Architects and Designers

Gizela Šuklje, plan detail of Metlika City Swimming Pool. Legacy of Gizela Šuklje, Museum of Architecture and Design, Ljubljana

Women and men still have different statuses in architecture and design, as gender stereotypes in the two fields have barely loosened in the last century.

Architecture is one of the many fields that was closed to women for a very long time. Even when they could finally receive education (the first woman architect in Ljubljana graduated in 1932), this was by no means an indication that they had the same access to the profession and to public space management.

Female architects were traditionally pushed into the private sphere; into kitchen and garden design. They were kept away from the construction sites changing the landscapes of our cities, being told that their place was back at the office where they were (and still are) diligent assistants of more or less famous architects designing public space.

Very often, women architects also disappeared when they got married. When architect Denise Scott Brown married a colleague architect, she said that she “watched as he was manufactured into an architectural guru” before her eyes – he was given credit for the concepts on which they had worked together, he received recognition for their collaborative work, even her own projects were attributed to him. And when she called attention to it, she became difficult. Architectural and design couples were known to be quite common, but the genius was nearly always attributed to the men, while women were treated as accessories. Men were the creators and women were their wives, assistants, followers, or anonymous colleagues. This is often still the case.

Gizela Šuklje and Dušana Šantel Kanoni were among the first women architects in Slovenia.

When Gizela Šuklje (1909–1994) was 24 years old, she studied in Paris. Her dream in those days still sounds like a fantasy: “I would love to find some female company, and my old dream is to start a firm of two or three female architects with a certain programme and a clear vision, and open my own studio, be it in Paris or elsewhere.” She never had her own studio, remaining a loyal assistant to Jože Plečnik with whom she collaborated on many projects: from the Žale cemetery to the renovation of the National and University Library in Ljubljana. Her studies inspired her ideas on architecture that occupied her mind throughout her life but also wore her down: as a woman, she was not paid for her work at Auguste Perret’s firm so she had to double as a nanny. One of her biggest independent projects – as well as one of the most important urban development projects in Slovenia that could have been attributed to a woman – was never realised. The only remaining part of her urban development plan of Metlika is the design of the town park.

Gizela Šuklje did not stay in architecture but, as was often the case with pioneer women architects, switched to graphic design and pedagogic work: for most of her life, she was a professor at the Secondary School of Design in Ljubljana, where she became headmaster a few years before her retirement. Her contemporary Dušana Šantel Kanoni (1908–1988), the first woman in Slovenia with a diploma in architecture, dedicated herself to teaching and graphic design but also drew plans for modular kitchen furniture. Biba Bertok (1941), one of the most prominent industrial designers and the first woman to receive the Prešeren Award for Design, went down a similar path.

Most major interventions into public space were made by Marta Ivanšek (1920–2003) and Nives Starc (1937). Marta Ivanšek and her husband France Ivanšek left a deep mark on post-war housing in Slovenia; among other projects, they designed the Murgle residential development in Ljubljana and the Kolezija home for the elderly. In collaboration with Marjan Bežan and Vladimir Braco Mušič, Nives Starc designed one of the most prominent post-war housing projects in Yugoslavia, the Split III neighbourhood. As large-scale projects left her no time to focus on her family, she shifted to smaller projects after 1974.

The domination of men in architecture can be felt in the cities that we live in, as urban interventions not only affect the views of a city but also the entire experience of city life. For example: do women and men have the same sense of safety walking home along dark streets at night? How much effort in urban development has been put into making sure that everyone in the city feels equally safe and included?

Park outside the Castle

The park outside the Metlika Castle, which houses the Bela Krajina Museum, was conceived between 1953 and 1954 by Gizela Šuklje, one of the first Slovenian female architects. As there are hardly any interventions by women into Slovenian public space, the park in Metlika is an important testament to women architects who persisted in the profession despite the numerous obstacles they encountered. The park terraces down from the Castle to the square and is therefore not accessible for persons with reduced mobility.