The rise and fall of creative revitalisation of the old Tobacco factory in Ljubljana, Slovenia

Nela Halilovic

By Nela Halilovic, on May 19th, 2020

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In its fruitful 130 years of operation, the Tobacco factory in Ljubljana (Tobačna) was like a city within a city. It offered employment to many workers, especially women, as well as good conditions and above-average services. Its cast-iron construction was exemplary for many industrial buildings in this part of Europe. Even though the factory was closed and sold as real estate, the spirit of innovation and creativity survived in the buildings. The creative sector that arose as a grassroots movement and found its home in these buildings saved the Tobacco factory from decay during the years of the global financial downturn, turning it into a vibrant urban area. But things changed recently when the ownership of the area changed. After the downturn buildings were rented out by a bankruptcy manager however that ended when the area was sold to international developers.  

Five years ago, the area of Tobačna was in decay, a part of the former factory buildings had been demolished and a giant construction pit now lay in its place. Most of the remaining buildings were vacant and IMOS, the investor at the time, went bankrupt. The importance of Tobačna slowly faded in the consciousness of the public, as did the promotional image of the project Tobačna mesto with the investors’ plans for new skyscrapers in the heart of the area.

Tobačna mesto plan, Source-DIA

Then, everything changed shortly afterwards. Even though nothing happened to the construction pit, the area became lively and full of fresh and innovative ideas, as many locals started renting affordable production spaces in the buildings to start their business. If a creative class as defined by Richard Florida exists, Tobačna attracted quite a few of its members who added economic value to area through their creativity.

The creative city notion has mainly been discussed at the level of larger cities at the beginning. Miguel Rivas for example researched creative ecosystem in relation to people (creative talent), economy (creative industries) and place (creative spaces) at the level of small and medium-sized cities within URBACT. Tobačna case analysis highlights the spatial aspect of the creative ecosystem.

Tobačna is widely regarded as a new creative milieu of Ljubljana, a concept developed by Charles Landry. It emphasises a place that contains the necessary requirements in terms of hard and soft infrastructure to generate a flow of ideas and inventions. In light of the conditions (economic crisis, degradation, …) in which the creative industries of Tobačna arose, the case was still a temporary solution despite its success. As Claire Colomb found in other similar cases: “A temporary use of such areas, nonetheless, is often (although not always) perceived by public authorities as an intermediary, second-best option for vacant urban spaces in the absence of other development options, or as a prelude to more profitable ventures to be launched by the initial users themselves or by external investors.”

Nothing happened to a construction pit, photo by Goran Jakovac

The success factor for the redevelopment of Tobačna was an affordable production space and very good conditions in the buildings: large production halls, long corridors of offices, etc. Another success factor is the location near the city centre. Similar to other cities with a socialist history and industrialisation, the industry located near the city centre was relocated rather late in comparison to western cities and was maintained until the outbreak of the global economic crisis. The buildings of Tobačna were just sitting there, waiting for someone to adapt them to a new content. And someone did! As stated by the well-known urbanist Jane Jacobs: “New ideas often need old buildings.”. First came the Poligon Creative Center as the pioneer of the creative sector in Tobačna and others soon followed. Start-ups, festivals, concerts, high-technology enterprises, the university, individuals, and organisations all found their place here.

Former industrial areas located in urban centres include elements of cultural heritage, which are a great opportunity to make cities even more interesting, attract visitors and capital, and consequently stimulate their development. The city authorities and other interest groups are aware of the importance of the location and the development potential of these areas and Tobačna is no exception. Not only did the Tobačna case stimulate public authorities to recognize the creative sector as an opportunity for economic development, but it even became an important part of local and regional development strategies and other urban policies.

Poligon was one of the pioneers of the creative sector in Tobačna, photo by Jure Gubanc

Creative milieus with industrial heritage are considered to provide an added value to the city, a cultural attraction for visitors, consumers and investors, and they are hardly ever built with the top-down principle. Actually, the bottom-up initiative in the case of Tobačna is also one of the success factors of its redevelopment.. The NDSM Wharf case from Amsterdam shows that it is possible to redevelop city areas from the bottom-up, starting with the end users. The activities of creatives in an old dock gradually attracted city officials and other actors to the point that it became one of the most vibrant city areas. However, the future of NDSM Wharf is uncertain, as it takes on an increasingly residential character with a plan for building around 1,300 homes in the area in the years ahead.

After years of legal battles with many surprising twists, the 86,000 m2 complex of Tobačna was sold to a new owner in mid-2019, with whom all the tenants in the buildings had to sign a new contract. Just a few months later, Poligon Creative Center, the pioneer of the new identity of Tobačna, had to move out of their premises, because the new investor needed space for their offices. Like in the beginning, other creative actors soon followed. Some were softly pressured by the new owner through the conditions in the new agreements and higher rents. Others will have to leave, as they have lost the network of creative communities and an environment where colleagues and interlocutors are easily found.

The new investor could have used the creative identity and as a foundation for developing the project’s brand; after all, a creative environment sounds better than an old factory. Even the former investor IMOS was aware of this when it invited young creative artists to one of the buildings under favourable conditions in 2007 and in 2011, in cooperation with the Museum and Galleries of the City of Ljubljana, the first renovated building was the Tobačna 001 Cultural Center.

Areas like Tobačna are important for urban development. New collaborations that grow into companies that can employ three, thirty, or three hundred people in a few years do not start out in expensive new office buildings, but in old and cheap premises, such as garages and workshops. In such environments, new ideas have the potential to develop, new models can be tested, and the exchange of ideas and information is more intense. In economic terms, the growth rate in such environments is higher than in a conventional office building.

Start-ups, festivals high-technology enterprises, the university, individuals, and organisations all found their place in Tobačna, photo by Urban Jeriha

In the case of Tobačna, a creative urban regeneration through meanwhile or temporary use could be regarded as highly beneficial for the city in general and for the area of Tobačna itself. It contributed to the social and economic development of the city and provided a creative milieu built from the bottom-up, which many cities try to develop with various degrees of success. However, this all came to a close when the new owner took over. The end of the creative Tobačna will have negative impacts on the city in terms of community interactions and supply of affordable production space. Tobačna is a unique case to an extent, but the establishment of such milieus involves considerable ubiquity, as has been noted in similar cases in many cities. In years of prosperity, there will be investors with a legitimate aim of developing such areas. What does that mean for the local authorities? Should they step in more actively in order to preserve such areas as creative milieus or leave it to the invisible hand of the market, if one exists?


Written by Nela Halilović, Aidan Cerar, IPoP – Institute for spatial policies

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