The more widely known Plečnik’s stadium in Ljubljana was designed for the Catholic gymnastics society Orli. We unwittingly associate the plan with the architect’s deep faith, and it seems to us that this is the reason why he would not work for the rival, liberal association of Sokol. In doing so, we forget that Plečnik was first and foremost an architect who wanted to build buildings and therefore never bound himself to one political or other option that would prevent him from receiving work orders. Thus, he worked for the rich Viennese classes, for the Czech president Masaryk, the Yugoslav king Alexander and also for the post-war president Tito. It is true that there are many letters in which Plečnik refuses assignments, saying that he is too old, too sick or too busy, but they should be understood more in the sense of "if they really want me, they will contact me again". Thus, Plečnik also cooperated with the Sokol society. He made several plans for it, but most of them remained on paper. According to his plans, only the wall and the entrance to the sports ground in Tivoli were built, and even this was demolished in 1961, when the railway line was moved due to the construction of underpasses on Dunajska and Celovška Street.
Plečnik's student Gizela Šuklje, a member of the Sokol society, probably served as an intermediary to contact the architect. Probably the oldest plan preserved in Plečnik's archive is for the building of the Sokol summer camp at Kranjska Gora. The plan is not dated, so we only assume that it was drawn after 1930, when Plečnik participated in the preparation of the regulation plan of Kranjska Gora. The plan is supposed to outline the development of the town into a modern tourist centre. Newspapers reported that in September 1930 he visited Kranjska Gora together with his assistant France Tomažič. "On this occasion, the professor lamented that year after year old rural buildings in local style are disappearing. In renovating them, the owners only consider practical and financial matters, and concrete, which in no way belongs to mountain landscapes, is the most handy material to use." (Note 1) Plečnik designed the summer camp building modestly, in two variants: with exposed brick walls and a wooden roof, and with an entirely wooden construction. The low building had two wings with two group bedrooms for men and women, with common areas, such as a kitchen, between them.
The Sokol sports ground at the Tivoli Park
Plan of the Sokol summer camp at Kranjska Gora. Variant in wood.
Plan of the Sokol summer camp at Kranjska Gora. Variant in brick.
The plan for the Ljubljana Sokol Hall has also been preserved in the archives. The society had a gymnasium in the basement of the National Hall (today's National Gallery) and an area of the Tivoli Park on lease from the municipality. This was initially rented out for an amusement park, which disturbed the neighbours with its noise late into the night. The Sokol society also needed an outdoor sports ground for athletics. The gym in the National Hall was too small, and a single space did not allow for a separate gym for men and women. Finally, in 1931 the decision was taken to build an open air sports ground, together with a Sokol Hall. The plans were drawn by Plečnik's student Gizela Šuklje. The Hall was divided into two parts – for men and women, with separate gyms and changing rooms. Next to the entrance there were the society's offices and a large meeting room. The design of a round sports ground with a track, however, was surprising and can be attributed to Plečnik's striving for originality. It is a well known fact that he always tried something new. Thus, his bridges are squares rather than simple bridges, Žale is not a mortuary but a park of farewell chapels, and NUK is not an ordinary library, but rather a temple of wisdom. Plečnik once said: "Only hens always lay the same eggs, because they can’t do anything else; but man has a mind and is always inventing new things." (Note 2) However, this should be understood in terms of Gaudi's saying: "Originality is a return to the origin. Originality means returning to the simplicity of early solutions". (Note 3) Plečnik believed that when architecture is in crisis, it must return to the beginning of the path and choose another direction. Based on these starting points, he was always looking for new possibilities and new solutions. While art history follows the development of styles, which always dress dominant solutions in new clothes, be it Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque or Art Nouveau, Plečnik's buildings are always the same in appearance, but the conceptual solution changes and must always be a test of something new. This is how we should understand Plečnik's attempt at a round sports ground. Weren't the oldest public venues round in shape?
