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Art Nouveau Styled Heritage
by Darinka Kladnik
Photos by David Kladnik
Translated by Christina Strojan

Art Nouveau has many names: in Slovenia we call it "secesija", it is also known as Jugendstil, Sezession, Modern Style, Liberty, Glasgow Style, Modernisme, Ecole de Nancy… This new art was a multi-layered phenomenon and is known for its whole, integral works of art. It used new materials and techniques and formed a close partnership with the economy. Taking note of the social changes, it thus became far more accessible to the general public. Artists drew their inspiration from flora and fauna; they were interested in natural forms, geometrical shapes, decorative patterns, folklore and national motives and elements as well as exotic cultures and religions…

Art Nouveau works were first presented in 1897 in Brussels at the International Industrial exhibition, a year after that a "Sezession" exhibition took place in Vienna and in 1900 at the World Exposition in Paris this new style truly stepped into the foreground. Its ending is signalled by the exposition in 1925 which also took place in Paris.

Even before the end of the 19th century Ljubljana got two slightly Art Nouveau styled buildings (on what is today Prešernov trg 3, or Prešeren’s square in English and Wolfova ulica 10 or Wolf Street) which, however, are without any special architectural value. At the same time the Narodna kavarna (National Coffee House) and Meyerjeva Kavarna (The Meyer Coffee House) were opened, both decorated in the then popular "international style". The first true Art Nouveau buildings were built after the great earthquake in Ljubljana in 1895, when many new buildings were erected. Ljubljana at that time evolved from a sleepy provincial town into a modern national capital. In 1900 the city council of Ljubljana put out a tender for a new bridge, built according to the plans of the architect Giorgio Zaninovich (employed by Pittel & Brausenwatter) in a relatively short time. It was opened on the 5th of October in 1901 and named The Emperor Franz Joseph's Jubilee Bridge as is indicated by the dates on the outer side of the bridge (1848-1888). Four dragons standing on either side guard the bridge so the people of Ljubljana christened it "The Dragon Bridge" (Zmajski most) and it is still called that today. The concrete facade of the bridge is a beautiful example of Art Nouveau. It was manufactured entirely in Vienna and the dragons were made in a Viennese factory for metal objects and decorations according to the drafts of A.M. Beschorner.

After the earthquake, the architect Max Fabiani was asked to "regulate" the city. He did so and in addition came up with many more plans. In 1899 he conceived the former Sodniški trg, nowadays Miklošicev park, (or Miklošic Park) and envisioned the construction of the surrounding buildings. The square was completed in 1902 and this part of the city and the buildings along Miklošiceva ulica (Miklošic Street) were named Art Nouveau Ljubljana. Some of the buildings are the work of Maks Fabiani and are among the most beautiful examples of this style, for example the Bamberger house (Miklošiceva 16). The Krisper house (Miklošiceva 20), conceived in a light Art Nouveau style to please its owner, is also the work of this architect.

Fabiani also designed the Mladika building (Prešernova 25) – a former Girl's Grammar and Boarding School, which now houses the Foreign Ministry. This building also has some Art Nouveau features although its facade is virtually unadorned except for the owls on the entrance portal, representing wisdom, and a relief of grey stone on the facade of the gymnasium wall. The relief represents four girls holding garlands and coats of arms of Carniola, Ljubljana and Sir Josip Gorjup Slavenski, made according to Fabiani's drafts by the sculptor Ivan Zajec, the artist responsible for Prešeren’s monument.

Another beautiful example of Art nouveau architecture is the Pogacnik house (Cigaletova1), designed by Ciril Metod Koch in 1902. He also drew on Viennese architecture; the female figure above the entrance is based on plans for the Viennese Worker's Hall. In the same year he designed the Cuden house, which is notable for its turret. It is angular in its ground plan, then evolves into a semicircle and ends with a square plate on which a globe is placed. The Hauptman house (Wolfova 2), christened by the people of Ljubljana as "the little skyscraper", is also Koch's work. It was built on the site of an old inn in 1873 and although it suffered no damage during the earthquake its owner decided to renovate. The architect added glazed tiles to the facade and combined them in interesting combinations of green, blue, red and white, an echo of Viennese "sezession".

