|This is an open letter and I am writing to you in response to a statement of yours that was used as part of the aggressive and excessively one-sided marketing presentation of the NRA architects Willem Jan Neutelings and Michiel Riedijks’ project for the ‘Kolizej’ building in Ljubljana. One can see from the attached photographs , that have been made in real perspectives from the contemporary streets that surround the proposed building, that this is a project that drastically alters all the present natural and cultural relationships within Ljubljana at both street and city level, and that it begs a thorough appraisal. The grotesquely oversized ambition of the project, and the need to destroy high-quality listed buildings to accommodate it imply dire consequences for the urban structure of Ljubljana, and display an arrogance that is surprising given the participation of top-quality architects.
You are probably aware that Slovene architects did not have the chance to participate in the competition, despite a very clear legal provision that they must. Their response to the present situation, however, is no mere reaction to the insult, but a protest against a competition that was conducted in an illegal manner. In this particular case - and in many ways this case is without precedent - this kind of discrimination is far from the supposedly ‘desired and indispensable’ cultural exchange between European nations that you yourself mention in the introduction to your statement, and which was promoted by the recent ‘European Spirit’ project that ran in Ljubljana on the initiative of the Dutch embassy. The project itself was co-ordinated by Dutch embassies during the Dutch presidency of the EU, and was intended, according to the organisers, ‘…to encourage reflection on the contribution of art towards co-habitation in the enlarged EU, and also to reflect both the fear of globalisation and the efforts to preserve the individuality and special characteristics of individual countries…’ So, which are the characteristics in question? What might the contribution of art amount to? What kind of mutual relationship might be said to exist today between the extroverted culture of a former colonial power like the Netherlands, and Slovenia, whose political and cultural history has been so different? And what would the substance of meaningful exchange between two countries be, when their landscapes are so different: one, a nation that arose on a virtually non-existent, self-created flat-land on the windy shores of the Northern Atlantic, and the other, in which the dominating influence and phenomena of nature are so pervasive that it has only been by knowing them intimately, in the same way that the sailor knows the sea, that a sustainable, deep and spiritually rich existence was created at all?
While I cannot claim to be a frequent visitor, I have visited the Netherlands often enough to have noticed a transformation within Dutch culture over the past few decades that mirrors tendencies within globalisation: from the critically engaged and intimately public towards the commercial and the exclusively private. These changes are, of course, manifested in architecture because architecture has always been very important to the Dutch: in a sense it accounts for the very existence of the territory itself insofar as it was created by an extension of precisely such technical mastery. But the era that saw the construction of southern Amsterdam and the Forum is long gone; and even the vision of Berlage, that the Amsterdam Bourse become the centre of the community, seems to belong to the long ago dawn of capitalism. As you say, the winds are strong, and not only those blowing from the north, and the Netherlands. It takes a powerful force indeed to export a home-grown metropolitan architecture and, in line with a historical tradition of cultural export, to equip it to ride the heady currents of global capital. I have no difficulty imagining why, for a society that had to extract its territory from the sea, it might seem logical and perhaps even indispensable to create an urban landscape in the same artificial manner. And why, given this agenda, there is an overwhelming temptation to seize the opportunities offered by the material inventiveness of contemporary architecture and design, by the power of global capital, and above all, by the ubiquity of the consumer society. These tendencies within globalisation present themselves everywhere in more or less the same way and are, of course, present in contemporary Slovenia. But the local response to this kind of challenge can and must be different. The starting point, the place itself, carries within itself the specific genesis of its own being and habitation, and its own necessarily local culture and history. Some may deride the starting point as a weakness, but is this any more than the prejudice of a given historical moment? It could equally be seen from within the same moment to be a position of strength and comparative advantage. But, putting aside the different points of view, it is a basic and given fact and it cannot be avoided. Better for the specific genius of a place to be well understood and taken advantage of, just as the Dutch take advantage of their own. And, above all, this clear sense of mutual difference is a prerequisite if cultural exchange is to take place on terms of equality.
My first impression of the work of Neutlings and Riedijk came some years ago when I had the chance to visit their Minnaert Building in Utrecht. I was surprised with the sensitive and efficient conception of micro-climate, and the witty manner in which the content of the school had been intertwined with basic natural elements such as rain, wind and sun. I recognised it as a benign reflection of both the natural and cultural specificity of the Netherlands. When I studied photographs, sketches and plans I noticed that one of the characteristics of their architectural method is the assembly of functional units in a kind of post-modern “plug-in” – something like a functional and compositional “3D Tetris” - and that this way of doing things can achieve a successful condensation of functions, and an intertwining of public and private space. In this way, and in a contemporary manner, it manages an approach to the complexity of urban fabric. I was less pleasantly surprised, however, to discover that their proposal for Ljubljana is no more than a simple assembly of two of their previous competition projects: the building for the Ministry of Justice in the Hague, from which they not only took the basic principle of composition but also the overall image, and their project for a concert hall in Brugges, from which they took the idea for the inner theatre hall.
