1st Central-European Architectural Magazine for the Culture of the Environment

Interview with Boris Podrecca

Portrait by Maja Bacer

Interview / Piranesi 48/49

Interview with Boris Podrecca

I'm talking about archiculture

by Robert Potokar

Boris Podrecca can without doubt be said to be the most renowned Slovenian architect still alive, or at least an architect whose roots are partly Slovenian. He calls himself a Central European architect who works all across Europe and the world. Born in Belgrade in 1940, he lived in the multicultural Trieste after World War II, and after completing his studies in Vienna established himself as one of the best-known names of Slovenian, Austrian and European architecture. He has been awarded several prizes, including the Golden Order of Merit of the Republic of Slovenia.

Portrait by Maja Bacer

I held the interview with Boris Podrecca in his office at Jörgerbadgasse 8 in Vienna, on 18 September and 21 October 2023, a place where he has been working for more than twenty years. Above the office he has set up a flat where he lives with his wife, the architect Gisela Podreka. During our conversations, he revealed many interesting facts, but the volume of his work and the amount of information is far too great to feature in this text. This interview is therefore a much shorter version of our actual discussions, but it is also very personal, as he talks much more about his extremely varied life than about his projects, which now number more than four hundred, and it looks like there will be many more to come.

Boris Podrecca and Robert Potokar during the interview at Podrecca’s atelier in Vienna, September 2023. Photo: Špela Kuhar

In the interview, we tried to preserve as much as possible the diversity of his expression, in which different languages – Slovenian, Serbian, Italian, German and English – are intertwined.


Piranesi: Boris, since this year marks the 40th anniversary of the Piran Days of Architecture, which take place every year in Piran and Portorož, I would like to start the interview with questions related to this event. On this occasion, a special collection will be published, which will present the views of various co-creators of Piran Days, including yours. However, I would like to ask you a few more questions for Piranesi magazine. It seems to me that at that time, in the 1980s, when you and other architects gathered around Vojteh Ravnikar, you had that connection with the world and the opportunity to advise them, to suggest connections with European architects. Can you tell us more about this?

            My first contact was with Matjaž Garzarolli. I took a group of my students from Munich to the Karst for them to become familiar with the Karstic landscape as a starting point for a programme task. At that time nobody talked about Slovenia, nobody knew anything, they didn’t even know where Slovenia was. We showed the students the projects designed within the Kras group. At the same time we met Vojteh and a couple of friends, the photographer Damjan Gale. At that time we also started to work with Vienna, so that the Viennese architects – Heinz Tesar, Luigi Blau, who sadly passed away a month ago – saw Slovenia and these new architects for the first time. It was a cultural-architectural shaking of handsthat nobody knew about, because we had always looked only at distant countries, we had looked to the north or, say, Spain. That thing of being close, of being able to cross the border in mere couple of hours – that was not relevant then. What happened then was not just a cooperation, but also what matters most, friendship. We would spend a lot of time together, laughing, cracking jokes, and so on. The second phase happened when I was invited to design the square in Piran. At that time I took two Slovene colleagues from the Vienna office with me, Vesna and Matej Vozlič, two Italians, Gino Valle’s son, Pietro, who was my student in Venice, and his girlfriend, also an architect from Trieste, and then there was my wife Gizi and I. So six in the Kosmač house. We had a nice shed in the garden – a studio where we worked. That’s when the friendship in Piran began to flourish. There were already some ideas from these guys for an architectural seminar to show Slovenia what was happening in Europe. In Slovenia it wasn’t like it is today, when everything is readily available. There were magazines, but… Well, that’s how these Piran Days came about. My role was, because I was outside and I was living in Vienna, and because I was giving lectures in different European cities, to somehow motivate the architects that I met to come to Slovenia. They didn’t know about Slovenia either, nobody knew anything about Slovenia at that time. They knew nothing about Plečnik either. I would say that Slovenia was terra incognita. But it wasn’t so easy to invite people, you had to negotiate with them, persuade them. And at that time I was the Ordinarius [editor’s note – a professor of the highest rank at a German university]. I was in Stuttgart for eighteen or twenty years, where I had a big institute, fourteen assistants, three professors, and I had the budget to bring, let’s say, these famous people who I thought were interesting for Slovenia, that they had a broader poetics, which is not so internationalist, it’s not so mainstream, but it’s more than architecture, it’s archiculture. So I had the opportunity to invite the then rather unknown Sverre Fehn, a Norwegian who was a visiting architect at my institute. More like, let’s say, archicultural architects, not someone like Rossi, for example (one might call his architecture stylistic racism), who nobody talks about now. I wasn’t interested in architects who just build sensational things, but architects who have a deeper relationship with archiculture. I should mention the Spanish architect Rafael Moneo, who later invited me to come to Harvard in Boston and even suggested that I succeed him as chairman. But I was married, the children were small, I’m naturally lazy and, you know, I didn’t want to be out there in America, soliciting sponsors, going around, looking for donations for the university like all those professors in the US, so I went back, but Rafael and I remained friends. I also invited Alvaro Siza to Piran, we were visiting professors together in Philadelphia.

