With this concise study, Veronica E. Aplenc manages to provide a fresh take on a now well-established topic: city planning in state socialism. Whereas most scholars working in this area have argued for the centrality of the cities they study—whether because they are capitals, industrial centers, or paradigmatic cases of socialist modernity—Aplenc is not interested in Trnovo for its centrality. Trnovo was a small town that gradually became incorporated into the suburbs of Ljubljana, itself a city that was not particularly urbanized at the beginning of the 1950s. Yet Aplenc convincingly argues that we can learn a lot about socialist modernity and planning practices by looking at places like Trnovo.

Aplenc is a folklorist by training, and for that reason, she is interested in looking at how socialist authorities treated places that did not fit with their ideas of modernity and, in turn, how locals and other actors articulated and advanced their own views of these places and tried to shape their futures. While planners and architects are key actors in the story of Trnovo, so are preservationists and informal home builders. Importantly, Aplenc positions these actors not as antimodern or antisocialist, but as active participants in shaping Slovene socialist modernity.

The monograph begins by exploring how Slovene planners went about defining specifically Slovene socialist planning practices, informed by the broader Yugoslav vision of the good life, characterized by stylish modern living. In particular, Aplenc notes the appeal of Scandinavian design to Slovene planners, architects, and designers. Slovene planners adapted the concept of the mikrorayon (microdistrict) to the Slovene context, calling it the soseka. This ethos shaped Ljubljana’s first master plan in 1966, which was to govern Trnovo’s modernization through the development of a new neighborhood of high-rises as well as some single-family housing.

As Aplenc notes, although not an important place, Trnovo had some significance in the Slovene national imagination, immortalized in literature as a picturesque pastoral landscape of vegetable gardens. Moreover, the famous architect Jože Plečnik had left his mark on the local landscape, designing a bridge and the river embankments. None of these elements featured in the socialist planners’ vision for the future of the district. Instead, Trnovo became the site of a model single-family home development, Murgle, designed by France and Marta Ivanšek. Aplenc argues that in contrast to the high-density housing prevalent in places like Belgrade, this low-rise housing development came to epitomize socialist modernity in Slovenia.

Yet socialist modernity in Trnovo was also a story of unsanctioned, informal housing development in the neighborhood known as Rakova Jelša. Here, Aplenc argues, far from representing a premodern impulse or expressing an oppositional stance to the socialist authorities, the unsanctioned construction of housing represented an effort to take part in the socialist project. In taking a close look at how these rogue builders made their claims, she highlights their efforts to align their discourse with the official discourse, asserting that this signaled their genuine buy-in to the promises of socialism.

One of the insights of the book is the way that disciplinary boundaries rendered contemporary vernacular architecture invisible—whereas architects were interested only in a future-oriented built environment, ethnologists relegated vernacular architecture to the past. Aplenc also provides valuable insight into the regulatory mechanisms governing periurban land that facilitated (or failed to prevent) unsanctioned construction. Echoing my earlier work in Designing Tito’s Capital, she notes the authorities’ inability to prevent the flourishing of unsanctioned building or to come to some kind of agreement with builders after the fact.1

In the final chapter, she traces the evolving preservationist discourse on Trnovo, from a valorization of its medieval heritage in the 1950s to a growing appreciation for Plečnik’s interventions later. Particularly intriguing is the shift in narrative in which the urban area of Krakovo came to be seen as a rural settlement. To Aplenc, this signals a discursive alignment of preservationists in the 1960s who accepted the idea of urbanity as socialist and modern. Finally, she discusses the gradual embrace of Plečnik, who initially fit uncomfortably in the socialist canon of modernism and therefore was marginalized. Ironically, his legacy was secured in part as a result of backroom dealings between the construction company charged with updating the plan for Trnovo and the architect Stanko Kristl, whose design included more housing because it was more profitable. Yet, by the 1980s, Plečnik had come back into fashion, and his architecture became the defining heritage of the district.

With this study, Aplenc opens up several avenues for further inquiry. She invites us to think about the ways in which the history of more peripheral urban spaces in state socialism differs from that of major cities as well as the reason we need to read about such places to get a complete picture of socialist planning. She also challenges facile ideas about what is modern and what is not. Her focus on how experts in different disciplines (urbanists, architects, preservationists, and ethnologists) framed places spatially and temporally in dynamic interaction with one another makes an original contribution to the scholarship.

Aplenc writes with a deep appreciation for, and knowledge of, the local history of Trnovo and the wider Slovene context, and this lends a richness to the discussion. By staying so focused on the local and national scale, however, she misses the opportunity to compare her findings with the broader historiography on Yugoslav cities and socialist urbanity more generally. Such comparisons would enable us to better evaluate her claims about the specificity of the Slovenian approach to architecture and urban planning, for example. How distinctive, really, was Trnovo in its planning approach, in relation to Belgrade, Zagreb, and other localities? By comparing unsanctioned building in Trnovo to the same phenomenon in Belgrade, for instance, Aplenc could have allowed us to consider to what extent this was a Yugoslav-wide phenomenon, and whether it exhibited place-specific idiosyncrasies. Moreover, some may find that her broader argument sometimes gets lost in the detailed discussion of archival documentation. Yet scholars of urban planning who are willing to immerse themselves in this case study of a beloved periurban neighborhood on the edge of Ljubljana will find much food for thought.


Brigitte Le Normand, Designing Tito’s Capital: Urban Planning, Modernism, and Socialism in Belgrade (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014).