By 1932, the Sokol society in its indecision had spent the funds on the renovation of the existing gymnasium in the National Hall and the construction of the Sokol Hall was postponed. After the closure of the amusement park, only the open air sports ground was built, with grass stands and a music pavilion. The society needed a proper outdoor facility for light athletics. Most of the stadiums at that time were made for football, and special athletics grounds were rare. According to the regulations, the track for the 100-meter run had to be straight, so Plečnik's idea of a round stadium had to be abandoned. The circular running track was just over 300 meters long, and space for jumps and javelin, discus and hammer throws was also needed. Volleyball courts were planned as well, and the existing music pavilion was preserved. Two tennis courts were planned in front of the west entrance and would be arranged as ice rinks in the winter. On the south side, the building of the former Tivoli cinema was preserved and a new Sokol Hall was supposed to be built in the next phase of construction. Work began in 1933 and was completed in August 1934, when a festival of Slavic national costumes was held at the stadium. Plečnik designed the two walls, the entrance and the stands. The walls bordered on two tree-lined alleys, called Latermanov drevored and Velesejemski drevored, and at the intersection Plečnik envisioned a monumental entrance. In the Slovenski narod newspaper, an enthusiastic journalist compared it to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris: "The entrance is a special building, which reminds us of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris due to its monumentality. Yes, this is a real triumphal entrance for the army of gymnasts, who by entering the stadium emphasize the character of the monument and its architecture." (Note 4) The mighty entrance in the form of a canopy was 13.5 meters long, 6 meters wide and as much as 12 meters high. The canopy stood on six pillars of Podpeč limestone. Concave concrete beams rested on the pillars, and oak slats supported the copper roof. The columns were tapered towards the top to further emphasize the height of the canopy. At ground level, they measured 60 by 60 cm in cross-section, but they narrowed to 50 by 50 cm at the top. Some pillars had embedded round stones made of Podpeč limestone, and others were flat. They bore inscriptions such as "Mens sana in corpore sano", the year of construction and the like. Eight concrete lights stood next to the pillars. The wall was made of masonry and in the lower part, like the columns of the canopy, covered with stones. The windows in the wall were divided in the middle by a vertical metal bar. The openings to the left and right of the entrance served as ticket booths. A simpler wall was erected next to the former railway, along the present-day Bleiweis Street. The concrete wall was interrupted by vertical columns made of concrete pipes, and a concrete slab was laid on top. Plečnik also designed the concrete stands to the left and right of the entrance, which, however, were not completely finished at the time of the opening on Saturday, September 8, 1934.
The most interesting part of the project was definitely the entrance canopy. The roof seemed to be made of fabric, but in reality it was made of hard materials. Here, too, Plečnik used the theoretician Gottfried Semper's principle about the replacement of materials. This theory points to the fact that buildings were once built from temporary materials, but architecture evolved into more complex forms. Temporary materials were replaced by wood, and eventually by stone or brick. In such a transition, shapes from the previous material were often transferred into the new one. A good example of this are the stone Greek temples, which were originally made of wood, but when stone construction began, some elements that arose due to the structural properties of the wooden connections were also made in stone. Thus, the facade of a classical Greek temple features a band called a frieze above the lintel (architrave), which is supported by columns. This is divided into fields with vertical lines called triglyphs and flat intermediate fields called metopes. In the wooden temple, the triglyphs were placed at the ends of the supporting beams of the ceiling, and the metopes were the wooden intermediate fillings. These elements were necessary in wood, but they had no constructive function in stone. They were just a memory of the previous material. But they were much more, they were symbols that survived in the new material. The address of the wooden temple is also continued in stone.
There are two aspects here that are important for understanding Plečnik's architecture. The first is that historians have dated the appearance of homo sapiens to the appearance of graves. It was only thinking man who was aware of his own transience and sought to transcend it by symbolically remembering the dead. Plečnik was therefore convinced that the grave and the monument are the origins of architecture, because through them man symbolically transcends his transience. Therefore, if we want architecture to outlive us, replacing the material with a more permanent one is, of course, perfectly legitimate. A different question is whether we will ever be understood in the future. Both Semper and Plečnik looked for an analogy in language, which was not unusual given how intensively philosophers were working on it at the time. In order to be understood, architecture has to speak in an architectural language that everyone can comprehend. Plečnik simply did not believe that in every age it would be possible to invent a new language understood by everyone. That is why Semper also considered his theory of material substitution to mean that symbolic forms are transferred from one material to another and are preserved. The only difference is that they were rational in their original form, but then they became increasingly symbolic. This is important for another reason: Semper, and Plečnik too, believed that craftsmanship was the foundation of all art. But craftsmanship was not enough, there had to be a symbolic component. Craft could only cross the threshold of true art when it began to speak with a symbolic architectural language. With his concave wooden roof of the entrance pavilion, Plečnik raised it above the average carpentry product. He breathed into it the quality of an architectural work of art.
Text: Andrej Hrausky
Note 1: »Iz Kranjske Gore«, Jugoslovan, September 26, 1930
Note 2: Vilko Novak: »Sedem desetletij s Plečnikom«, Mohorjev koledar 1991, Mohorjeva družba (Celje)
Note 3: Internet: »Gaudi Quotes«
Note 4: »Najmodernejše letno sokolsko telovadišče«, Slovenski narod, March 31, 1934