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Kahn on the Karst


At the end of the 2006 summer architectural tour, I traveled to Ljubljana, capital of Slovenia, the Balkan state where I would least likely get shot. It was a pilgrimage, not “of sorts” but a genuine pilgrimage to see the works of Jože Plečnik, the 20th century’s counterpart to Michelangelo’s Mannerism. I am awed by Plečnik’s work and consistently place him in my Top Ten. There’s little chance that he’ll be supplanted by another.


A Slovenian by birth, Plečnik studied architecture in Vienna and came under the influence of Otto Wagner and the Viennese Sezession. At the end of WWI, he was invited by Jan Masaryk, first president of the new nation of Czechoslovakia, to become the architect of Czech nationalism and aid in the conversion/adaptation of Prague Castle as the seat of the new government. Plečnik’s “interventions” there are poetic explorations of architecture’s power to engage the viewer, especially through the sense of touch. Eventually he returned to his homeland and became the de facto city architect of Ljubljana. That city is rich with his late art, architecture and urbanisms, such as the “Triple Bridge” and river revetments at the city center.

I could have met him, being twelve years old when he died in 1957. What was I thinking?

My friend Crazy Richard needs to see this stuff, too.


Saturated—but ready to go again for another immersion in one of the finest architects that the 20th century had to offer—I boarded a train for the return trip across the Karst, the windswept plain stretching between Ljubljana and Trieste. It was a sleepy afternoon ride, and as I dozed the Slovenian countryside inched slowly by, small towns and villages along the rail line. In one of those unremarkable, subliminal hazes, the passing of vernacular forms inspired some harmless doodling. Very soon, before we even reached the border and customs control, I’d sketched a home that might have fit that scruffy Slavic landscape. The idea stuck and got refined on the rest of the journey home. I think it’s not a bad house, though one more atuned to a hot semi-arid site. But I also wonder now, seven years later, whether it could be adapted to Agincourt and vicinity. Dr Bob warned me about moving there, so this is just fiction. Really.

homage a kahn001

The idea was connected pavilions, good enough I suppose and influenced more by Lou Kahn than Plečnik. But the twist I’ve enjoyed is eliminating the names of rooms—nouns—in favor of verbs: defining and delineating spaces by the things we do in them. Or is it what they do for us?  It seems to me a better way to think about domesticity.

Oh, by the way, I feel somewhat vindicated by a new book on the houses of Lou Kahn. You should buy it and learn about Kahn through a series of under-reported and under-appreciated single-family homes he designed throughout his career.

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