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Kiasma's architecture of art and words at the RIBA

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Anyone who didn't already know the Kiasma contemporary art museum in Helsinki was probably disappointed by the lecture at the RIBA, in which neither the architect, Steven Holl, nor the founding director, Tuula Arkio, seemed willing to discuss the building in any detail at all, or even to show any images of it. Both speakers seemed intent on promoting their own, distinct interests, without so much as a nod to the other, let alone a conversation.Holl hogged an hour of the allotted time with a chapter-bychapter run-down of his forthcoming book, Parallax, leaving Arkio with just over 15 minutes to tell the audience about the museum's artistic programme and success in attracting visitors - including 35,000 young people under 18 who came last year independent of school groups.

It was Arkio who made most effort to acknowledge the other party, stressing at the outset 'how wonderful it was to work with such an architect', but on the whole her attitude towards contemporary architecture seemed to be one of profound scepticism and little interest. She made it clear that 'the building is very important but it is what's inside it that makes it a museum', and dismissed the entire output of new museum architecture generated in Europe and America during the 1980s. 'The best spaces for contemporary art in the '80s were all old converted spaces, ' she said, reiterating an old truism, and she admitted that at first she 'didn't think anything would come out of the competition' for the new museum in Helsinki. It was only when she saw Holl's anonymous competition submission sketches showing the way that daylight could enter the galleries that she realised there might be an architect who understood something about contemporary art.And after she had seen those, she confessed, she didn't bother to look at any of the other entries.

Such was Arkio's commitment to the project that she managed to fight off a petition of 20,000 signatures against it, which was partly inspired by the 'big scandal' of an American architect coming to 'the holy land of Finnish architects'. But the progress of the project after such promising beginnings, and the nature of the discussion between director and architect, was left almost wholly to the audience's imagination. Judging by Holl's performance, it seemed likely to have been dominated by the architect and his 'whole phenomenological viewpoint', as Arkio describes it. Holl maintains the building is directly inspired by the writings of Merleau-Ponty, from which the name, Kiasma - that is 'chiasma' - is taken. MerleauPonty's theory of the body as the seat of experience and perception becomes, then, the framework for an architectural approach defined by the desire to heighten each individual's self-conscious awareness of the body in space. But one wonders whether Holl, who stresses the importance of writing to the practice of architecture, is perhaps most interested in the architectonics of words.

Steven Holl and Tuula Arkio were presenting the fourth in the RIBA/Tate Modern series 'Building Visions: Architect and Director' at the RIBA.

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