A special story relates to David Chipperfield. My very first exhibition was at Chipperfield’s, who had his office next to the 9H Gallery. It is named after the pencil, yes. And that was my first exhibition in that venue, when I had my professorship in London. So I invited him to Piran too. David Chipperfield is a really special man. One can laugh with him. They put him on the boat of the director of the Coastal Galleries, Toni Biloslav. He cooked risotto on the boat and we went to sea. Chipperfield didn’t know what the Slovenian sea was. It was sunny and he was basking in the sun. Ten, fifteen minutes. Suddenly the shade. “What happened?” I said to him, “I’m sorry, but this is the Slovenian border, the Slovenian sea.” The boat turned around and he couldn’t understand. So he, like the others, got to know this Slovenia of limitations. These anecdotes are very important in friendship. So if you ask me what my role was in the Piran Days, I was a kind of minister for foreign affairs. I had already shown Plečnik to the architects I invited, about whom they knew nothing until then. So they were already enthusiastic beforehand. And when the invitations to Piran Days were sent out, they responded and came.

Tartini Square, Piran, Slovenia, 1986–89/2020. Photo: Robert Potokar

What did the Piran Days of Architecture mean to you personally at the beginning?

The Piran Days of Architecture was an important event for Slovenian architects, as they were able to get to know a wider archicultural milieu. Those were the days when there was no internet, information was difficult to access and one’s view of the world was not so open. At that time, architectural production was introduced mainly through Italian magazines such as Casabella and Domus. If I remember the time after the break-up of Yugoslavia, the symposium as a professional meeting also had a networking role. There was no resentment in the profession among architects from the former common state, they helped each other and were friends. I found this sociological aspect very important. I also think it was important that the Piran Days of Architecture helped the younger generation to learn first-hand about architectural trends, because at that time there were not so many scholarships for individuals to go abroad. And for me personally, coming to the Piran Days – meeting new people, making friends, socializing with colleagues, and ultimately learning something – was a wonderful experience in a Mediterranean environment. Nowadays, with the internet, Instagram, etc., the information horizon is obviously more transparent, but also more superficial when compared to the personal experience and socializing with important authors from the wider European area that took place in those days.

New Square, Klagenfurt, Austria, 2008. Photo: Miran Kambič

What was your personal relationship with Vojteh like?

What was interesting for me about Vojteh was the difference from the architects I knew from the school of Edvard Ravnikar, I called them the twelve apostles. He was not from Ljubljana and I would say that he was influenced by the Mediterranean and Nordic spirits. That someone from the Primorska region would be interested in the north, in Gunnar Asplund, Sigurd Lewerentz, and Ralph Erskine, in whose office in Stockholm I myself worked as a student. And that’s how the friendship with Vojteh and others was born.

