Authenticity – The reproduction of Plečnik’s parliament of freedom

In a time of fake news, artificial intelligence and Photoshop, the authentic is back in fashion. The desire for time-tested qualities can be seen in the resurgence of historic quotations employed by a younger generation of architects, or in the often-successful attempts at the reconstruction of long gone buildings. In an increasingly virtual world, architecture has re-discovered the rough, reliable and antique.

While it would be easy to dismiss many of these practices as sentimental attempts at establishing authority through referencing historic forms, the reasons to put effort into reliving the past vary widely. The Slovenian pavilion at the Venice Biennale is a reinterpretation of an iconic yet unbuilt work by Jože Plečnik (1872- 1957), using the design for a national parliament to rethink the global issue of water treatment and its relationship to architecture. Far from being a neutral container, Plečnik’s project has been used and re-used as a shell to be filled with content, propaganda and identity for several decades now. Its signature silhouette has lent its authority to a set of causes, often with opposing characteristics. The endless replication of Plečnik’s unbuilt parliament lends itself as a rich case study concerned with the various interferences between original and copy.

While the definition of the authentic seems elusive and ever shifting, we tend to have a strong intuition whether something is real or not. Temporary exhibitions like the Venice Biennale are by definition productions of the artificial. For six months exhibitors from all over the world create mini-environments presenting ideas, proposals and installations. Yet even in here various pavilions will display differing degrees of authenticity. What then, are the measures to evaluate authenticity?

In order to establish a sense of authenticity, there needs to be a relationship between an original and a derivative from that original. Something cannot be authentic without a point of reference that creates and confirms its authenticity. The arch, column and primary forms in architecture became authentic architectural elements through endless repetition. Authenticity in that sense is a four-dimensional concept in architecture, that can only be measured by the temporal and physical difference between an original and a copy.

Perhaps even more importantly, authenticity is a social construct, meaning that the same space could be evaluated completely differently in different cultures. In combination with the element of time, one could create an authenticity graph, with authentic sitting at the intersection between the time and cultural axes.

As a normative concept authenticity has an air of conventionality about it, since its purpose is a confirmation of standards rather than the breaking down of norms. On the other extreme, a building that would be an exact copy could also be a fake. There is only a narrow and ever-shifting window of the authentic. While it cannot be precisely quantified, it always involved an interpretation the past, while creating something somewhat new.



Plečnik’s replicas

The preeminent Slovenian architect Jože Plečnik was a peculiar figure, insisting on authenticity through quoting and replicating traditional forms at a moment when architecture was turning towards cleanliness, simplicity and white walls. A contemporary of Adolf Loos, he studied in Vienna with Otto Wagner and later practiced in Prague and Ljubljana. While his early works were influenced by the emerging modernist sensibilities sprouting up around him, his interest in quoting traditional building methods intensified with his later work. Asked to design a parliament for the republic of Slovenia in 1947, his first response was to completely redesign the medieval castle that sits at the centre of Ljubljana perched on top of a hill.[1]After that radical proposal was rejected, Plečnik designed the current version with a conical tower in the heart of Tivoli Park. For reasons not entirely clarified, the project was abandoned again and a few years later a much more modest parliament on a different site was built. Yet, the design has captured the imagination of artists, advocated and officials, arguably becoming one of the most reproduced unbuilt monuments in modern history.

The Slovenian band and artistic collective Laibach used a cross-section drawing of the parliament on its cover for an album titled  Slovenska akropola in the year 1987.[2]The title actually refers to the original project, which was sited on top of the castle, even though the reproduced drawing was of the second design, but historical accuracy was not the band’s main concern. The group had become widely known for their provocative appropriation of totalitarian symbolism, most notably Nazi Kunst. The use of Plečnik’s imagery led to a number of debates in Slovenian intellectual circles. Even the preeminent Slovenian Philosopher Slavoj Žižek commented on the case. While supporting Laibach’s appropriation as a critical act, Žižek flatly called Plečnik a ‘light fascist’ and his architecture a “point of reference against functionalist modernism, against reinforced-concrete, utilitarian, functionalist architecture, and as a basis for some kind of national foundation.”[3]

It seems easy to dismiss Plečnik’s work as reactionary, monumental and even nationalist, since his most celebrated and prestigious buildings are either churches or large, nation-building projects such as the renovation of the Prague castle. In response to Žižek’s criticism of Plečnik, art historian Andre Herscher made another argument in his critical article “Everything Provokes Fascism/Plečnik avec Laibach”, published in 1997. According to Herscher’s analysis the parliament is composed of elements from traditional Germanic and Italian architectural elements, all of which occupied the territory of Slovenia at different points in time and therefore represent nations against which Slovenia’s identity had to be defined. The signature section is borrowed from a design by Felix Debat for a competition for the Peace Palace, an international institution meant to secure peace between nations. In Herscher’s words: “specifically, the parliament building is composed of elements appropriated from central monuments of Slovenia’s ‘national enemies’”.[4]

Andrej Hrausky noted a similar tendency in his analysis of symbols in Plečnik in his work on the national monuments the architect built in the 1950s. A devout Catholic, Plečnik nonetheless created a number of monuments for the national liberation battle of the Communist Party. While he included the symbolism of the five stars he mixed it with classicist architectural elements and traditional Catholic imagery, such as crosses and figures reminiscent of traditional statues of St. Mary.[5]

Herscher’s compelling argument is that Laibach’s and Plečnik’s operations are essentially analogous. Laibach created their own kind of ironic copying, in that case operating with a cynical reversal. Instead of authenticating the original, Laibach is defaming it and exposing its absurd yet seductive aesthetic as a carefully calculated manifestation of chauvinistic power and aggression. Through quoting, they are discrediting and unmasking the original. In that sense the original parliament by Plečnik could be understood as a subversive act of quoting from illicit sources.

