This year, Velenje was awarded the flattering title of the most beautifully arranged town in Slovenia. What was once a town of socialist wonder, as it was proudly presented during the 1950s to famous visitors such as Nikita Khrushchev, Leonid Brezhnev, Edward Gierek and Nicolae Ceausescu, is now, after an unstable era of new capitalism, a town that returns to stage once again. This rebirth may be credited to the architects of the Enota Studio, who defined a new strategy for the town’s urban healing. The initiators of the studio are Dean Lah and Milan Tomac, authors who have been recognized with numerous awards, among which there are also those they have won for some actions in Velenje. This year (in 2015), their public garage won the international Architizer A+Award in the category of public garages.
Velenje used to be an insignificant little village in close proximity to coal mining, and the need for the industrialization of the country following the Second World War required the expansion of the mining industry. A town for 30,000 miners and their families from the entire former Yugoslavia had to be built. Janez Trenz and his associates from the Slovenia Project Studio in Ljubljana were entrusted with the task. They decided to build a town full of light and greenery for miners, who would spend half of their lives underground. The first plans were designed by the Viennese architect and urban planner Karl Paul Filipsky. Apart from Nova Gorica, which was created as a political response to the loss of Gorica, which had been left to Italy, Velenje was the second experiment in building a socialist town. Thanks to the infamous post-war conflict between Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, the architects managed to avoid the monumental architecture of Socialist Realism, which is why Velenje as well as Nova Gorica were designed in harmony with the functionalist doctrine of a town in greenery. The town centre was the park square (called Tito’s Park to this day) with the 1959 Cultural Centre designed by the architect Oton Gaspari, dominating the surroundings. Around the square, some other important buildings were erected, such as: the Workers’ University, the Workers’ Club, the Town Hall, the hotel, and the coal mine management building.
Nowadays large green areas in town centres are not favoured by the rules of profit, as the land is too precious to be relinquished in favour of grass and shrubbery. As everywhere else, the garden city concept began to change. Buildings were constructed on most beautiful lawns, which then required more parking lots. The old airy town started to condense and the lawn was replaced by asphalt. It all hinted at the worst-case scenario – that the town would not evolve in line with the original urban typology. Towns and cities grow relatively slowly, and they grow successfully only when the process is unimpeded. Fast changes in the doctrines of divergent urban planning breed disaster for any town.
Several years ago the architectural studio Enota proposed its own vision of how to rescue the town. They suggested a reorganization of the town along three axes. One would connect the existing monuments, another one would connect the retail program and the third would connect culture. So far only the third, cultural axis has been finished, passing alongside the north-south promenade and along the way crossing the Paka River. The architects’ intention was to join two seemingly opposed demands: to preserve as much greenery as possible and to enable as much activity as possible. The cultural promenade passes along the old road, which was closed to traffic thirty years ago. Though repaved, the pedestrian area still preserved the characteristics of the road: it was flat, too wide and devoid of any real content. In the north it ended in a parking lot, which was too small, which was why it was designated to expand, again at the expense of the park. Thus the Enota studio architects have designed a significantly narrowed pedestrian path gently winding through the park. The narrow path allows for more green areas, while the winding creates a softer, more organic surface which recognises the existing trees. The path thus designed invites the walkers to spend more time there, to perceive the town park contemplatively and perhaps even take a seat on one of the white concrete benches placed on the curves. Right in the middle of the path, there is a new bridge over the Paka River. The Paka is a torrent, which is why its banks are specifically formed and access to water is not easy. The architects have resolved this issue by staircase-like platforms, which descend towards the water and are designed so as to present no obstacle in the periods of high water levels. The platforms themselves have been processed in different ways. They are mostly made of white concrete. Those on lower levels, often flooded, are paved with stones, the least sensitive to the pollution brought about by high water levels. The highest of platforms are panelled with wood. The stairs are also used for sitting, so the entire area surrounding the bridge resembles a theatre auditorium. The platform on one of the banks or the bridge itself serves as the stage. The bridge is constructed of white concrete, and the glass railing does not have the common handrail. This consistent transparency further unites the bridge with its surroundings, as in the evenings the glass is lit from below, thus creating a special effect on the edges of the straight-cut glass.
On the northern side, the promenade ends in a public garage located in the spot of the old parking lot, but involving a significantly increased number of parking spaces on two levels. The lower level is partly underground, while the upper level is not roofed, which considerably tones it down in comparison to most objects of its kind. The advantage of the partly underground garage is its much lower cost, as it does not require the roundabout traffic with ramps, and it also solves the problem of ventilation and the impression of claustrophobia in the dark basement. The façade is cladded in perforated metal sheets and is high enough to hide the cars, on the top platform, from view. The perforated metal sheets have an interesting characteristic of looking compact from the outside and transparent from the garage, which is used rather well. Moreover, the sheets are corrugated, implying not only the static strength, but also no additional reinforcement of the plates. The soft character of the façade adapted to the park is even more important. In front of the garage, there is a small square with adjoining public surfaces on the ground level of the garage: public facilities and a diner on each side of the pedestrian access. On the roof, there is a platform with all installations needed for stage performances, and thus it is used for concerts and other public events. The stage can be accessed directly from the upper level of the garage, and its height enables good visibility of the entire park. The garage closes the cultural promenade towards the north, enriching it with public program, thus making it a central element in the cultural life of the town.
At first sight, it seems that in Velenje the architects use only soft organic shapes. However, the Enota studio is far more consistent in that sense. Soft forms are used only in places where they try to bring their architecture closer to nature – the park or the wild river Paka. The park paths are winding, the perforated tin façade on the garage is soft, the processing of the river bank alongside the bridge has been adapted to natural torrents of water. Where rational construction is predominant, as is the case with the bridge or garage, there is no place for organic forms. Thus, architectural shapes are consistently adapted to the context.