December 1, 2005
A Hive of Housing
Slovenia is fertile ground for young architects. But not because the people have embraced contemporary design.
Anyone who thinks that cutting-edge architecture and government-subsidized housing are mutually exclusive concepts should visit Slovenia, where Ljubljana-based architecture firm Ofis Arhitekti will have built four such projects by the end of 2006—more than 1,000 apartments for low- and middle-income families. Two housing blocks have just appeared, like a futuristic mirage, in Izola, one of the small cities that dot Slovenia’s 30-mile Adriatic coastline between Italy and Croatia.
A competition for the project, hosted by the Slovenian Housing Fund (Stanovanjski Sklad), took place in 2003, and the first tenants moved in last summer. The twin Izola blocks, each with 5 stories and 30 units, were built for $80 a square foot from rudimentary construction materials such as concrete and plaster. They owe their radical appearance mostly to the facade’s trapezoidal balconies, which protrude rhythmically with brightly colored shades.
Spela Videcnik and Rok Oman, both in their thirties, founded Ofis after studying together first at the University of Ljubljana’s school of architecture and then at the Architectural Association in London. Their return to Ljubljana in 2000 coincided fortuitously with an economic recovery—arising less than a decade after Slovenia’s 1991 independence from Yugoslavia—that allowed the government to address the housing shortage. “People abroad always ask how we get so many projects as a young firm,” Videcnik says. “Before independence important commissions were always assigned to big service-oriented firms that have since dissolved. So now there’s room for emerging architects like us to get work.” A lingering law from socialism also benefits small architectural practices such as Ofis—they classify as artists, for whom the government pays health insurance and pension.
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But appearances can be deceiving: contemporary aesthetics don’t win commissions in Slovenia—not even from the State Housing Fund. “Unfortunately here in Slovenia we don’t have clients who are aware of beautiful things or nice architecture,” Videcnik says. “People who have money here got it very quickly, and they don’t tend to be very cultured. The Izola competition didn’t have independent architects on the jury. They didn’t decide based on appearance. They had a system of points for how many square meters of saleable surface fit into the design and other practical considerations. Our design was the best within that point system. We won solely on functional grounds.”
And in fact the Izola blocks’ aesthetics are lost on many town residents. “You can’t imagine how angry they are,” says Mayor Breda Pecan, who helped Izola chip away at the high unemployment rate in the late 1990s and now devotes much of her energy to addressing the city’s housing shortage. “They call it the beehive because the balconies look like entrances for bees.”
“I tell them we have to have some patience,” she continues, “and that we didn’t choose the project, the Housing Fund did. When you blame someone else, the people say, ‘Oh, those people from Ljubljana.’ And in time they will forget—they will learn to love it.”