It should be the most impressive and biggest building in Ljubljana – like a city itself. But something went wrong. From all, it remained only one coin spinning on an old wooden table. When we are watching this spinning coin, we can recognize some dawns of an engraving of the old Parliament building. It is a second and final proposal project of a famous Slovene architect, Jože Plečnik. But it does not represent only Plečnik’s architecture, it represents something more, what is hidden behind this euro coin. Myth of non-existing building.
The fountain of Wisdom
Ljubljana is a Plečnik’s city. This is obvious. And in the middle of Slovene universe should be the Cathedral of Freedom. Athens has the Acropolis, Berlin has the Brandenburg Gate, Paris has the Eiffel Tower and Ljubljana should have the Cathedral of Freedom – the Slovene Acropolis. “Immediately after the war in 1945, there were many hopes about a better future. The communists, as we know, did not only try to build a new country, but also to create a new Man. It was almost a utopian project. In Slovenia, which was a relative independent republic, part of Yugoslavia, they were dreaming of creating a new capital of the Slovene nation,” explains Mr Andrej Hrausky, an architect who is specialist on Plečnik’s works and he adds that Plečnik was reluctant to participate in competition on new parliament building. “Finally, he made his own project. He did not follow propositions of the competition and designed a parliament building on the site of the castle on a hill above Ljubljana. The leading politicians were interested in Plečnik as a designer of the new parliament so much, that they annulled the first competition and repeated it once more. For the second competition, Plečnik designed the project as we all know,” says Mr Hrausky.
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So Plečnik, inspirited by Prague castle, decided to create a monumental hall and named this building the “Cathedral of Freedom”. It should be a big square, colonnaded false frontage would have surrounded the cylindrical main building of two stories, surmounted by a tall, spirally tapering conical cupola. It should remind St. Peter’s Basilica. The façade would have measured 50 m in length, the tower rising to 120 m. Plečnik Parliament could be the highest and the most impressive building not in Ljubljana, but among all pieces of his work and throughout the country. But It was not. Something went wrong in early 1950s. “In March 1948 there came the so called “Informbiro crisis”, the split between Stalin and Tito, and Yugoslavia was no more part of the Warsaw Pact. The Russian response was drastic. All loans and help were blocked and Yugoslavia was pushed in deep financial and political crisis. Construction of the parliament was postponed,” adds Hrausky.
So, can we say, that without Stalin, Slovenia could have this monumental building? Nejc Černigoj does not agree. “It is most likely that Plečnik’s project and Plečnik himself as an architect was never considered as a serious candidate for the new building for various reasons,” argues Černigoj, journalist and assistant professor at the Faculty of Architecture of the University of Ljubljana.
The Current Slovenian Parliament
In his view, with a changing social and political climate after Second World War, Plečnik himself as a very religious, traditional and old man at the time, as well as his architecture, fell out favour. “Instead, some of his students, who participated in the national liberation war and thus obtained the right political backing, were now in the position to work on such important architectural project. Still, much of Plečnik’s architectural thinking is present in the works of his students. Even the existing Parliament building by Vinko Glanz bears a lot of resemblance to Plečnik’s parliament,” tells Mr Černigol.
Therefore, the current Slovenian parliament was designed by the architect Vinko Glanz, Plečnik’s disciple. The work of construction lasted from 1954 to 1959. The four-storey building is externally austere. The whole design is under a strong influence of Plečnik and abides by Plečnik’s principles. The building stands on tool between a raw functionalism and a puritanical realism. Glanz gave to Slovenians the house of Freedom, not the Cathedral. It is less ambitious and humbler. “And it is obvious. Plečnik’s huge cone roof and vast stone-decorated facades and chambers would be costly, whereas the financial situation in the after-war years was not great,” adds Černigoj. But the myth has ingrained.
