This restored 800-year-old Dominican monastery in the city of Ptuj in Slovenia is today a congress and cultural centre, and an exemplary restoration model for the world.
This building has traversed such a wide-ranging set of experiences, that any renovation team will be forgiven feelings of plain intimidation. In its most significant past avatar, it was a Dominican monastery, but after that life was extinguished in the late 18th century, its rooms were transformed into barracks; made part of a social housing scheme, turned into a museum; repurposed as a hospital; and made to take on many more, albeit unrecorded, masks.
Redesigned and re-imagined by Ljubljana based firm, ENOTA architects, this fabulous structure’s walls seem to harbour a million stories. And the team has made sure that though it has been given a fine new coat of modernity, its eclectic past is never an unknown facet of the structure.
For all the apparent challenges of the project, the team had an even keel of an understanding of what’s at hand. “For a successful renovation of a historical building, the key is to keep the building in service and strive for the new programme to showcase its historical value, as well as artistic merit. The building also has to be adapted to its future use without major invasive interventions, which would damage its historical structure,” agreed the architects.
What they got was a church building split across three levels, including a long suffering nave that was a cumbersomely long space of awkward character. The critical question was then obviously on how to keep destructive interventions to a minimum and capitalise on its pre-existing forms to adapt to newer utilities.
Admittedly, a cultural centre was a perfect fit in this scheme, what with the spaces and the history pointing towards a space that was destined to serve as the meeting point of people and ideas.
So, the nave, with its breath-taking length, became the main hall. Its arched ceiling and pristine white paintwork retain an august aura that belongs to another century, but the seats, reminiscent of pews, are a modern contrast full of brooding slickness. The darkness of the seats and the stage is in holy communion with the sparseness of the walls, keeping a tight hold on the air of mystery within the hall.
A fantastic aspect of this renovation project has been the retention of vast pockets of old walls that peep out from between, or form the background of, all the new, perfect additions.
It is all there for the guests to take in – walls chipped by the ravages of time, fading tapestry, beguiling arches of different styles across rooms, intricate pillars, swathes of exposed bricks holding up doorways, and mullioned windows that seem straight out of cheesy fairy tales.
Here, the past is very much a part of the new and the comfortable, and is unapologetic of its rough edges. “All the minor shortcomings affecting the users’ comfort are richly compensated by the artistic and historical experience,” assures the team.
This juxtaposition was also greatly influenced by the demands of conservation, which required a deft balancing act from the architectural team’s end. In a project of the scale as this one, not stepping on the preservation activities becomes an intrinsic part of the challenge and ENOTA handled it by intervening with full gusto only where conservation possibilities were negligible, while keeping it more subtle in the other spheres.
This meant that the walls were gently spruced up and prepared for continuing conservation work that will extend in period beyond the architectural renovation efforts.
But the floor was re-imagined completely, receiving fixtures for ventilation, heating, sound, installations, and all the other demands of the centre. This work-in-tandem brought about the brilliant black concrete paving and the raised passageways, as it was decided to preserve the Gothic underbelly of the building in situ, while still connecting the modern spaces to each other. These passageways have therefore also become galleries to look down from and admire Roman gravestones and sepulchres, while passing into the grand new restored Baroque nave at the end.
The Ptuj Performance Center is a marvel of restoration, joins as it does painstaking archaeological conservation, and architectural reworking, in happy matrimony. The two elements of the restoration work on different plains of material, timelines, and focus, and finding a meeting point is indeed remarkable. But what also swings praise in ENOTA’s direction is the deep respect with which the team handled the building’s every aspect. The love, artistry, and historical fervour involved in this project are palpable.
Text By Shruti Nambiar
Photographs Miran Kambič