These are all influences. Interesting things, that certainly have an impact on your architecture. It’s not just books, teaching, what you get from the professor, and so on, but it’s this passepartout to life that influences you. At that time I had the opportunity to invite these Slovenian guys, who I found interesting, to an international summer architecture seminar in Vienna, in the era of the great polit-urbanist Hannes Swoboda. A seminar with various architects, also from Switzerland, Spain, Italy, Germany… And that’s how the Slovenian architects entered an international setting. There was Vojteh, there was Aleš Vodopivec, and Janez Koželj with the teaching assistants. We developed many projects for the city across Dunajska cesta that served as the basis for future competitions.

Perhaps just one more thing. I remember that when you were lecturing at the University of Stuttgart, you invited various architects to give presentation lectures, including Vojteh. It really meant something to him that you even invited him to Germany at that time.

The best German school at that time was in Stuttgart, and certainly not in the divided Berlin, where it was not very clear what the roles were. When I came to Stuttgart I had the opportunity to invite various executives from Porsche, Mercedes, Audi, etc. to explain economics and management. My lectures were on Thursdays at nine o’clock. But then it would not be me giving a lecture, but you, the CEO of Porsche, and now you are explaining to the students all about your industry and design methods, all these technologies which are in a way also architecture. And all these executives were very grateful to me. After a month I wrote them a letter saying that the students were very impressed by their lectures, and that if they were willing to accept it, the school would give them a doctor honoris causa. Of course, everyone who receives this honorary title thinks of their business card, Hans Wolf, BSc, Dr honoris causa. It looks grand. And they agreed. Great. Later, after another month, I sent them a polite letter saying that I needed 80,000 marks because I wanted to expand the institute with 3D modellbau technology. I always got as much money as I wanted.

Also my Pariser Platz, Stuttgart 21, a project that brings together the main buildings of the banking centre, is part of similar sponsorship. It is a part of my life when honey arrived before bread…

Austria Campus, Vienna, Austria, 2019. Photo: Hertha Hurnaus

This was in the mid-80s, mid-90s…

Yes, in 1988 and then again in 2006, when I was in Stuttgart and had all these opportunities – a big institute, three professors, fourteen teaching assistants, an atelier for models – it was logical that I invited the European elite of my colleagues. It was very difficult for the American ones. You know why? Because their academic calendar is not the same as ours,  they didn’t have lectures in the same months as we did. When we had holidays, they held lectures. Later on I became friends with Frank Gehry, when I was a visiting professor at Harvard in Boston and I would pester him with students, and I remain great friends with him to this day. Even though he graduated from Harvard, those haughty folk at Harvard had never invited him, he was considered a clown. I was with Gehry in Jerusalem.  He, Peter Eisenmann, the mighty encyclopaedist, the boss of Yale, Oriol Bohigas, the Spaniard, and Boris Podrecca, the Central European, giving lectures and seminars. Then Gehry and I met again in Vienna. I took him to the Hollein’s Retti Candle Shop which I drew as a student in his office. Gehry appreciated Hollein, he said that Hollein’s museum in Mönchengladbach was decisive for his career.

Later, Gizi and I were invited to his home in Malibu a few times and we exchanged sketches. You know, to talk about architecture with Gehry – there’s no chance for that. We talked about ice hockey all evening. He’s from Montreal. He played it as a little kid, he still has his own team. Every time he had the Czech coach of his hockey team with him. Myself being a football guy, I found these talks tedious. Frank, a son of a Canadian rabbi, comprehensively promoted architecture to the pedestal of entertainment.

Going back to Piran, very soon in the 1980s the municipality commissioned you with the redevelopment of Tartini Square, a redevelopment known for its ellipsoidal shape and your original details of the street furniture.

