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The timeless, humanistic architecture of Jože Plečnik in Ljubljana and Prague

Date of Submission: 15/01/2015
Criteria: (i)(ii)(iv)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Permanent Delegation of the Czech Republic to UNESCO
Ref.: 5967
Other States Parties participating
Word File

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Property names are listed in the language in which they have been submitted by the State Party


With the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, many new countries emerged in Europe. Tendencies in new national architectural styles thus gained momentum that were in parallel with the trend of the domineering modernist style. This was the context in which, contrary to the trends of that time, the architect Jože Plečnik developed his own architectural language. He was mainly working in two Slavic capitals: Prague (where he was remodelling Hradčany, the Castle District, which has already been included in the UNESCO World Heritage List, and the Vinohrady suburbs) and Ljubljana. The urban concepts and architectural solutions in both cities were being developed in a parallel and comprehensive manner that had been going on since the 1920s. In both cities, urban planning, landscape and architectural changes were taking place. In Prague as well as in Ljubljana, the architect was facing an already existing urban fabric, which he upgraded in a way that only reinforced its qualities. This process included the reinterpreting of world architectural heritage, which resulted in unique architecture. In his native Ljubljana, where he spent four decades on comprehensive urban planning, he projected urban solutions, squares, bridges, public spaces, buildings, monuments and churches. The untapped potential of the city was discovered. The Ljubljanica River was converted into one of Ljubljana’s main urban motifs and also interconnected different buildings and urban spaces through a network of architectural elements. With his decades-spanning interventions, Plečnik developed the city’s potential and upgraded it into a whole to such an extent that Ljubljana has today become known as “Plečnik’s Ljubljana”. Nevertheless, his comprehensive and painstaking approach only emphasised the original characteristics of the space already existing from prehistoric times until the 20th century. Much like Prague and Ljubljana, which started inhabiting their new roles as capitals, sacral architecture, in the architect’s view, was also evolving in a new way and symbolized the ethical and the spiritual foundations of society in its developing of new democracies. The component parts of the serial transnational property are full of rich symbolism that can still be recognised and understood today. They entail characteristics of a perennial architecture (Architectura Perennis) that upgrades and reinterprets the space and at the same time modernises its traditional functions and finds new uses in overlooked urban potentials. The component parts have been chosen as those examples that best express the influence of various styles and eras. Traditional artisanal know-how as well as the innovative use of new materials were applied in their construction. Plečnik’s interventions derived from profound reflections on the city and its sustainable use. All of the architectonic monuments, public spaces and structures supplementing the urban fabric that are subject to this serial transnational property are still in their original use. Both Ljubljana and Prague still continue to develop on the bases of Plečnik’s urbanist concepts.

The nominated serial transnational property represents a perennial and timeless architecture that offers universal solutions to pressing issues of different generations. In the Fifties of the past century (1950s), it was admired for its monumentality achieved by using even simple, relatively small-scale material. Post-modernism in the 1970s discovered its free compositions and classical architectural elements as the basis for creating architecture and public spaces of human scale and understandable forms. During the crisis in modern urban planning, we discovered anew the humanistic value of Plečnik’s public spaces, his sensibility to the contexts and his ability to recognise the importance of landscape planning within towns, which preceded the Historic Urban Landscape approach to historic towns.

Name(s) of the component part(s)

Czech Republic:

Prague, Church of the Most Sacred Heart of Our Lord / Kostel Nejsvětějšího Srdce Páně na Vinohradech, 50˚ 4' 41.007" N, 14˚ 27' 2.814" E


Ljubljana, Church of St. Michael / Cerkev sv. Mihaela, 46˚ 00' 44" N, 14˚ 30' 22" E

Ljubljana, Promenade along the Embankments and Bridges of the Ljubljanica River / Promenada ob nabrežjih in mostovi reke Ljubljanice, 46˚ 02' 54" N, 14˚ 30' 22" E

Ljubljana, Vegova Street with the National and University Library / Vegova ulica z Narodno in univerzitetno knjižnico, 46˚ 02' 51" N, 14˚ 30' 13" E

Ljubljana, Garden of All Saints in Žale Cemetery / Pokopališče Žale – Vrt vseh svetih, 46˚ 04' 03" N, 14˚ 31' 43" E

Ljubljana, Church of St. Francis / Cerkev sv. Frančiška, 46˚ 04' 06" N, 14 ˚29' 48" E

Description of the component part(s)

Czech Republic, Prague:

Church of the Most Sacred Heart of Our Lord (19281930)

The church was built between 1928 and 1930, but its finishing and its interior furnishing was carried out in the 1930s. The church is a unique modern religious building that both drew on the Czech architectural traditions and fully corresponded to Plečnik’s concept of the necessity to reform the liturgy through a partial return to “pristine” Early Christianity. The church was designed as a large hall without a separate chancel and, based on principles of basilica-type space configuration, a row of windows was inserted under a wooden ceiling. The double pulpit is a reference to the Early Christian ambos in some churches. Numerous decorative details reinterpret Ravenna mosaics or draw inspiration from the glorious times of King Charles IV. Through his innovative approach, Plečnik attempted to “sacralise” the large hall and to allow the congregation to be near the sacred places during the mass. The optically and structurally inventive bell tower, while reaching twice as high as the rest of the building, also occupies the entire width of the building as well, heightening it and giving it a monumental character. The main facade of the church is connected with the dominant bell tower in an analogy to the shape of a Gothic cathedral. The form of the crypt is reminiscent of the Early Christian catacombs and is used to store a selection of findings from the oldest churches in Prague, located in the third courtyard of Prague Castle. By means of this design, Plečnik wished to add historical legitimacy to the new church built on a plot void of architectural traditions. By its expression and innovations for liturgical use, the Church of the Most Sacred Heart of Our Lord represents one of the most original religious buildings of the 20th century.

Slovenia, Ljubljana:

Promenade along the Embankments and Bridges of the Ljubljanica River (1928–1942) The Ljubljanica River is the city’s main axis. As the main transport waterway, it represented the key element in the town’s life and in the formation of its settlements from prehistoric times until the middle of the 19th century. After its role faded for some time, Plečnik re­integrated it back into the urban space. Public buildings and spaces are placed alongside the river: a promenade, a square above the river and a market place with shops. The bridges, the footbridges and the above-water panoramic platforms are conceived as public spaces enabling the pulse and movement of human life and activity to progress on, under and beside them. These objects are located at key nerve points in the city, where they connect older architecture dating from different periods with various uses of spaces and with influences from the Mediterranean as well. He constructed a two-story market hall on the very location where commercial activity had customarily always taken place and thus conserved the tradition of exchanging goods. Ljubljana continues to develop the same axis. The city lives with and alongside the river, which is the most attractive location for get-togethers, commercial activities and cultural events. The waterway through the city is concluded with a sluice, which apotheosizes of the importance of the waterway in the ancient world.

Vegova Street with the National and University Library (19271940)

Plečnik gradually designed Vegova Street by planning a park and avenues that connect different-style buildings into a whole: the remains of an ancient Roman town, narrow medieval streets and façades of buildings dating from different periods. At the point where Roman and medieval city walls meet, he placed a string of statues of famous composers and linguists. Amongst the existing institutions on Vegova Street he placed the National and University Library, a total work of art that encompasses all the principles of his creativity. The library is designed as an antique temple “wrapped in a textile coat”, in a way similar to the Church of the Most Sacred Heart of Our Lord in Prague, designed in the same period. Lined with majestic columns, the monumental entrance hall bears clear inspiration drawn from Antiquity. This space is clad in noble, black stone, which sets intentional contrast to the large and light reading room on the first floor, forming the heart of the building. At the end of Vegova Street, Plečnik rearranged Congress Square, the main city square, and connected it to the Ljubljanica River and the medieval town on one side, and to the Baroque church on the side opposite. The square’s geometry served as a model for his later designs of inner yards in Hradčany, the Castle District in Prague. Congress Square in Ljubljana is still a popular place for important gatherings.

Garden of All Saints in Žale Cemetery (1936–1942)

The Garden of All Saints is the essential part of the necropolis of the city of Ljubljana. A pillared triumphal arch, an oratory and a mortuary are the primary elements of a funeral ceremony. Chapels that represent Ljubljana parishes are dedicated to the dead. Each chapel has its own artistic characteristic and, inspired by different original architectural forms (tumulus, temple, smaller church, oriental türbe, Turkish tomb, and pergola), has been converted into a new architectural construction. The Garden of All Saints is an art piece all its own. Its concept was inspired by the Acropolis in Athens with its Propylae, Parthenon and a series of smaller temples. Plečnik created an intimate frame for the whole space and chapels with strong symbolic messages using green and built elements. He used light and greenery to create an atmosphere of equality before God and respect towards all human beings, as well as comfort and consolation for the grieving.

