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Finnish architect demands Guggenheim Helsinki rethink

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One of Finland’s most acclaimed architects, Juhani Pallasmaa has demanded that plans for a Guggenheim Museum in Helsinki be abandoned amid calls to re-run its design competition on a different site

Commenting exclusively to The AJ, Pallasmaa blasted the £110 million art museum as a ‘ruthless business presented as a cultural project’ and demanded its public funding be spent more innovatively and efficiently to support Finnish artistic culture.

Branding the franchised museum’s political origins ‘secretive’ and its costs ‘underestimated’ – the RIBA international fellow said the project ‘emphasised a consumerist and touristic view of art at the expense of its cultural and humane task’.

He also argued the contest had failed to ‘produce a project worthy of its unique location’ because the winning scheme’s ‘village-like’ charcoaled wood façade would appear ‘very strange’ in the Neoclassical city.

Pallasmaa’s outspoken remarks came as Finnish MP and architect Anders Adlercreutz and architectural critic Jonathan Glancey both called for a second museum contest, calling the chosen scheme the ‘wrong building for the wrong site’.

Earlier this month Helsinki City Board voted eight to seven in favour of proceeding with the scheme, proposed for a prominent site in the city’s South Harbour, which no longer has financial support from the Finnish government.

The city’s 85-strong council will make a final decision next week on whether to proceed with the project, which had previously been rejected at board level four years ago.

The competition to design the gallery was won last year by Paris-based Moreau Kusunoki Architects, which topped a shortlist including the UK’s Asif Khan. The contest, organised by Malcom Reading Consultants (MRC), attracted 1,715 submissions from nearly 80 countries.

It feels like a lost opportunity, an entry that does very little to enhance the harbour area

Adlercreutz argued that any comparison between the Helsinki project and Frank Gehry’s transformative Bilbao Guggenheim was misleading because the latter scheme was part of a major reconstruction of the city’s disused port area and didn’t occupy a prominent site.

‘Gehry’s architecture is very different,’ he said, ‘and I simply can’t feel any excitement when viewing the winning proposal. It feels like a lost opportunity altogether, an entry that does very little to enhance the whole harbour area, that doesn’t contribute to the public space around it and that frankly looks quite out of place.’

The politician argued the ‘detached and almost naïve’ lighthouse proposal risked overshadowing Helsinki’s landmark Lutheran and Orthodox churches and would be better suited to the Hernesaari and Jätkäsaari regeneration districts.

He continued: ‘So what should we do? If we want a Guggenheim, the competition should be redone. We should discuss what to do with the heavy traffic from the ship terminals that now hamper the project, and the whole harbour area should be part of the project.

‘It should not be a detached building, but a part of a bigger development of the harbour area.’

Glancey argued the proposal for a black timber shed on Helsinki’s white stone Neoclassical waterfront was an ‘affront’ and ‘offensive’ to Finnish architects. ‘It won’t be timber because Helsinki fire standards don’t allow timber structures so it has to be concrete or steel with cladding and Finns don’t like that sort of thing,’ he said.

Suggesting the competition-winning design would be better suited to a rural location or lakeside town in the north of the country, Glancey warned that the building risked damaging the city’s formal set-piece landscape, which traditionally welcomes visitors arriving by boat.

The architecture critic backed the MP’s call for a second competition, arguing it should be organised by a local body with international firms encouraged to apply. ‘Most architects would jump at the chance to do something fresh knowing there was something flawed [regarding the choice of site] with the original competition,’ he said.

‘Who on earth thought of idea of sticking this thing at front of Helsinki’s harbour? It was wrong from square one.’

Responding to their calls for a second contest, MRC chair Malcolm Reading said: ‘Why? The competition was the largest open architectural competition in the world; was free to enter; was supported (and had jury representatives) of the government of Finland and the City of Helsinki.

‘The shortlist was generously rewarded in an honorarium and the the competition was covered by the world’s press. It was run scrupulously to OJEU regulations and had not one complaint throughout the procedure.’

The Guggenheim Foundation was asked for comment.

Juhani Pallasmaa

I have opposed the Guggenheim Helsinki project from the beginning for various reasons. First, I cannot support a branded and franchised global art museum business in Helsinki, to be largely paid by municipal tax funds. In my view, the project is initially a ruthless business, although it has been presented as a cultural project.

There has been very little public information about the planned activities of the museum, and the financial calculations underestimate costs and overestimate income. The political preparation has been too secretive for a major public project, and mainly focused on expected economic benefits. The project emphasises a consumerist and touristic view of art at the expense of the cultural and humane task of art. instead of strengthening local artistic traditions and practices, the project strengthens the already doubtful globalisation and commercialisation of art. The public funds could clearly be used in a more innovative and efficient manner to support Finnish artistic culture.

The architectural project itself is far from satisfactory. The village-like setting with charcoaled wood facades is very strange, next to one of the finest Neoclassical urban centres of Europe. Regardless of the exceptional number of entries, the competition did not produce a project worthy of its unique location.

Response: Malcolm Reading Consultants

There are a number of basic gaps in Mr Glancey’s and Mr Pallasmaa’s arguments.

Firstly, the site for Guggenheim Helsinki was selected – by the City of Helsinki in agreement with the State of Finland – after a thorough search process informed by the 2011 ideas competition for the South Harbour. The South Harbour competition was promoted by the City of Helsinki to address the future development dynamics of the area with the impending move of major port activity to West Harbour and Vuosaari. Most competitors in the South Harbour competition favoured a mixed-use plan, retaining some aspects of the long heritage as a working port, especially the passenger terminals for day visitors from other Baltic destinations. A large cultural presence was also proposed by many competitors.

The South Harbour site is a delightful combination of historic and more recent buildings, many from the late 19th and 20th Centuries. Its character is its diversity. Much evidence of the working port endures.

Timber cladding is perfectly acceptable under Finnish building codes (ALA won the 2013 City Library competition with an undulating timber form) and some of the most interesting work in timber as a structural material is being pioneered in Finland, for example OOPEA won the 2015 Finlandia Prize for an eight storey high-rise apartment tower in cross-laminated timber (CLT). The jury in the Guggenheim Helsinki recognised that further work is needed to resolve some design features but concluded that this was a normal part of design development

The Guggenheim Helsinki competition was fully endorsed by the competition Board of SAFA, the Association of Finnish Architects and the jury featured two independent SAFA-appointed award-winning architects, as well as the City Architect Mikko Aho and other leading international architects including Jeanne Gang and Juan Herreros. There were six (of a total 11) jurors from Finland.

The competition was fully compliant with OJEU Regulations, open to enter and transparent in process. The web site was multi-lingual. An indication of the status of the competition is the record-breaking international interest. There were no complaints from competitors to the procedure or result.

Mr Pallasmaa is a co-sponsor and judge of Next Helsinki, a competition timed as ‘an alternative to the controversial Guggenheim Helsinki project’ (Next Helsinki website).

Malcolm Reading

Director, Malcolm Reading Consultants (organiser of the Guggenheim Helsinki Design Competition)

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Readers' comments (2)

  • They're right - this design would be more appropriate for a factory outlets retail village at Loch Lomond Shores, rather than an art museum on the Helsinki city waterfront.

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  • The proposed Guggenheim museum in Helsinki looks beautiful and certainly has a lot of potential. I remember reading somewhere that wood was the preferred material. Marc Wigley and the rest of the jury chose well. Hope to have a chance to visit that building one day.

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