Renovation Planned for Ljubljana’s Urbanc Store (Centromerkur)


AFTER decades of neglect, an art nouveau landmark in Ljubljana is poised for a renovation.

The owners of the 104-year-old Urbanc store, known in most travel guidebooks as “Centromerkur,” hope to restore the building at Trubarjeva 1, at the edge of Prešeren Square, the heart of Ljubljana.

statue.jpgThe building impresses with its statue of Mercury on top, a statue of Commerce inside (right), an ornate staircase, and a hundred little flourishes. Still, it suffered from incongruous additions and inadequate upkeep during the Communist era, and it will take a lot of work–and money–to return it to its original glory.

At the turn of the last century, local businessman Feliks Urbanc commissioned Graz architect Friedrich Sigismundt to design the building that would become home to the city’s first department store. When it was completed in 1903, Urbanc’s name appeared on the building’s side.

img_3964.jpgThe Yugoslav government took possession of the store in 1948, painted over the Urbanc name, and called it “Centromerkur,” the name which now appears above the entrance (right). After denationalization, Urbanc’s grandsons, Ljubljana businessmen Hubert and Jorg Kosler, took possession of it in 2002.

Because the building is a historic landmark, the Institute for the Protection of Cultural Heritage of Slovenia is giving advice to the Koslers, who want to restore the 4,000-square-meter (43,055 square-foot) building and expand and modernize its department store. (Its current dark and cluttered retail atmosphere seems anachronistic in bustling Ljubljana Center.) The Institute’s Restoration Centre prepared a detailed plan for the building, says project manager Boris Deanovič.

The plan calls for a €600,000 ($881,000) renovation that would return the building, last renovated in the 1980s, as close as possible to its original appearance.

This would include a €270,000 ($397,000) restoration of the façade and its decorations. In preparing the plan for the exterior, restoration specialists took samples of multiple layers of varicolored paint to find its original color: cream with gilded flourishes.

img_3933.jpgA €215,000 ($316,000) restoration of the interior would include removing the linoleum that covers the original oak floors (right) on the upper levels and tearing down the walls that were added in the 1960s to fill the building’s inner courtyard.

The plan also involves a €30,000 ($44,000) cleaning of metal elements such as the front door decoration, and the €75,000 ($110,000) replacement of several etched windows.

img_3907.jpgAs originally designed, the building’s ground and first floors housed a department store which sold mostly textiles, since clothes were then homemade or tailor-made. (The original wooden shelves, seen at right, are still in use, and the plan calls for their preservation.) The 2nd, 3rd and 4th floors were private apartments, several of which have spectacular views of Prešeren Square. The new plan would make all five floors part of the new store, allowing the public to enjoy the views.

light.jpgThe plan would restore the original globe lights (right) and allow natural light to enter from the windows. (Fluorescent tubes now illuminate the interior.)

On the ground floor, light once came through 12 etched windows with a flower-and-vine design. Only one of the 2m X 2.7m (6.6′ X 8.9′) window panels still exists, but craftsman Aleš Lomberger, who reintroduced the etched glass technique in Slovenia after independence, will likely reconstruct 11 others.

img_3952.jpgBut not all of the fixes need to be expensive or elaborate. Restoration can also mean something simple, like moving the ATM (at right) from its position beside the building’s central staircase to a less conspicuous spot.

With luck, this will be the last overhaul needed for a long time. “It is always easier to keep a building in good shape on an everyday basis than to restore it after it has been neglected,” Deanovič says.

In Training to Ascend Triglav?


A climbing wall for kids in the new play area of a Ljubljana mall, with a climbing “tree” for preschool kids at right. Slovenes are serious about their climbing: There is a saying that to truly be a Slovene, one must ascend the nation’s highest peak, 2,864-meter (9,393-ft.) Mount Triglav, in the Julian Alps, at least once. Perhaps the best way to achieve this goal is to start training at a young age?

Ljubljana Codex named a UNESCO “Memory of the World”

codex.jpgUNESCO has included the sacred document Codex Suprasliensis, held in part by Slovenia’s National and University Library, to its worldwide register of valuable archive holdings.

Created in Bulgaria in the 11th century, the document is now shared by the national libraries of Slovenia, Poland and Russia. A rare surviving example of the Old Church Slavonic language, the codex is Slovenia’s first entry on the “Memory of the World” list.

Last Day of October in Ljubljana


Column topped by representation of the Virgin Mary in Levstik Square


Although today is a national holiday (Reformation Day), flower vendors stayed late at the Central Market in anticipation of tomorrow’s holiday, Remembrance Day, when Slovenes traditionally visit the graves of their deceased loved ones.