Church of St. Francis (19241931)

The Church of St. Francis is a sacral building in a working-class neighbourhood, where the architect creates new symbolism with a prominent church tower and the volume of the object. The exterior of the church is designed according to Palladian monumentality, whereas the interior is based on a concept of a central hall-like space with a flat wooden ceiling. According to the modern liturgy, it represents the final step in the metamorphosing of the Early Christian basilica. By placing the main altar almost in the centre, the architect preceded principles set by the Second Vatican Council by several decades and brought a new design to the sanctuary. The Church of St. Francis is a slightly altered initial project for Prague’s Church of the Most Sacred Heart of Our Lord, which gives it the impression of imperial grandeur.

Church of St. Michael (19371939)

Plečnik upgraded Ljubljana as a city having an uninterrupted experience from prehistoric times until today. The Church of St. Michael on the Barje marshlands in the Ljubljana suburbs is constructed on marshland terrain. In the placing and planning of the green areas, the architect respected the characteristics of the local cultural landscape. Because of the soft ground, the church is built on supports rammed into the mud. The bell-tower is separated and its weight reduced by arched openings. The unusual orientation of the sanctuary, the altar being placed on the longer side of the nave, narrows the distance between the priest and the church-goers, just as in the Church of St. Francis. In this case, Plečnik proved his creativity by employing limited resources: he used stone only for the central part and for the four corners, and he filled the space in between with timber. The architect appeals to the public with the elements of antique, ancient Christian and traditional building styles, especially typical for wooden churches, but also with extremely profane elements. The church, together with the process of its construction, is a total masterpiece.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

Ljubljana is a remarkable example of a town planned, designed, regenerated and upgraded by one sole architect within a single era. Many ideas were born in Prague, where the architect participated in establishing a modern humanistic society with specific architectonic works and urban interventions, the best example being the Church of the Most Sacred Heart of Our Lord. Based on that dual quality, the serial transnational property demonstrates outstanding and timeless features.

The thematically rich transnational serial property consists of the several component parts, which represent a heritage of international importance. The cultural value of the selected component parts lies in their absolute sense of harmonious form, syntax and rhythm, with intentional references to forms of classical architecture. By the emphasis on the context, sustainability and often minimalism of construction costs, the properties anticipate the concept of sustainable development and respect for the environment.

The well-thought-out concept of each component part of the series testifies to the exceptional humanism, embodied in the properties of a religious character, as well as in the form of civilian and educational buildings and in the innovative landscaping of public spaces.

Parts of Prague and the old town nucleus of Ljubljana were for several decades the object of Plečnik’s simultaneous urban planning, whereby he transferred the experience gained in one city to the other. The unique and original properties in both cities hold outstanding universal value. They are marked by an impression of timelessness carrying symbolic messages for all strata of society and are thus representing a universal architecture that offers solutions to contemporary challenges.

All the selected properties express a universal symbolic language that appeals to all people, regardless of their culture, education or time in which they live. This effect was achieved by the creative use of basic architectural elements such as pillars, arches, obelisks and pyramids freely without following stylistic rules from the past. As far as building material in designs is concerned, the technology used in processing the material stresses its characteristics. The materials, architectural elements and even almost whole objects themselves were systematically recycled with the conscientious sense for the existing values. Whenever possible, the future users participated in the construction process because the quality of the result was the absolute priority of the architect. These humanistic and sustainable approaches were unique in the beginning of the 20th century.

The component parts represent different types of buildings and urban spaces. All of them are designed in a completely unconventional way exceeding the usual limits of the particular type. The bridges are conceived as public spaces, the churches are examples of liturgical innovations, the library is designed as a temple of wisdom, and the mortuary complex is created as a garden of mourning chapels.

Criterion (i): The nominated serial transnational property represents an example of human creative genius. Architect Jože Plečnik developed his own architectural language, which proves his unique and complex approach to architecture and urbanism, but also to classical forms and their new conceptualisation. The selected component parts testify to an inclusive intervention into an existing city and set the guidelines for sustainable development that are still valid to this day. They represent an original and responsible creative style, one that did not adapt to the current modernistic trends, laws and rules in the architecture of the time.

Criterion (ii): The nominated series is an excellent expression of the interchange of values in European and non-European cultures. It expresses a strong focus on Classical forms, but in a different way than the neo-classicist approach of the 19th century. Stimuli from the East, the South, Central Europe, the Middle East and Japan merge together into a unique, unrepeatable synthesis.

