Wishing Well or Fountain of Wisdom?

A spectre is haunting Slovene architecture. An apparition of a strange building: a hall constructed out of leaning columns, covered by a dome and crowned by a gigantic cone. It is strangely undetermined but instantly recognizable; both classical and uncanny; it doesn’t physically exist yet it is found in many places at once, as befitting a ghost. It is the Cathedral of Freedom, a 1947 project for the Slovene Parliament building designed by the famous architect Jože Plečnik (1872-1957). The building was never constructed but despite this (or maybe because of this) it is easy to spot. It is used as a logo of the State Council, the second chamber of the Slovene Parliament; it can be found on stamps, banknotes and coins; one of its latest hauntings consists of forty million apparitions in the form of the 10 cent Euro coin. And now, for half a year, this architectural ghost will haunt the Arsenale.

If anything, the Cathedral of Freedom is an exercise in contradictions. Which is fine, since it was intended for a parliament, and dealing with contradictions is exactly what policy-making is all about. For this is a machine designed not for living in but for producing policies; a social battleground of individual interests out of which communal consensus is to be crafted; a stage for the ceremony of law-making. The gigantic columns carrying the dome and the cone above it are sturdy and strong, yes; but they also lean at an angle and are therefore unreliable. Leaning columns don’t exactly inspire confidence, they point towards destruction rather than stability. They remind us more of Samson tearing down the temple rather than of Traian’s inert triumphant verticality. Perpetually falling columns over the heads of the deputies? A part of me likes it, as I suspect most of the electorate would. How much more effective than the ring of a bell or a blow of a hammer by the presiding chair that would be, reminding the deputies of the responsibilities and urgent matters they have been delegated with. A kind of a petrified Sword of Damocles hanging from the sky. A continuously falling structural support: now that is a real sense of urgency everyone understands, even without the interpreters in their booths.

For it is urgency that, in a word, the Slovene Pavilion is all about. Urgency demanding a new kind of architecture adjusted to a perpetual crisis of decision-making. It is not limited only to our global inability to reach a consensus about managing our natural resources, but it is best exemplified by it. And in particular it is best exemplified by our problem with water.

In the age of global warming, environmental extremes, economic privatisation and social fragmentation, water management poses a renewed challenge. How to tackle this fluid and elusive element in its many spatial manifestations? Water is always global and local, molecular and all-encompassing. This is why it is impossible to address the right to free, publicly accessible and healthy water without at the same time addressing both the right to be protected from water and the right to be protected from the lack of it. Floods, rising sea levels and melting ice caps as a result of climate change are part of the same global intertwined problem as droughts and pollution are. Without building a unified global consensus and management strategy any partial solution is doomed to fail – similar to how different sets of regulations for a single water stream that would produce chaos. How to address the problem of water management not as an expression of good intentions, but as a strategy for decision-making and consensus-building? In other words: we don’t need a Wishing Well; what we need is a Fountain of Wisdom. This is the basic dilemma the Slovene Pavilion is highlighting, mirroring the contemporary problems with water management as well as spatial regulation and political consensus-building in general.

Spiritism and conjuring ghosts do not seem like especially effective strategies for dealing with such an issue as global water management. And yet: the spectre is here with a reason. The leaning columns built out of water mist, the evaporating dome and the fountain in the middle are building yet another apparition of the Cathedral of Freedom: not a castle in the clouds but a castle made of clouds. Of course, water is above all a spatial phenomenon and a political problem. In order to manage water properly it is necessary to take into account the surface, the atmosphere and the depths of the Earth, as well as to exercise a political consensus of global dimensions. But this is not why a project for a parliament was conjured up, nor why it is materialised out of water itself. It is beneath the tall cone, beneath the hall of the deputies and its leaning pillars, deep in the foundations of the whole where the heart of the project lies: a fountain, a source of flowing water.

Left and the right of the main entrance to the Cathedral of Freedom staircases lead to the main assembly hall upstairs, as there is a right and a left position in almost all of the world’s parliaments. The straight path, however, leads to the fountain. Hidden from the views of the deputies above it, it is nevertheless the first thing the gaze encounters when entering the building. The fountain is the only element of the original drawings that is not in itself a structural part of the building. At a first glance it appears as a fanciful addition intended for the cross section of the hall, a reverberation of a Renaissance grotto, a folly in the cellars. It is the sole programmatically discernible element of the ground floor. It is also the lowest point of the project, as it rests a couple of steps below the level of the ground floor and there is no cellar beneath. To say that the fountain is a central element of the project is to make an understatement: it lies in the middle of the building, exactly on the central axis of the entrance, exactly in the centre of the circular central hall and exactly below the highest point, some 120 meters beneath the tip of the cone. It is inserted directly into the massive foundations of the assembly hall and the cone construction, acting not as an ornamental frivolity but as the very physical as well as conceptual base of the whole spatial crescendo above it. The fountain is here what it always was: a spring of plenty, refreshment to the body as well as to the spirit, a dark and womb-like subterranean primal source of life.