The ‘emphasised iconography’ that you mention in relation to the NRA proposal, refers pointedly to those elements in the design that evoke archaic historical forms like ziggurats, temples and citadels. If these were originally developed for a ministry of justice, then one can deduce that these elements paraphrase the raw monumentality and technological superiority of other institutions of power in other past moments of European history. I recently had the chance to recognise something of this language in a number of new buildings made for the Brussels bureaucracy, as well as the old Palais de Justice. But what made the architects deem such forms appropriate to Ljubljana? Can it be pure ignorance and a false sense of the exotic, the ‘unknownness’ of south-eastern Europe?
I propose to you that it is risky in the extreme to transpose such a powerful and artificial iconographic language to environments that are different in nature, history and culture. The project as presented is in direct confrontation with all the basic ratios of the natural landmarks, and the entire scale by which the city has been measured and built until now. What is more, in its scale and eclectic language it sails dangerously close to being a parody of the colossus, such as were built by socialist and other dictatorships. The project as a whole, and the design for the theatre in particular, fairly rings with a deliberate sense of irony, and its language is saturated with petit-bourgeois, former Communist Party and contemporary capitalist cliché. However, the scale of the project and the kinds of pressure that are being applied to force it through, render this irony grotesque. Because the image proposed is hardly neutral, and given the fact that it has been directly transposed from another totally different environment and function, can the project be defended at all from accusations of cultural neo-colonialism? The truncated pyramid form – intended, in this case, for offices – is associated, in our environment, with funereal, memorial architecture.
This is a legacy of Plečnik, and indeed there is no fear that the project would erase our nostalgia for Plečnik, as you suggest. The reverse effect is more likely given that the basic forms proposed are already layered with social and cultural meanings. It may contribute to further misunderstanding of Plečnik’s work, although you would surely agree that the recognition of Plečnik and Ravnikar’s achievement in Ljubljana and abroad is more a reflection of the quality of the buildings and environments they created than a mere ‘conservatism’, and that they continue to be the source of culturally meaningful, residential and aesthetic pleasure for the town and its residents. Our relation to these two architects is less one of nostalgia than one of respect for the standards they set for the further development of our civic spaces, along with all those who contributed to the fabric of the town before them. Despite their individuality and excellence as authors, they both proved that Ljubljana has ample historic and, one might say, mythological power, as well as a robust enough indigenous cultural tradition to continue to evolve as a whole, to develop and to be built regardless of the changing demands of changing times. And this is and always has been a process that welcomes original and contemporary architecture from both Slovene and foreign architects.
Vedran, when we first met, I was a student visiting an INDESSEM event in Split. If you recall, the subject was the Dioclecian’s Palace and the theme was to research relations between the old and the new. I will always remember this event, if only for the chance to meet some of the giants of European and world architecture – in particular Aldo van Eyck. The event helped me to formulate principles that I still try to follow, namely: to try to see the whole as much as possible, and always to support what can be recognised as the weakest element in space and society. Today, in the broader environment in which I live and work, the most endangered element is the balance between natural and cultural spaces, and the next is the substance of communication amongst ourselves. This ‘eroded’ communication impacts upon and threatens the creation of quality contemporary architecture. In contrast to a ‘deaf’ architecture would be a ‘communicated’ architecture that could enable a quality and fullness of life and that would stand not only as a force of persuasion, but also as a witness.
In our long and uninterrupted European culture of co-habitation, tradition and innovation have always needed to co-exist, even in moments of mutual opposition. They have demonstrated themselves to be mutually dependent and intertwined. In the case of the Ljubljana Kolizej project, however, these two qualities find one another in an unnecessarily violent collision. This is a project which, in its gargantuan proportions, in the manner of its promotion, in the amount of invested money and in the contempt shown for existing legislation, amounts to an act of pure provocation. It amounts not to a solution of the civic problems that it cites as its raison d’être, but to a symptom of them, and a symptom that has become a syndrome, raising more questions than it is able to answer. Solutions can only be found though an open and continuous discussion at the public, professional and political level. If such a debate were to happen in a serious and responsible manner, it would do Ljubljana good, and the town needs it. But progress towards even this reasonable goal is made difficult by the kind of one-sided propaganda to which your statement has been attached.
I remember you as an excellent partner in discussions, and a patient and successful catalyser between opposing opinions about architecture and urban planning. I have no doubt that you will understand what I am saying, and why.
With best regards,
Ira Zorko, architect
Ljubljana, 24th December 2004
Translated by Helena Biffio Zorko & Angus Reid
||An open letter from Ira Zorko is adressed to Vedran Mimica, the Associate Dean, Berlage Institute, Botersloot25, 3011 HE Rotterdam, The Netherlands. The letter is a response to a statement of Vedran Mimica, which was a part of marketing presentation for Kolizej building in Ljubljana.