engine problems, most likely wanted to land on the flat roof of the newly built library, are also on display. The plane broke through the roof and fell into the reading room, where the gasoline exploded and started a fire. You can also see a small remnant of the plane. There was some luck in the accident as the reading room was closed to the public due to the lack of firewood, otherwise there would have been more victims. In addition to the plane’s crew, an unfortunate person who, on that very day, intended to return the borrowed books, also died. In this accident, mostly only the periodicals burned, but there was no major damage among the valuable prints.

DEMOKRACIJA: How did they restore the damaged NUK?

Prelovšek: The builder Matko Curk started the restoration of the damaged library as early as 1944. The exhibition includes the album of the construction engineer Vladimir Čadež, which accurately documents the progress of the work. The masonry work was completed by 1945, but the restoration of the interior dragged on for another two years and included the changes that have already been discussed. The last addition concerned the place for the book lender, which was only built in 1953, which also necessitated moving Plečnik’s stairs to the hall. This was sorted out by his student Majda Neřima.

DEMOKRACIJA: There are also examples of the marble that was used to build the library…

Prelovšek: Examples of Hotavel stone and stone from Podpeča are on display. Podpeča quarry no longer works because after the war they started using dynamite and the rock cracked very deeply. If you wanted to get to solid rock, you would have to dig very deep. In addition, above the quarry is the church of St. Anne, which could collapse. Podpeča limestone is grey and polished outside in the air, and dark inside the buildings.

NUK’s pillars are made up of cylinders from different blocks. Plečnik mixed them on purpose so that they would not look like monoliths, which they really were not. Lead plates were placed between the cylinders so that the cylinders sat well, and their edges did not crumble. Plečnik monitored all these works, and when they wanted to make the lintels of the peristyle ceiling from another stone, he protested strongly and told Glanz, who was in charge of the construction at the time, saying that they had agreed that they would be made from live Podpeča stone, not from another, which is dead “as a Protestant philosophy”.

DEMOKRACIJA: This means that Master Plečnik always personally monitored the construction works.

Prelovšek: He was always there. He imagined the library as a temple, wrapped in a colourful “carpet” of stone and brick. The stones in the horizontal row were not allowed to have joints, because they represent the weft in the carpets. Everything is an imitation of textiles, even with the bulging windows in the form of “textile” folds, as well as the entrances – they are not built, but stand out from the façade like folds.

For Plečnik, Semper’s theory of clothing was decisive, according to which architecture derives from the metamorphoses of textiles and ceramics. At NUK, “textiles” are everywhere – there are already “carpets” printed on the outside, and there is a stone “rug” behind the door. The stairs end with notches in the wall that represent an imaginary “runner”. He accompanies the visitor to the reading room. In front of that are square “carpets” marked with stones of different colours. The entrance to the exhibition hall is decorated with “petrified curtains” made of Hotavelje stone, above the door there is an “inscription tape”.

The vases on the façade are Etruscan, as Plečnik was convinced that Slovenians are descended from the Etruscans. During the First World War, he read a lot about them in the library of the Prague School of Arts and Crafts, realising that he himself thinks and composes similarly to the old Etruscans – he uses exactly such proportions, rhythm, etc. Therefore, he concluded that there must be a closer connection between the two.

DEMOKRACIJA: Did Plečnik often change the plan while working?

Prelovšek: Today it is no longer done in this way, now it is drawn, and it is done that way. Architects are also no longer constantly present during construction. But Plečnik was always present in all his projects, and if they did something wrong, he also protested. For example, when he was shown a goblet that was not made exactly according to his idea, he threw it under the table without a word, and everyone knew that they had to make it again. Without this precision it is impossible to imagine all his remarkable buildings and handicrafts.

During the construction of the library, many thoughts arose during the work. He also changed many things or, as we have seen, abandoned them. This applies to the centaur originally drawn next to both reading windows. He also imagined the columns next to them to be made of artificial stone, but finally had them made of natural stone. Damage from the plane crash is still visible on the window on Vegova street. The artificial stone withstood that far better than the natural one.

Dr Damjan Prelovšek (Photo: Polona Avanzo)

DEMOKRACIJA: You say that there are also some original details on display.

Prelovšek: This applies, for example, to horse-head doorknobs on front doors. It is probably an illustration of the folk song My dad has two horses (org. Moj očka ima konjička dva), which could be inferred by analogy with the zoomorphic details on the Prague Castle. So, we are dealing with another example of Plečnik’s unobtrusive incorporation of folklore elements into architecture. That is why NUK is very much ours, very Slovenian.