A view of Ljubljana Castle’s Belvedere Tower and the north side of the Ljubljanica River near Cobbler’s Bridge

“Emerging Slovenia” in London


Portrait of contemporary dancer Iztok Kovač by Borut Peterlin

IMAGINATIVE portraits of Slovenian artists, performers, and others making their mark on the nation’s cultural life are the focus of a new exhibition in London.

“Emerging Slovenia,” a collection of 38 portraits by photojournalist Borut Peterlin, opened this week at the Host Gallery in central London’s Clerkenwell neighborhood.

First published in the Slovene-language magazine Mladina, the portraits often juxtapose incongruous elements that play off their subjects’ public images. In one, jazz festival founder Marijan Dović saws a barbed wire fence using the bow of a violin. (Or is he playing the fence?) Another (above) depicts contemporary dancer Iztok Kovač falling down a flight of stairs.

Peterlin says he aims for “this kind of twist in the picture, to have visual elements that are fighting between each other. I say, ‘Let’s make it unpredictable, something that’s fun to see not only in the week it’s made, but that will be interesting years later.’”

Taken together, the portraits form a lively introduction to the creative life of Slovenia today.

The Host Gallery considers Peterlin’s work “an interesting and unusual way of presenting a country through its artists,” says the gallery’s Michael Regnier.

“We’re quite a new, young gallery, so we’ve done eclectic shows, and a young photographer from Slovenia showing portraits of his compatriots fits in perfectly,” he says. And the timing was right: The Host was enthusiastic about highlighting Slovenia as it prepares to take on the presidency of the European Union in January.

Two years ago, Jon Levy, of the magazine foto8, and Adrian Evans, of the agency Panos, founded the gallery to provide a showcase for work that might not otherwise find its audience. Its early exhibitions included Pep Bonet’s “POSITHIV+,” a multi-country, multi-year project on HIV/AIDS.

“The outlets for classic photojournalism are becoming smaller and smaller,” Regnier says. “The gallery is not dependent on the whims of the advertising industry. It offers a much more pure, much more direct way of displaying the work.”

It will also offer wider exposure for the work of Peterlin, who has covered many of the country’s biggest stories for Mladina. During the last year, he has captured gripping photos of members of a Roma family who were evicted from their home in eastern Slovenia.

Peterlin, who is also the magazine’s photo editor, says his experience with photojournalism informs the portraits, and vice-versa. “The aesthetic that I learn in photojournalism is applied here, and the portrait aesthetic appears in the photojournalism, as in the pictures I took of deaf children.”

Peterlin chooses the portraits’ subjects in cooperation with other editors of Mladina, but the approach to each shot is purely his own.

“I want to think of a way to turn the situation upside down,” he says. In preparing to photograph Kovač, perhaps best known for dancing on a chimney in the 1997 film Vrtoglavi Ptič (Dizzy Bird), Peterlin says he told his subject: “Ok, you are defying gravity, but I would like to photograph you falling in your own apartment.”

The choices can also be impulsive, as when he photographed Slovenian writer Nejc Gazvoda underwater. “With Nejc, it wasn’t really rational,” he says. “It was warm that day, so I said, ‘Let’s shoot it in the pool.’”

Despite their artistic and inspired nature, the portraits are as deadline-driven as any news photo would be. “I have a day or two to think about it and an hour to do it. It’s really stressful. But the stress helps me with focus,” Peterlin says.

“I have to minimize all the doubts. I have to be very clear with what to do,” he says. “I really learn how to exclude the thoughts that are not productive. I just have to concentrate on the subject and act fast.”

“I say, ‘Let’s do a good picture in an hour, and then run to the next press conference.’”

For those who can’t make it to London, the portraits selected for the Host exhibition are here. The rest of the portraits in the Mladina series are here. (In the latter gallery, move your cursor over each photo for nuggets about the subject and the photographer’s inspiration for the shot.)

“Emerging Slovenia” will be at the Host Gallery (1 Honduras Street, near the Barbican Tube station) through November 3.


Autumn on Ljubljana’s Šmarna Gora Hill

Most visitors to Slovenia head quickly out of the capital, in search of natural beauty. And they find it, in the Julian Alps, on postcard-perfect lakes, and beside turquoise rivers. But for those who linger in the city, Šmarna Gora offers pristine woods, impressive views, and a chance to spend a Sunday the way locals do.

smartno.JPGMore than a dozen trails rise the 2,100 feet (640 meters) to Šmarna Gora’s peak from the towns that ring the mountain. The longest begins in Šmartno, a place that on a misty autumn morning seemed more like a fairy-tale village than a Ljubljana suburb. The pastel houses that lined its quiet streets had red-tiled roofs, and geraniums bloomed from boxes in their windows. Vegetable gardens covered every available inch of yard. Goats grazed in a pasture beside the trailhead.

