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Helsinki Guggenheim: Jay Merrick reports

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The jury was not looking for schemes that acknowledged the city’s existing architectural context, says Jay Merrick

Protesters against the contest stood outside the Bio Rex cinema, designed in the 1930s by Viljo Revell. The Finnish architect won the commission while still a student architect, so there was a certain resonance inside its auditorium as jury chair Mark Wigley announced the shortlisted architects for the Guggenheim Helsinki.

Fake Industries Architectural Agonism? How obscure can a practice contrive to make itself, even though Wigley may have an inkling about these products of Columbia University, being dean of its graduate school of architecture. How ordinary Asif Khan and the cosmopolitan blend of Moreau Kusunoki seem in comparison.

All but one of the shortlisted practices is less than seven years old, which is the true wonder of a competition process whose decision was described by its organiser, Malcolm Reading, as ‘unanimous’. It seems that, between them, Helsinki and the Guggenheim Foundation may be in the process of reinventing Solomon Guggenheim’s original idea, in 1937, of presenting what he called ‘non-objective art’ in relatively unusual surroundings.

Some of Wigley’s remarks about the four-day judging process may prove influential to other design-competition jurists, and to those who shy away from what he described as a ‘radically anonymous’ architectural competition. It was clear from what he said that the jury was not looking for schemes that acknowledged the city’s existing architectural context in predictable ways.  

Here are some of his comments: ‘We can’t be sure what we’re looking for. It’s a kind of dance … You’re not looking for the right scheme. The right scheme should be looking for you … We were not looking for a piece of spectacular jewellery on the waterfront … The site was really the main juror.’

The audience filed out of the auditorium into the mezzanine, where several screens showed the shortlisted designs in an ambience tempered by a sub-Café del Mare soundtrack. Among the throng were local architects, art-bods, and quite a few planners – the city has more of them than New York.   

There was another kind of jury outside, holding a long horizontal banner in the sub-zero cement-grey morning light. It read: Not With Our Money. The Guggenheim Foundation has already been pressured into waiving its annual $1.3 million brand lease fee, but it looks as though the city, which has a huge financial burden related to public housing and welfare commitments, will have to dredge up about two-thirds of the cost of the Euro130 million Guggenheim project.

The Guggenheim Foundation’s director, Richard Armstrong, once declared that art museums should be responsible for “the democritisation of beauty”. He, and Mark Wrigley, were on message in saying that it was a case of what Helsinki could bring to the Guggenheim, rather than the other way around.

If you take beauty and democracy out of the equation, the bottom line of this design Odyssey is money. Helsinki is reinventing itself as an environmentally and educationally smart city, and as an international centre of design innovation. It targets 2030 as the end-point of a first big surge in big waterside,  infrastructure and commercial developments. It needs substantially increased cashflow, more shopping, and more than the 1.74 million tourists it currently attracts every year. There must be is a Scandinavian noir thriller in the offing.

  • Jay Merrick is architecture critic of the Independent
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