DEMOKRACIJA: Please tell us more about your book about NUK, which will be published this fall.

Prelovšek: It will contain history, plans, photographs, in short, it will thoroughly illuminate the building in a new way from different angles. It will try to bring its architecture closer to all readers and show what is the true greatness of Plečnik. Today we like to talk a lot about everything without knowing the real background of things.

This exhibition is actually adapted from the text of my book. Žiga Cerkvenik and Prof. arch. Tadej Glažar added some other material to it, for example newspaper articles, which I did not consider sufficiently in the book.

I think the exhibition is interesting. You can view it very quickly, but you can also read all the texts, think about them, and stay in the exhibition space for a long time.

DEMOKRACIJA: How do you rate other exhibitions and events in this year’s Plečnik’s year?

Prelovšek: There was not much – on the day of the anniversary, I organised a photography exhibition in the lobby of the parliament, which is now in the Salon of Architecture gallery in Maribor and will be there until autumn. A comic was also published on the occasion of Plečnik’s year, which quickly achieved its reprint. It is believed that it would have been useful if someone else read it before printing, because in this way some nonsense, not to say stupidness, could have been avoided. Then, next to Ljubljanica river, there is the exhibition Plečnik’s Monuments NOB, which is distinguished by some beautiful photographs by the master Miran Kambič, but in terms of content it does not bring anything new. This also applies to the central presentation of Plečnik in the City Museum. Its authors sell us as surplus everything we have known about the architect for a long time, and in a much more comprehensive way. I have the impression that a large part of the exhibition is copied from my book on Plečnik, without this being said anywhere, but despite this, everything that I could have contributed to its setting was deliberately omitted, as I have done so far with all major Plečnik exhibitions at home and abroad (objects, furniture, plans, photos from Vienna, Prague, and Ljubljana). With all this, it is obvious that the authors are not at all clear on what principles Plečnik was creating. They even announced a kind of competition for the most imaginative label of Plečnik’s architecture. It would be better if, in the future, we would prefer to entrust such work to someone who knows more about Plečnik than the pure amateurs who signed up as authors of the exhibition. In any case, the simultaneous exhibition at Prague Castle is at least a few numbers more important than the one in Ljubljana.

An unreviewed reprint of the book Plečnik in Italy, full of unnecessary errors, was also published this year.

DEMOKRACIJA: You said that there was also an exhibition about Plečnik in Prague… Please tell me something else about it.

Prelovšek: The one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Plečnik’s birth was also remembered in Prague, where a major exhibition about our architect was opened at the Prague Castle at the beginning of the tourist season. Its author is Vladimír Šlapeta, the elder of Czech historians of architecture. For the exhibition, where you can see some of the models made for the monumental presentation of the architect in 1996, I myself lent some objects, drawings, and furniture. Since it is accessible from the castle gardens and its visit is free, it already boasts many visits. It is possible to create an impression of Plečnik’s greatness much better with the exhibited originals than with randomly selected photos and videos in Ljubljana.

DEMOKRACIJA: And finally: what about the project of the new NUK? Why is it stopped?

Prelovšek: First, the project was estimated at 50 million, and then they realised that you cannot do anything with this money. Now the project is at a standstill, perhaps also because libraries have changed a lot these days. Even Plečnik once said that Ljubljana needs a beautiful monumental library building that will also be suitable for some other purpose, because libraries as they are, will go out of fashion. And look, he was right, because he saw significantly further into the future: now many books are already digital and libraries are already completely different, because they need much less space. Therefore, even the building that Vurnik planned to build would not be useful for anything. This is precisely why NUK is today one of the most important library buildings in Europe and in the world.


Dr Damjan Prelovšek was born on February 8th, 1945, in Ljubljana. After high school, he studied art history and history at the Faculty of Arts in Ljubljana. He graduated in 1970. In the 1969/70 school year, he studied in Vienna with the help of a Herder scholarship. In 1971, he got a job at the then Art History Institute at SAZU. In 1977, he received his doctorate at the University of Ljubljana. In 1990, 1991 and 1996, he taught as a visiting professor at the University of Salzburg. In 1992, he became a member of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts. In the years 1998 to 2003, he was the ambassador in Prague. He is an honorary doctor of the Prague School of Arts and Crafts, where Plečnik taught, and the recipient of the Gratias Agit award from the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2017) for spreading the good name of the Czech Republic, and the Artis Bohemiae Amicis award from the Czech Ministry of Culture (2018).


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