A short time later, only four years after being ironically used by Laibach, the parliament was printed onto a temporary currency called Lipa, as a touchstone of the fresh identity of a new nation. [6]This was only the beginning of millions of official reproductions of the project, including the first stamps that were printed in 1991 after Slovenian independence, as well as the country’s first Euro coins in 2007.[7]

Since Laibach, the project has also piqued the interest of international artists. The Chilean artist Pilar Quinteros build a large replica of the parliament and floated it down the central river Ljubljanica.[8]She builds replicas of non-existing or destroyed buildings out of an urge to enter into a dialogue with the past. In Santiago de Chile earthquakes have destroyed a number of important buildings, and she has reconstructed many of them from fragile materials to be exhibited for a short time. Even though the paper parliament in Ljubljana lasted only for a few hours floating up and the down the river, it was the largest physical manifestation of the building to date.

The increasing availability of modelling and render software in the 90s and early 2000s led to a number of reconstructions of unbuilt projects. Suddenly these designs which had quietly lived with a veil of abstraction where displayed in photorealistic collages. The creators of these images often had to guess on details such as materials, colours and even the effect of ageing. For some reason, the parliament is always shown in gleaming, innocent white, perhaps because this is the default colour of computer modelling software. It seems like a strange choice for a Plečnik building, since he was always so preoccupied and specific about his material and texture choices. In 2017 an animation was released by the Slovenian rendering specialist Kristijan Tavčar, showing the exterior as well as some interior views of the building.[9]Even less convincing than the static images, the animation seems oddly flat and artificial, and draws attention to the fact that Plečnik never designed the building beyond the 1:100 scale. Perhaps the next step will be a VR parliament, which will require the designer to fill in all the blanks in Plečnik’s work.

The digital iterations of Plečnik’s building bring up another set of questions between original and copy. Mesh polygon modelling in particular was invented as an approximation of reality. In 1972, Bruce Baumgart descried the use of meshes as providing a “computer model of the physical world”.[10]Later, of course, polygon modelling was used for everything from blockbuster Hollywood movies to simulations of real-life processes. In architecture specifically, the exchange between the digital and physical has strongly been enabled by polygons. Meshes are used in the production of models and buildings parts via 3d printing as part of the production process of buildings. Once a building is completed, it is 3d scanned, thereby being fed back into the digital realm as a high-resolution version. With all this back and forth one could ask which one of these many instances presents the architectonic original, and which one is the replica? While polygons were invented to describe the physical world, they are now being used to design the physical world. If we have thousands of copies that are only referring to a digital original, could it be that the 3d file is the fully authentic object?

While one can hope for further experimentation with the parliament in virtual space, there are still various groups lobbying for the actual construction of the building. There have been new plans and illustrations by the architect Janez Suhadolc, and he even proposed a new site for the project in the city centre.[11]The main motivation of the proponents for the construction seems to be mostly symbolic. It is irrelevant for them that the parliament was actually designed while Slovenia was still a republic of the greater Yugoslavia. They also do not believe that a contemporary architect would be able to deliver such a strong symbol of nationhood. While that position could be debated, and the so-called Bilbao effect is certainly a contemporary phenomenon, their argument is not completely amiss. Only a contemporary classicist, such as Plečnik was in his time, would be able to produce a remix of previous parliaments that we traditionally know.

Finally, the most recent replica of the parliament will be presented at the Venice Biennale. Taking only two essential elements from the building, it is focused on the conical shape of the central tower containing the delegates meeting room, and the small fountain found at its base. A symbolic gesture, the fountain of wisdom, was perhaps meant as a gathering point for the politicians after long meetings in the assembly hall above. The Slovenian pavilion is compressing these two spaces into one public area – where all visitors can enter the discussion and voting process regarding water policies. The new parliament functions as a physical reminder of the fact that water regulation is not something a single person, or even a single state, can decide on their own. It needs collective decision making, regulatory processes and personal responsibility by citizens to ensure the right to this precious resource.

Using a digital language, a virtual and interactive system within the framework of a replica muddles ideas of authenticity. With an ever-shifting definition, layers of authentic build upon each other and become increasingly intertwined and complex. While the feeling of authenticity is a simple and intuitive one, its construction is multi-faceted and layered. Endless copying and replication can even turn an object into its very opposite – instead of authenticating it, it ridicules and exposes it. Plečnik’s proposed parliament has become a symbol of nationhood not because of its exceptional design, but because of its generic embrace of the idea of a national symbol. The Slovenian pavilion at the Venice Biennale is picking it up once again, less as a literal replica than as a generic approximation of the democratic process, adapted to work with interactive tools that transform the space around. Open to all, the Parliament of Freedom has turned into a parliament for discussion and dialogue.

Bika Rebek

[1]Andrew Herscher, Plečnik avec Laibach,in Assemblage 33 (August 1997), 69

[3]An interview with Slavoj Žižek “Everything Provokes Fascism”, in Assemblage 33 (August 1997) 62

[4]Andrew Herscher, Plečnik avec Laibach,in Assemblage 33 (August 1997), 71

[5]Andrej Hrausky, Simboli v Plečnikovi arhitekturi (Ljubljana: Lili in Roza, 2016), 29

[10]· Bruce Baumgart “Winged edge polyhedron representation” Stanford University, Stanford, CA, USA(1972) 6

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