From a field of more than 1,700 entries, the winner of the controversial Guggenheim Helsinki museum competition was revealed this week. The proposal the jury selected, named ‘‘Art in the City” and designed by the relatively unknown, Paris-based architecture firm Moreau Kusunoki, was praised for its sensitivity to the museum’s site along the Finnish capital city’s South Harbor.
The design envisions not one building, but rather a series of nine, low-profile buildings around a central “lookout tower” or lighthouse—or as the 11-member jury described it, “a fragmented, non-hierarchical campus of linked pavilions where art and society could meet and intermingle.”
Compared to other museums in the Guggenheim franchise, like Frank Gehry’s showy architectural bauble in Bilbao, Spain, or the expansive Guggenheim complex in Abu Dhabi, Helsinki’s design is fairly discreet, with references to the aesthetic of the patron saint of Finnish architecture and design, Alvar Aalto. The most distinctive feature may be the ebony “charred timber” façade, meant to symbolize “the process of regeneration that occurs when forests burn and then grow back stronger.” This is Moreau Kusunoki’s material metaphor for resilience—an allusion to Finland’s prolonged economic slump.
The economic angle is key here. When Helsinki’s city planners bought into the Guggenheim franchise, they were hoping for the so-called “Bilbao effect,” referring to the idea that a vibrant cultural center can be the linchpin to a city’s economic renewal, as famously happened in Spain’s northern city when it invested in the Guggenheim Bilbao. Since then, the Guggenheim has been actively franchising and commodifying its name and model, earning a reputation for being the Starbucks of museums—a veritable outlet for “fast culture.” Helsinki was originally set to pay Guggenheim $30 million in licensing fees alone.
Architect and urbanist Michael Sorkin has been a vocal critic of the Guggenheim Helsinki project. Sorkin is co-organizer of the “Next Helsinki,” an open call for ideas for an “anti-competition” that invited architects, urbanists, landscape architects, artists, environmentalists, students, activists, poets, even politicians to submit counterproposals for the site—anything but another Guggenheim.
“Helsinki is the brand, not Guggenheim,” Sorkin tells Quartz.
“We initiated this project out of a sense of both outrage and love,” he explains. “Outrage at the march of the homogenizing multi-national brand culture emblematized by the imperial Guggenheim franchise … [and love] from our mutual affection for Helsinki, from a sense that it is a singular place, unique in setting, form, and culture.”
Sorkin also points out the irony in the Guggenheim Helsinki competition strategy. It seems that city officials bought into Guggenheim’s brand promise essentially without the two key ingredients to generate the Bilbao effect miracle: an iconic, if not gaudy, building design, and a recognizable starchitect’s name like Gehry—who is a brand unto himself.
If approved, it seems that Helsinki is about to sink $147 million into a rather subtle, low profile museum complex designed by a couple of undoubtedly talented, but still unknown (and henceforth media-shy) architects. Husband-and-wife duo Nicolas Moreau and Hiroko Kusunoki have intentionally avoided all publicity while working on the project, espousing a philosophy ”that architecture is best conceived in reserve and introspection, which are favourable to the emergence of poetic visions.”