Half a year ago, Slovenia’s capital started one of the country’s most awaited and longed for renovations of the last few decades. In the centre of Ljubljana, standing on the south bank of the Ljubljanica River, a former sugar refinery called Cukrarna (cuker is an archaic Slovene word for sugar, thus the name refers to the industrial building’s former role) is undergoing a complete renovation and refurbishment. This makeover was long awaited by the Slovenian public, for the building is not just of a truly magnificent size and appearance, but also bears a rich and poetic history that has been engraved into every local pupil’s mind.

Cukrarna operated as a sugar refinery from 1828 until 1858 when a huge fire stopped production. From 1864 to 1866, the building hosted soldiers who used its rooms as apartments; and from 1870 a tobacco factory operated in its facilities until 1872 when another fire brought the building’s life to a halt. Then, from 1873 until 1918, the building was used as an army barracks. However, in the meantime, some of Ljubljana’s civilians who lost their homes in the devastating 1895 earthquake that destroyed one-tenth of Ljubljana’s buildings, lived in Cukrarna for a while as well.

Photo credit: Municipality of Ljubljana / Vita Kontić

And this is the historical era of this breath-taking industrial building that every pupil in Slovenia has heard of, since among those who sheltered in Cukrarna at that time were the impoverished young generation of Slovenian poets from the time of modernism in Slovene literature. Dragotin Kette, Josip Murn Aleksandrov, Oton Župančič and Ivan Cankar are just some of those who either lived or hung out at Cukrarna discussing poetry. They were very young, yet some of them even died in Cukrarna, Kette at the age of 23, and Murn at 22. Cukrarna is thought to be the birth- and life place of Slovene modernism at the turn of the 20th century. Later, it still had a role as a shelter but it also suffered a few fires so it was considerably damaged and completely closed down.

For many years and decades various renovation plans were discussed and planned but always failed. Every time another plan fell through, or another fire broke out, or another accident befell the damaged building, the happening aroused the interest and imagination of the Slovenian public. For years the building was almost falling apart, and was dangerous, but at the same time it was not allowed to be demolished for it had such a rich and important history of nation-forming through culture and the arts. Many wanted to renovate it, but it had always been too large a bite to chew. So, it slowly faded away and the Slovenian nation eagerly awaited a conclusion to this never-ending story and a painful view in the Ljubljana landscape.

Photo credit: Scapelab / Marko Studen

Finally, in October 2018, the Municipality of Ljubljana, with some financial support from the Government, started the first real and historical renovations of the building, with plans to transform it into a gallery. With the renovation of this massive empty industrial building from the past, Ljubljana will gain a new and its biggest exhibition space suitable for more demanding Slovenian and foreign art exhibition projects, as well as for other events in the field of culture, the arts and education. The Municipality’s aim is also to expand the city centre towards the east and consequently, to acquire additional public space. The urban intervention will also include the upgrade of the urban environment around the project structure itself.

Photo credit: Scapelab / Marko Studen

The reconstruction, which is co-financed by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), is planned to end in approximately 2 years’ time, with the total value expected to be around 23 million euros. Its goal is to expand and improve the available exhibition space in the Municipality of Ljubljana (MOL) and increase the number of complex exhibitions which will attract bigger audiences, both local and from abroad. At the same time, the gallery will provide easier access to cultural events for all the city’s residents and other visitors, as well as substantial promotion of various cultural productions.-; Most importantly, though, it will strengthen the cooperation with important international partners aiming at the realisation of bigger joint projects, which, until now, was impossible due to inadequate facilities.

Photo credit: Scapelab / Marko Studen

The gallery will not just be used for modern art exhibitions and the visual arts but will also provide space for the Biennial of Design Ljubljana (BIO Ljubljana) and for the International Biennial of Graphic Arts, and it will even start forming its own arts collection. With its versatile concept, it is also expected to function as a special events venue, which will enhance Ljubljana’s offerings for meeting planners.

Once the project is finished, the gallery will be administered by the public institute Museums and Galleries of Ljubljana. We can say with great relief and positive expectation that the much loved and intriguing old Cukrarna will finally be transformed from an eyesore into a (brilliant) sight for sore eyes.