The reason why I was in Maastricht (see below) was for a conference on Yugoslavian Black Wave film, and coincidentally I had to be in the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia later in the week, specifically in Ljubljana, for a different conference. As this blog is now a peripatetic architectural study of the Problem of Europe, I am minded to say some things about it here. Yugoslavia is something which people on the far left tend to think about less than they should. Trots like to imagine what might have happened if Imre Nagy or Dubcek had managed to prevail against the Soviets, without really considering that it might have looked distinctly like Titoism, with its anti-Stalinist Stalinism, its far more interesting experiment with Workers' Self-Management, and its demise, to be replaced with a particularly bloody revanchism.
What was interesting in Surfing the Black was that, in the Black Wave, all Yugoslavia's contradictions were fully on show, in films which often seemed more like pre-emptive critiques of neoliberalism than of Stalinism, where those who fall through the safety net make their way through a society with consumerist substance and communist rhetoric. I might put my paper on the subject up at some point, but first of all, the place in Ljubljana which seems to embody these tensions most fully.
This post is about a square called Revolution Square, designed and planned on a site formerly occupied by a convent, by a team led by Edvard Ravnikar from 1960 to the early 80s, renamed Republic Square in 1991 on Slovenian independence. You first get a sign of its rather extraordinary architecture from the '30s boulevard next to it, where the Ayn Rand moderne and Mendelsohnisms built under the preceding right-wing dictatorship (and worth another post in themselves) are ruptured by a mammoth Brutalist housing block, an asymmetric ziggurat with prickly, detailed brickwork, cantilevered balconies and what looks like vaguely medieval turrets, all with appropriately Babylonian hanging gardens spilling from them.
Part of it, by being so ornamental, with its hints of Amsterdam School or a rough, proletarian art nouveau, seems to prefigure some of the less annoying elements of postmodernism - but whoever designed the hat that sits on one of its wings was more literal.
The stepped brick structure that faces the main road becomes something straighter as it turns towards the square, where it aggressively confronts some '30s luxury moderne.
Ravnikar was a former student of Joze Plecnik, the most/only famous Slovenian architect, one of those few 20th century classicists who managed to create something genuinely new, creating a fragmented, dreamlike neoclassicism of randomly arranged stone, columns whose rustication runs out half-way-up, sheathing extraordinarily atmospheric interiors. His pupil went off to work for Le Corbusier before returning to Socialist Yugoslavia, but after some early essays in Plecnik imitation, his work here seems to have little obvious allegiance to either of his tutors. It has no Corbusian truth to materials, no classical references, however elliptical. If anything, the references sometimes seem British, with combination of verdigris, brick and brutalism that evokes good old Basil Spence, and planning which suggests the Barbican, though the vocabulary is more original than both.
As a showpiece for the Yugoslav Socialist Federal Republic of Slovenia, it combines several different functions, all of them seemingly conflicting. There are two tall office blocks, the tallest in Slovenia, one of which used to be known as Iskra; they are clad in metal, with a triangular footprint, with upper stories in copper; there's an art gallery, a conference venue, a concert hall (Pat Metheny gurns out from the posters), a shopping mall, restaurants, various monuments and an (earlier) Parliament building, most of this on multiple levels.
Time has been a mixed blessing to the place, aside from the renaming - while the shrubs and creepers are perfect compliments to the Brutalism, the purple holiday village gating is less so.
If there is something particularly Corbusian here, it's the sense of the architectural promenade, the cinematic feeling of movement between several levels, the changes of mood and material that develop alongside, from the wide open space of the plaza (converted, against the architect's wishes, to a carpark, although a pleasingly empty one) to the enclosed, shadowy underground restaurants, to the subterranean mall itself.
The Mall is especially beautiful, on two levels, both completely underground and in the semi-underground carved into the square, a futuristic space that is recognisably part of the whole through the angular concrete pillars that are repeated throughout. In the supermarket - an exceptionally well-stocked place, with about as much health food and gluten-free produce as anywhere in Islington - at one point, the lettering advertising one out-of-the-way foodstuff is aligned to the contours of one of the concrete columns. It accommodates very well the paraphernalia of high-end 21st century commerce, only the quality of the design and the materials and the subtlety of the lighting giving away its heritage in an earlier era.
This is apt enough, as Ljubljana was always one of the most affluent parts of the Federal Republic, as it remains - a calm, quiet and, in the centre at least, clearly moneyed city. To understand Slavoj Zizek's spluttering, demonstrative persona, it's instructive to see how buttoned-up, neat and Mitteleuropean his hometown is. There's even only slight hints of the giant advert disease that has taken over most post-socialist capitals.
The other part of Revolution Square, and the element that precedes Ravnikar's design, is the Parliament, of the component Republic of the new Socialist federation, planned from the '40s on and finished in 1960. Plecnik had his own ideas about what this should look like, and his proposal entailed the demolition of the city's historic castle, and its replacement with a 'Cathedral of Freedom' rising to a Babylonian point. This being a bit too mental, the end result is in the most sober, tasteful modernism of the era, a building clad in unimpeachable stone with a rigorous grid, while the turbulence of revolution is limited to the outrageous vitalist outbreak around the portal.
The symbolic figures, carved by Karel Putrih and Zdenko Kalin, are literally bulging out of the grid, a series of naked men, women and children involved in labour of various kinds, all of them heavily stylised, and all of them verging on a peculiar socialist-realist eroticism - they're less upright than the norm, the men lighter and more feminine, the women with extraordinarily wide hips and voluptuous proportions. It says the same things as any of the other socialist realist monuments, while stirring the parts others do not reach. The actual entrance is boarded up.
The beaming, contented look while holding unsubtly symbolic fruit is a particular favourite.
This skinny youth is prancing about above the names of the sculptors...
Two other monuments occupy Revolution Square, both sculpted by Drago Trsar. One is a monument to Edvard Kardelj, the apparent theoretician of workers' self-management, who died in 1979. The monument appears as a parade of Giacometti bureaucrats, becoming ever more abstract and depersonalised the further they fan out from the central bespectacled figure, yet all striding vaguely towards the plaza pedestrian.
The other is something more extraordinary. Yugoslavia had various memorial complexes - Spomenik - erected from the '50s to the 80s in an abstract, frequently architectural idiom, which have turned up lately in parodic form in all kinds of Ostalgie art (I've seen one series of them remodelled in brightly-coloured perspex) in various camp attempts to exorcise their profound emotional and physical charge. This much smaller Spomenik is a Revolution Spomenik, and fuses almost imperceptible figures into a bursting, bristling collective object.