Felix Urbanc's department store (today’s Centromerkur) built in 1903 also belongs to Art Nouveau architecture. Designed by Friderich Sigmund from Graz, it is modelled on one of the department stores in Budapest as can be seen from the facade. The building's special feature is a Neo-Baroque statue of Mercury, the Greek god of commerce and its interior design forms an integral unit with the architectural structure, staying true to the Art Nouveau ideal. Another exciting feature of the exterior is the semicircle of blooming flowers above the entrance, while the interior is dominated by a monumental staircase leading to the first floor, decorated by a female statue representing trade. However, little of the original furnishings remain so the glamour of the department store is considerably lessened. The art nouveau glamour of the Grand Hotel Union, however, lives on. After its recent renovation it again shines in full glory, as elegant as at its opening in October 1905. At that time, the party went on for days and it was said that Ljubljana had finally got its first metropolitan hotel. Its centenary was celebrated this September, along with the centenary of the erection of Prešeren's monument and a hundred years since the city became the owner of Ljubljana castle.

The Grand Hotel Union was built next to the road leading from the old city centre to the railway station. It was a macadam road back then with scarcely any houses. But soon buildings began to rise up one by one, the biggest and the most glamorous being the hotel. The building of the hotel was financed by the joint-stock company Union, founded by a doctor named Vinko Gregorcic. The hotel was designed by Josip Vancaš, a Czech architect, in 1903. Work started in 1904 and was completed fairly quickly. The new hotel was the biggest building in Ljubljana. It is made up of two wings at right angles to each other, and the corner concludes in a domed roof. Now it forms the corner of two streets: today's Nazorjeva and Miklošiceva. The hotel has two halls, the great hall and a smaller one next to it. The former was a technological marvel: with its 33.40 meters in length and 11.00 metres in width it was the biggest and the most beautiful in the Balkans.

Josip Vancaš was a well-known architect, invited to work in Ljubljana soon after the great earthquake. He impressed the city's worthies with his plans for Mestna hranilnica (or The Municipal Saving's Bank) on Copova 3. The building is one of his earliest Art Nouveau works. The portal resembles the one at Urbanc's department store, although it is less grand, but the signboard, one of the few still left today, is typical Art Nouveau. Made of wrought iron, this frame-like sign features a bee, a symbol of thrift and diligence. There are also a lot of national symbols, accentuated by using colours, motives from folk crafts and vegetation, all connected to the awakening of Slovene national awareness.

The art nouveau style is especially present in the interior of the Grand Hotel Union: while the facade was decorated with garlands, heads of female figures and cartouches, the interior boasted lavish furnishings, typical undulating Art Nouveau lines and stucco work. Most of the furnishings were manufactured by local craftsmen, only the glass panels were ordered in the famous A. Rhewald's glass manufacturing plant. These were single-colour glass plates with stylised plant and flower motives, so loved by Art Nouveau. There is little left of the original interior equipment, but some of the originals were replaced by copies thus preserving the Art Nouveau feel of the place.

Opposite the hotel stands another building designed by Josip Vancic, the Ljudska posojilnica (The People's Loan Society), built in 1907. It has all the "modern" features popular at the time: there are more buds, blooms, leaves and sitting figurines than anywhere else. There are many more Art Nouveau buildings in Ljubljana, around eighty in all, and there are around 150 in the whole of Slovenia. The last buildings to be designed in the Art Nouveau style are the Narodni dom (National Hall) in Kranj and the Sokol Society Hall in Tabor in Ljubljana, both designed by Ivan Vurnik, and Jožef Jelenc's Sokol Society Hall in Ljutomer, built between 1924-1927.

Recently there has been increasing interest in Europe for Art Nouveau, which is also due to the interest of the experts of UNESCO, who discovered that there are very few examples of this style on their list of global cultural heritage, which prompted them to research and document its values and cultural monuments. Many National Commissions for Unesco responded to UNESCO’s group of experts who focused on Art Nouveau architecture, among them The Office of the Slovenian National Commission for UNESCO. It participated in a project involving joint international study and active preservation and renovation of the world's Art Nouveau architectural heritage. Its result is the permanent photographic exhibition in Bad Neuheim, where one can see also Slovene Art Nouveau architecture.

(Content abstracted from "Slovenija.svet" published by Slovenska izseljenska matica.)