DESSA Gallery was founded in 1989 in order to set up a space for sharing and learning about different architectural ideas. After twenty years of operation, we look at the path traveled, which means 200 exhibitions at home and more than 70 exhibitions abroad. To this is added the more than 50 lectures on Slovenian architecture abroad and some 38 excursions. This rich experience can be summarized as the architects call for greater responsibility towards the environment, society and himself, since the pressing problems of today cannot be resolved without the architectural profession.
The Story of the Construction
In the area of today's building in the Jewish lane 4, the synagogue once stood. The first burned down in 1213 and has been replaced by a larger one. When the Emperor Maximilian in 1515 (perhaps already in 1513) expelled the Jews from Carniola, it was turned into a Catholic chapel. Later the chapel was abandoned but the building itself was not demolished until the 19th century. The present building was built in late 19th century, but even before the earthquake from 1895. In the nineteen thirties, the company "gg. Lozić & Padovan" from the island of Korčula opened a restaurant, which operated until the end of World War II. After a brief period when the premises were used by the music school, the ground floor was occupied by two craftsmen. In the smaller space worked a precision mechanics that repaired typewriters. In the larger space there was electrician Klemenc that installed car radios. Today's front doors were then large enough that the car could drive into the room. When both stopped to operate, the space was devoted for restaurant again. The local community strongly objected this and with the help of our colleague Alenka Sfiligoj, who lived in the house, we proposed a gallery what the local community supported. The contract has been signed with the city of Ljubljana and we started to pay the rent, but it were month before the Cycling Union handled over the keys of the space.
Gallery DESSA was built during the socialist Yugoslavia, when conditions of activity were not comparable to present times. The idea was born after architects in 1982 were finally given the official status of independent cultural workers. And when we were finally cultural workers – then we also wanted to behave well. However, art galleries generally were not in favors of architectural exhibitions, and because independent cultural workers needed to secure the official status by having exhibitions, we decided to organize our own gallery. Model for us was London 9H gallery, which in the eighties represented space for exchange of new architectural ideas. However, this was not so easy to implement. It was not only lack of money, but also the fact that in the crisis of socialism it was legally impossible to invest in “non-productive activities”. The construction of the gallery was finally made unofficially.
Since gallery had to have international character from the beginning, we wanted to obtain a well-known architect, possibly from abroad. The first discussions were held with Boris Podrecca in euphoric atmosphere at the opening of the exhibition of Jože Plečnik in Centre Pompidou in Paris in 1986. We told him immediately that we have no money to pay the high fees of architects from abroad. Originally, we intended to build the gallery together with the Association of Architects of Ljubljana. Association’s Executive Board did not agree with the selection of Boris Podrecca as architect. The then president of the association Dušan Blaganje Jr. calmed them down: “If I had at home one better architect, there would not be problem, but because here are all better than Podrecca, I think that it would be simply better to choose Podrecca.” Later the association abandoned the project and the whole financial burden had fallen on the DESSA society. The first plans were made at summer workshop in 1987 in Piran when Podrecca began to design Tartini Square in Piran. Matej Vozlič, Vesna Vozlič and Pietro Valle, son of the famous Italian architect Gino Valle, participated there. Later Matej Vozlič worked on the project in Podrecca’s studio in Vienna, but we had to pay him from Yugoslavia, at a very modest fee from the home price list.
Construction was led by Matjaž Sušnik, some more complex interventions were made by ourselves. Prohibition to invest in non-productive activities was not the only obstacle. We had high inflation and we had to pay deposit for trips abroad. Therefore, legendary adventures happened in connection with smuggling mosaic, halogen lights and taps, the only items that were imported. Due to restrictions on imports most of the equipment we ordered from home manufacturers.
Gallery spaces were mainly finished by the New Year 1988/89, so that we already held the New Year’s Eve party there. We wanted to wait with the official opening until the promised Podrecca’s exhibition, but he never took enough time for that purpose. We launched the gallery on 17 April 1989, with the opening of the exhibition on Plečnik-award winners. At that time I explained to the mayor Nuša Kerševan that she had opened the gallery, which was built illegally. She smiled and replied that she certainly did know about that. Podrecca did not come to the opening. When he later came, he asked Majda Cajko: “Little girl (he always calls her so), how do you feel in the most beautiful office in Ljubljana?” He got the expected answer: “It is beautiful, but for sure not functional!” Podrecca did not get confused: “It’s like with women, ugly must be functional, but for beautiful, that is not necessary.” Corporate image of the gallery was designed by Ranko Novak, and we printed a leaflet in Slovenian, English, German and Italian.
After the opening, the gallery was published in some international journals, which made later contacts with foreign architects much easier for us. The first publication was in the catalogue Boris Podrecca, published by Harvard University Graduate School of Design, April 1987, even before construction was complete. Afterwards publication in the magazine Raum Möbel Design (Vienna) followed in February 1989 and in L’Architecture d’aujourd’hui (Paris) in September 1989. Gallery was also mentioned by Gianni Contessi in the article Forme Slovene in magazine Costruire in December 1989 and Jean-Paul Robert in the guide to Ljubljana in the Paris edition of Vouge in April 1990.