A dream, that never came true
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Plečnik died in 1957 in Ljubljana. His hearse was slowly going through the city, in between his monuments, buildings, adjustments and finally went through a monumental gate situated in front of the main Ljubljana’s cemetery Žale – also created and built by Plečnik. After all, there remain only a few sketches of Plečnik’s parliament and a hope. “We are not very happy that Plečnik never built his Parliament and that this project never came true. We are very proud of him, so we decided to put rest of his work into the history, into massive memory,” evaluates Branislav Rajić, a member of Slovenian Parliament. And the coin is a good tool to convey respect and pride. “In Slovenia, we do not need symbols like cathedrals or very pompous buildings. There is something quite different, we have something else in our mind that symbolise the strength, the power and the ingenuity and it could be for instance this very small coin. Finally, this was another way, how the non-existing building could be present in our collective mind,” adds Mr Rajíc who works in the National Assembly of Slovenian Republic, which sits Vinko Glanz’s building on Square of Revolution.
And revolutionary, Plečnik’s second proposal was too. Maybe too revolutionary. “I would say, that most consider it as one of the great unbuilt or even utopian projects of history, like some of the designs of Neoclassical architects Ledoux and Boullee. This purpose is to spark imagination, not to be built. Shortly, he created a myth,” explains Mr Černigol. And the architect Hrausky agrees with him. It was a myth, it is the myth and it will be the myth only.
“I do not remember, that there was an important serious debate about Plečnik’s proposal. Maybe between architects. I am not sure if it is a good idea to build Plečnik’s proposal after more than fifty years. I would rather not,” tells Breda Mihelič, the former Director of Ljubljana urban planning centre.
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Only a myth?
We are standing in front of current building of Slovenian Parliament and watching people who are walking zigzag on the Square of Revolution. We would like to ask them one question: if they can recognize Plečnik’s Parliament on euro coin. We are showing them our coin. Majority of them is still able to recognize Plečnik’s masterpiece. “It was design by architect Jože Plečnik and he created this building as a new parliament building,” answered a young man. But why is it on the coin? “It is on the coin because it is an important element of Slovenian culture. Never mind if it is only a draft. We are very proud of this idea. When Slovenia became a national country in 1991, it was necessary to have our own money, our own coins. We put on each some elements, that are very important to Slovenian history, culture and so on,” answered a second passerby.
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However, there are not any scholars researches, which show, if Slovenian society wants to build Cathedral of Freedom or not. And like said one random passerby: “It will be nice to have it but there is no time to build it because it is old fashioned.” Architects agree. Plečnik lived and created in a historical period, in which Slovenia was not an independent, sovereign state. Maybe, it was just a Slovenian dream. Therefore, Plečnik decided to name his building such as Cathedral of Freedom. “Why Freedom? It is obvious. The proposal was made after the World War. And when we look at the proposal closely, it looks like a church,” explains Mrs Breda Mihelič. It should be a new cathedral for a new nation, but it was too early. Slovenia as such as an independent State existed since 1991 – almost 40 years after Plečnik’s death.
But Slovenia and Slovenian society never forgot. We could find his portrait together with his building of National and University Library on the first tolar-notes. And government carried on in this line. In 2007, tolar was replaced by euro. “While I cannot tell you what the exact official explanation for its use on the euro coin was, it surely must do with the fame that the unbuilt building acquired during the process of gaining independent and sovereign state, with the international recognition of Plečnik’s work and the uniqueness of the architectural design,” tells in the end Černigol.
Back to beginning
Roland Barthes, a French literary theorist, philosopher and linguist, once said that the Myth can be alive or dead. There is nothing between. Most of them usually disappeared when societies face some important mutations. But not in this case. The coin is still spinning on an old wooden table. How long? We are not able to answer. And it is natural.
“architecture is always dream and function, expression of a utopia and instrument of a convenience.” Roland Barthes
Moreover, any myth usually does not disclose all mystery. It is up to readers to imagine what is behind the rotating coin. It is possible that myth about Plečnik’s parliament will be slowly evaporating. But not now and not here – in the Plečnik’s city, where everything is strongly connected to the most famous Slovenian architect. Bridges, houses, streets, lamps, each of them was created by Plečnik. There is only one exception.
Peak of a hill upon the town will be framed by an old medieval castle, not by a monumental Cathedral of Freedom. And it is better, because if Ljubljana and Slovenia built a new parliament according to Plečnik’s draft, there would probably not be a reason to put this building on a coin which has the same value in Slovenia as much as in Italy, Spain, France, Germany or Finland.
On the coin which shows some dawns of non-existing building and which will spin ad infinitum.
Milan Stuhl, David Kohout and Etienne Pin.