Yes, Piran. I’d designed squares before, but Piran was the first one at my sea, it was a bigger square, one that used to be a mandrač – [editor’s note – a small marina], andthat’s also an interesting story. I’ll tell you one other thing about this: when I held a lecture in Denmark, Gizi and I went to see the museum of the classicist sculptor Thorvaldsen in Copenhagen, where not only his works are exhibited, but they also have a beautiful collection of artworks and other beautiful things. To cut a long story short, we go to the second floor, I walk around, I look at the paintings, and suddenly I see Piran in Copenhagen. Piran! I see a picture painted by Leo von Klenze, a 19th-century German painter and architect. There is no picture of Piran from that time. That was missing. That is what Sonja Hoyer told me. I see this picture, but you are not allowed to take photographs in the museum. I say to Gizi: “Go into the other room and call the one who is watching and ask him something.” Gizi does that. She goes into the room, calls the man, I take the photo. Click click and I send the picture to Sonja in Piran. It’s really an interesting thing, an intermedium, because not much was known about those houses in Piran, where and how they were built. So just imagine, even in Copenhagen there is Piran. These things keep happening to me. This is a strange thing, I don’t know, as if someone was watching from above. Then this picture actually helped in our design, because you have to study how it was before, the mandrač and these things. Let me mention something else that we have been working on for a long time, something that is difficult to do, it’s the ellipse. The ellipse is one such curva, a curve, it’s something that tomorrow might become a basilica or a pantheon. It is that intermediate form. That’s why it is very difficult to set it in a place, so that it does not oscillate until it settles down. Of course, I was lucky that the mayor at the time was the art historian Anton Mikeln. He understood. That’s the first thing. Then the other thing, the reflection, the design. A good square also needs profane things. So we even made a fountain for dogs… but with such interventions you preserve the notion of temporality, not just time.

Faculty of Medicine, University of Maribor, Maribor, Slovenia, 2013, with Plan B. Photo: Miran Kambič

Although you are also connected with Piran through later projects, the conversion of the church into the St Donat Gallery at 1 May Square and later the City Gallery, but if we go back to the redevelopment of Tartini Square you have another interesting personal story connected to it. If I’m not mistaken, you were given a flat overlooking the square as compensation for the project, which probably meant that you have been an occasional resident of Piran ever since, rather than just an occasional visitor.

At the end of the design process, there was no more money. Mikeln said, “Boris, we are happy, we are satisfied. The first Slovenian square we can show off, but we can’t do anything anymore, we’ve ran out of money for your fee.” I was a little, how should I say, not offended, but I thought, wait a minute, they should have told me this before. Two days later he came and said, “I have spoken to those in the municipality.” Then another mayor came in office, something moved, and finally they asked “Do you want a flat?” I said to myself that I’d rather have the money. Then I thought, well, if you treat me like that, I’ll treat you like that. So I said, “All right, give me an apartment, but on the condition that I look out from the passepartout of the first row of houses onto my square.” And that’s how this story came to an end.

We go to Piran at least twice a year, usually before Silba where we have a house and an atelier and where I started painting again. And if time allows it, we come in autumn for the truffles… Either as a family or with a friend. I always bring someone.

Now, this summer I had with me a professor of architectural history at ETH Zurich, Werner Oechslin, who also wrote something about it. He fell in love with that little thing I designed, St Donat Gallery. When I gave a lecture at ETH and talked about  the metaphors for the gallery – a boat, a window, a table – he saw something more in this project of mine. He wanted to see it in person, and of course also to see Piran. He called me and we went down to the sea with Gizi and his wife. By the way, do you know that he has the largest and highest quality private library for architecture and treatise writers in Europe?. He really is a great man, a great treatise writer and polemicist.

International Gallery of Modern Art Ca’Pesaro, Venice, Italy, 2002. Photo: Miran Kambič
Bismarck – Prussia, Germany und Europa, Exhibition on the occasion of German reunification, German Historical Museum, Martin Gropius Bau, Berlin, Germany, 1990. Photo: Archives of Podrecca Architects
Caritas Church and Community Centre Pentecoste, Milan, Italy, 2016. Photo: Cecilia Castelletti
Punta Skala Resort, Falkensteiner Hotel & Spa Iadera, Zadar, Croatia, 2011. Photos: Archives of Podrecca Architects
Grain Bridge, Ljubljana, Slovenia, 2010. Photo: Miran Kambič


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