Perhaps this fountain grotto was designed primarily as a space for contemplation before momentous decisions, for clearing one’s head before returning upstairs and delivering a speech or just pressing a button. Maybe the sound of the running water would act both as a soothing influence on the heated debates and as a sound screen, a cloak for discreet conversation and political gossip. A more sophisticated version of the old spy film technique, perhaps: if you suspect you are being bugged, you retreat to the bathroom and turn the shower – only then can you talk without being overheard. But I see in the fountain more than just a transposition of a classical element. It is like almost everything to do with Plečnik: classical at first glance, strange at the second, ambivalent and profoundly modern at all that follow. Yes, it is a refreshing spring in the cellars, and yes, it could be a symbolic source of wisdom for the deputies, but it is also a hidden threat, a danger lurking deep down. Water above all elements seems to be an allegory of the importance of median value. Too little of it, and we die of dehydration. Too much of it, and we drown. It is easy to forget how elusive the amount “just right” is to identify and how difficult to keep. This is why I like to think that the fountain is built into the very core of the foundations of the gigantic leaning columns and the almost overbearing structure of the cone with an ambivalent meaning. It is a threat as well as assurance, danger as well as safety. It is, in short, a true fount of wisdom, navigating between both.

However, every fountain of wisdom is only effective if used properly; nowadays, however, fountains have become tourist attractions more than anything else. They have become wishing wells, full of coins, one for each well-wisher. “Throw your lot in and hope for the best” – this is a political stance as much as anything, and even the predominant political stance of today. After all, isn’t the global impotence we see with regard to deciding on and carrying out effective measures countering climate change an expression precisely of the multitude of such policies? On a more local level the ever-more extreme fluctuations of water abundance and scarcity, coupled with obsolete water management techniques and destructive economic liberalisation and privatisation, prove much the same point. It is true that this is the Cathedral of Freedom – but in my view the Cathedral does not stand for these freedoms or support the right to an individual whim. So it is OK if the Cathedral is just a little despotic, but not before it takes all of the related positions into account. Further up, in the main hall, the diverse positions could be found in the multitude of leaning pillars that must, in the end, find their common point at the top of the cone in order to remain standing. It is in this single point where a very important difference is articulated: that between a wishing well full of good intentions and just hoping for the best, and a fountain of wisdom as a productive conflict of various ideas with a common decision at the end.

The Cathedral of Freedom’s name is just as strange as the whole project, and it is likewise Plečnik’s own creation. Does the use of the word cathedral imply sacralisation of the State or nationalisation of the Church? And which freedom are we talking about anyway? There are many, after all, and they tend to contradict one another. National freedom? 1947 was barely two years after the end of Nazi occupation. What about personal freedom? Or personal economic freedom that is all too often in conflict with another freedom, that of the market? Freedom of convictions or freedom of actions? Freedom of the collective or individual freedom? In the end, does it matter? These are different freedoms and will remain in ambivalent oppositions to each other. Their mutual relations have to be constantly renegotiated through total and consistent political participation, not through boardroom meetings and bureaucratic decisions.

The Cathedral of Freedom is more of an architectural ghost than a real building, more of an evolving spatial and political manifesto than a historically determined monument, more of an anatomy of a process than a polished final product. Its specific architectural articulation of socially responsible freedom does not have much to do with the momentary understanding of a free-market-based representational democracy. Here and today we are using it as a decision-making tool: for the freedom to have (free and unprivatised) water, but also for the freedom from (the destructive and unpredictable effects of) water. The freedom to enjoy unhindered access to water and at the same time be protected from floods, erosion and rising sea levels is both a global and site-specific need that today still lingers in the domain of good intentions. It is the way that consensus will be built that will determine whether we have been merely throwing coins into a wishing well or if we have, through radical dialogue, transformed it into a fountain of wisdom.

Miloš Kosec

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