The nominated serial transnational property represents timeless architecture. Both the buildings and the urban concepts are based on universal human values and combine universal architectural elements with an innovative use of traditional and new materials and designs. The serial transnational property testifies to the architect’s rare ability to apply ancient architectonic forms and transform them into something new. The best examples are the Church of the Most Sacred Heart of Our Lord’s crypt in Prague, the Three Bridges and the Embankments along the Ljubljanica River, Žale Cemetery and the Ljubljana National and University Library.

The properties include historical or archaeological elements of urban architecture, reinterpreted in new compositions and meanings. The social aspect is crucial and is expressed by the human scale of the open public spaces and of the interiors of public buildings. Mostly modest interventions were used in order to upgrade the function and the aesthetic of existing places. A good example is the upgrading of Vegova Street and the Embankments along the Ljubljanica River with a market hall and several bridges of unrepeatable form.

Criterion (iv): 
The series as a whole represents a unique synthesis of local cultural traditions and universal architectural heritage that transcends the genius loci and time in which it was created.

The churches, the public buildings and the urban spaces are total masterpieces, not only in their concepts and interior designs but also in their details. Composed greenery was introduced into architectural and urban concepts as an equal compositional element. In certain cases, it also has the function of protecting the buildings.

The component parts include transcultural symbols, which enable the user to develop an emotional connection to the buildings and to the spaces. This especially applies to the interiors – for example, the staircase of the National and University Library in Ljubljana as well as the unique interiors of all three churches included in the series.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

Plečnik’s architecture - which is subject to the highest protection based on the Order declaring the work of architect Jože Plečnik in Ljubljana a cultural monument of national importance - forms the identity of the city of Ljubljana. It includes urban planning solutions as well as constructed and to-this-day-preserved buildings. The contents and the original functions of the properties are authentic in their totality; they have suffered only minor adjustments, due to the needs of modern life, but ones that do not contradict the original concept. The continuity of traditions and urban pulse only enhance their cultural significance. The characteristics of the surroundings have in some cases changed due to the process of decay and degradation of the vegetation. The process of conservation and repair of the properties is currently on-going in order to conserve their originally planned form, whereby all interventions are subject to agreement between the owners and the Institute for the Protection of the Cultural Heritage of Slovenia. Due to the necessary renovation work to improve energy efficiency, the interventions have been mainly maintenance-related but do not cause any material, design or spiritual substance degradation and are reversible. The characteristics of the properties have been preserved as far as their form, construction and material are concerned.

The remarkable building of the Church of the Most Sacred Heart of Our Lord was constructed and is maintained as a whole and in detail. Its urban authentic context has been preserved. The church has the same visual appeal within the square itself and even in the Prague skyline as it had at the time of its construction. The appearance of the church has changed only slightly since its construction in the 1930s and fully complies with the original project of the architect. The church still serves the Roman Catholic Church as a sanctuary. All restoration works so far have been performed according to strict methodological criteria for consistent application of historical materials and processes. The Church of the Most Sacred Heart of Our Lord is located on the Square of George of Poděbrady in Prague – within the protected city heritage zone of Vinohrady. According to the Heritage Protection Act, it is protected in the highest possible degree of importance as a national cultural monument. It has a rather extensive buffer zone, based on the territorial protection of the wide vicinity of the church.

Justification of the selection of the component part(s) in relation to the future nomination as a whole

The nominated component parts are an interconnected system of a non-separable totality of Plečnik’s consciousness. They demonstrate an aesthetically effective and creatively incomparable approach to the urban planning of Ljubljana between the First and the Second World Wars of the 20th century, while at the same time, in Prague, the Church of the Most Sacred Heart of Our Lord, along with creative interventions in the Prague Castle, bears many similarities with the nominated Ljubljana properties. As a whole, the serial transnational property is evidence of the development of the architect’s ideas in two important cities in the inter-war period in Europe.

Ljubljana is the only city in Europe that was completely and comprehensively remodelled and redesigned with urban planning and architectural interventions by one sole architect between the two World Wars. All the component parts were constructed in parallel with the designing and decorating of the residence of the Czech president Masaryk in the Castle of Hradčany and during the construction of the Church of the Most Sacred Heart of Our Lord in Prague. The Church of St. Francis in Ljubljana and the Church of the Most Sacred Heart of Our Lord in Prague are different responses to the same challenge of forming a new identity in a new neighbourhood, whereby sacral buildings become the connective tissue between time and space. The design and the construction of the nominated churches in both cities was a simultaneous process that enabled a transmission of experiences.

