An 1828 sugar refinery reborn as a contemporary art gallery
Built in 1828 in Ljubljana, the Cukrarna sugar refinery has been transformed into a contemporary art gallery with a project that celebrates the industrial history of Slovenia and its national identity, while strengthening community through art. Over the last two hundred years, the building has undergone various iterations. Following a disastrous fire, it was transformed into a tobacco factory. Next, it was a textile factory, then a military barracks, then a homeless shelter.
Now with heritage status, the building has become a symbol of Slovenian identity as a national monument to the industrial history of the nation.
The transformation of the building into a contemporary art space dates from 2009, when the local government announced a competition for its restoration and repurposing. The Scapelab studio won with a project that respects the identity of the building.
Scapelab’s project involved restoring the façades but otherwise leaving them unaltered, their solid appearance, the thickness of the walls, the geometry of the numerous square windows aligned with one another, and the sloping pitched roof all recalling Slovenia’s industrial architectural traditions from the 19th century. So, although from the outside, nothing seems to have changed, the building now has a much stronger relationship with the city through the creation of a new square that filters access to the main entrance to the south. To the north, the view over the Ljubljanica River has been enhanced by creating an open space with concrete seating.
The heart of the transformation, however, is on the inside, with the project completely hollowing out the building and, in so doing, creating a kind of empty box to be fully redesigned. At ground level, the space is open and obstacle free, except for the column formed by the elevator and stairs. But even from that position, it’s still possible to see the exhibition galleries above, each one designed as if it were a floating white cube, wrapped in perforated metal.
The power of the architecture is maximized by the height of the rooms, whose verticality is further underscored by the numerous aligned windows that invite you to look upwards.
The upper floors appear as volumes levitating over the floor below. On three levels, they house the galleries and multifunctional spaces for workshops and conferences, including educational workshops and reading spaces for children. The attic level houses the air conditioning and electrical systems.
To free up the bottom level as much as possible, each floating cube is suspended on steel structures. The cubes are then wrapped in a perforated metal skin – an elegant architectural element that lightens the presence of the cubes and adds a functional element to the architecture of the floor below. Not only does the metal skin accommodate the HVAC distribution system, but it also acts as an acoustic dampener and a source of lighting. The complex also features a bar. Intended to be another attraction for local people and visitors, it’s designed as a kind of sound stage that converts into a jazz club or piano bar.
The Cukrarna Gallery is a new cultural hub for the city of Ljubljana, a space that celebrates contemporary art, the industrial history of the country, and the national identity of its people.
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Location: Ljubljana, Slovenia
Architects: Scapelab (Marko Studen, Boris Matić, Jernej Šipoš)
Gross Built Area: 2.015 m²; Total usable space: 5.700 m²; Total Gross Area: 11.500 m²
Plot area: 6.000 m²
Client: Municipality of Ljubljana
General Contractor: Strabag
Structural engineer: Elea ic
Sustainability and energy concept: En Plus
HVAC engineer: Menerga
Lighting engineer: Arcadia lightwear
Fire safety engineer: Fojkar fire
Photography by Miran Kambič, courtesy of Scapelab