Many who live at the foot of Šmarna Gora are proud to climb it every day for exercise, but on this chilly Sunday morning, only a few people were beginning their hikes. An elderly woman in dress shoes and a suit started up the path, carrying a bouquet of sunflowers. A young couple, power walking with metal hiking poles, hurried past her.

The quiet of the woods was interrupted only by church bells that clanged for twenty minutes to announce morning mass below. If some Šmartno resident had lazily turned over in his warm bed when the rooster crowed that morning, here was his snooze alarm.

icon.JPGHalfway up the steep and rocky path, a family stopped to say a prayer before a small shrine to the Sorrowful Mother of God. The lady in Sunday best placed her yellow bouquet in a vase at Mary’s feet.

A few yards farther, the Šmartno trail met with two other, smoother paths at a life-size statue of St. Anthony. Above him hung a large bell, which a toddler girl rang for good luck, as people have been doing at this spot for nearly two centuries.

At Šmarna Gora’s peak stands a white Baroque church. Built in 1729, this is the latest in a series of churches that have stood here since at least the 15th century, when the hill was a lookout point against Turkish invaders.

Since the hill is no longer at risk, several of its old stone buildings are now used to entertain visitors. One houses a gallery, which displayed wildlife paintings by a local artist. In another, a restaurant serves hearty fare like potato and mushroom soup, homemade donuts, and brandy made from honey.

The doors of the churchyard opened onto a vista of the Sava River valley. Along the overlook, hikers stretched out with their beers and teacups to soak up the view, along with the warm autumn sun.

Away from the crowd, the path continued around the church’s former defense walls and along the mountain’s edge. It was midmorning, and the mist had cleared.

To the west, the Julian Alps came temptingly into view. But they’d be there to climb another day.

Crane Spotting: New Addition for Ljubljana’s Opera House


Ljubljana Opera House (photo courtesy of SNG)

VISITORS to Ljubljana during the next year or so won’t get to peek inside one of the city’s most unique buildings, but they may want to take up a favorite local pastime: Watching the construction site.

crane320.JPGLjubljana’s Opera House has been a jewel in the crown of the city’s architecture since it opened in 1892, when Slovenia was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

But with its intricate façade and auditorium growing careworn, the gem needed polishing, as well as a major new addition, the government decided. This year, Slovenia broke ground on an estimated €25 million ($35 million) project to renovate the old building and to construct a new annex that will more than double the building’s size, from 3,640 square meters (39,200 square feet) to 10,000 square meters (107,600 square feet).

atrij5.jpgAs the home of today’s Slovene National Theatre Opera and Ballet companies, its facilities had become “inadequate and obsolete,” according to the national Ministry of Culture. (During the renovation, the opera and ballet companies will perform at other venues, including the Ljubljana Fairgrounds and Cankarjev Dom.) Tickets are available at Cankarjeva ulica 11.

Slovene architects Jurij Kobe and Marjan Zupanc designed the solution, which is unfolding in three parts:

First, ramps will descend from the streets on either side of the building to a new public entrance and atrium beneath the auditorium. (Above is a sketch of the approach to the atrium. Image courtesy of SNG.) The new space will include a restaurant, cloakroom, music shop, and space for socializing during intermission.

back-corner-better.JPGNext, a new stage will take shape. The old stage was already removed by hollowing out the back of the building, while leaving its “skin” (seen at right) intact. The design then adds height and depth to accommodate larger backdrops and updated technology for rotating them.

annexcaption.jpgFinally, a glass-and-steel wing will rise behind and connect to the original building. It will include the opera and ballet companies’ rehearsal halls, dressing rooms, and administration offices. (Sketch of the annex, right, courtesy of SNG.)

detailresize.JPGBefore work began on the addition, the Opera House’s 500-seat auditorium was sealed to protect it. But when the building work is stable, artisans will analyze the ornate façade (seen at right) and auditorium, then decide what to simply clean or repaint, and what to replace.

The plan has faced criticism from some residents that the annex to the beloved old building is too different and too modern.

“We respect the old building,” Zupanc says. “It reflects the time that it was built, but this will reflect the time that it is being built.”

“We can’t build a new, old building,” Kobe says.

The neo-Classical Opera House was designed by Czech architects Jan V. Hrasky and Anton Hruby between the years 1890 and 1892. Although the country was then under Hapsburg rule, the building was one of the first constructed by local authorities, at “a romantic time of growing national consciousness,” Kobe notes. Its architectural style sets it apart as well, since it and the National Gallery are rare examples of Classicism in eclectic Ljubljana.

Those who’d like to watch the new wing take shape and judge for themselves how it blends with the old can stroll past the construction site, which is visible on two sides (from Cankarjeva ulica and Tomšičeva ulica). Work is tentatively scheduled for completion late next year.