The Church of the Most Sacred Heart of Our Lord is the most important religious architecture designed by architect Jo2e Plečnik outside the territory of Slovenia. The church is an important step in the development of Jo2e Plečnik’s religious architecture. The church is a unique synthesis of stimuli that Jo2e Plečnik sensitively managed to combine into an inimitable unity, which represents the return to simplicity and spiritual contents of Early Christian religious buildings. As such, this church is a unique proof of the architect’s creative genius and his inventive approach.

In Ljubljana, the multilevel symbolic meaning of Plečnik’s architecture, the vision of converting a provincial town into a capital and the planning of a city to suit the user can best be appreciated in two of the selected urban axes: the waterway of the Ljubljanica River between the port of Trnovo and the water gate, and the urban axis of Vegova Street between the Square of the French Revolution and Congress Square. The water axis culminates in the Classical object of the Market, whereas the pedestrian axis culminates in the National and University Library. The city symbolically consists of the city of the living and the city of the dead, which culminates in the Garden of All Saints in Žale Cemetery.

All the selected component parts of this series, because of the key synthesis of design and technical elements as well as architectural blocks, are, together with the interior of the buildings included, designed as total masterpieces, not only regarding their form but also their symbolic meaning. All of them significantly upgrade or even determine the historical identity of the place wherein they are situated. The properties in both cities are the parallel results of the same process within a relatively short period.

Comparison with other similar properties

The component parts represented in this serial transnational property are an extraordinary contribution at the moment of the beginning of modern architecture, albeit with different principles. It is impossible to fit Plečnik’s architecture in one style, as it finds its inspiration in universal architectural heritage. In the history of architecture, changes in style were usually triggered by major social changes. Contrary to his contemporaries, Plečnik did not experiment with forms; he preferred to reinterpret time-proven architectural principles and preserved built heritage instead.

Plečnik did not follow the contemporary trend of modern architectural production, such as functionalism or modernism, but created at the outskirts of the then Kingdom of Yugoslavia and found his own personal style, always having in mind the history of architecture, symbolism and ethics. We cannot compare the nominated component parts to the works of contemporaries such as Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, Alvar Aalto, Gerrit Rietveld, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Oscar Niemayer and others as far as creative approach, stylistic expression and construction style are concerned. Whereas Niemeyer created representational objects in the city of Brasilia with no restraints, Plečnik did this in the context of the Slovene cultural capital within the Kingdom of Yugoslavia before the Second World War in a deliberately more discrete way, but with strong symbolic meaning. The selected masterpieces can, however, be compared with other architects on the level of the use of material, architectural syntax and innovation, as well as where (trans)national relevance of an architect and aesthetic effects such as monumentality and tranquility are concerned. Both Plečnik and August Perret, for example, used reinforced concrete and classical architectural syntax, but their expression is different. With the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright he shares a deep relationship with the past, but this manifests in a different way. In the case of Wright, it relates to nature and organic architecture, whereas Plečnik uses vernacular tradition as well as classical elements.

Very rarely does it happen that one sole architect can plan and design a city over the course of decades, as in the case of Ljubljana. Such cases are known mostly only during the Renaissance or when reconstructing cities destroyed by war. But this represents the first time in history that an architect planned an already constructed city in such a comprehensive manner. There are no similar examples of designing and planning a city centre in such a short period of time and according to the vision and implementation of only one architect during the 1920s and 1930s of the 20th century. Jože Plečnik’s urban planning and designing of the centre of Ljubljana and its outskirts share many common characteristics with his planning of the Hradčany district in Prague. In both Ljubljana and in Prague, the new urban designs were created respecting the existing older architecture and connected into a whole with broader symbolic meaning. A comprehensive understanding of architecture as an environment for the quality of life is also demonstrated in the designs of public spaces and roads, including the bridges in Ljubljana. This was during a period when the creative concept of Gesamkunstwerk was undergoing a transformation towards more specialization in both architectural creation as well as town planning. We can find something similar in the way of connecting of ancient Athens in the Panathenaic procession of the Acropolis. Here, it connected several temples while the constructions gained density and joined the Agora and other elements of the ancient city into a whole. In Prague and in Ljubljana, one of Plečnik’s key typical approaches to urban design and the remodelling of urban space can similarly be observed: recognising the city’s main identity points, placing new elements, and connecting key architectural points into an urban totality.