We need a Guggenheim and a good one

Helsinki | 15.07.2014
The long-awaited architectural competition for the new Guggenheim museum in Helsinki is now open. The organizer, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, expects more than 1000 entries from all over the world. The idea of building a Guggenheim museum on this site in the centre of Helsinki has proved controversial with experts and the general public alike, but the competition has every chance of producing an interesting result. This is what Panu Lehtovuori, the member of Project Baltia editorial board is absolutely sure about.

Helsinki competition

The long-awaited architectural competition for the new Guggenheim museum in Helsinki is now open. The organizer, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, expects more than 1000 entries from all over the world. The idea of building a Guggenheim museum on this site in the centre of Helsinki has proved controversial with experts and the general public alike, but the competition has every chance of producing an interesting result. This is what Panu Lehtovuori, the member of Project Baltia editorial board is absolutely sure about.

Both Helsinki’s decision-makers and people in the field of culture are deeply divided. The project is seen variously as a confirmation of the continuing international success of Helsinki and as a cynical branding move initiated by a faltering American art empire. The serious difficulties and delays faced by the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi are well known. In May 2012 Helsinki’s City Board narrowly (7-8) voted down the Guggenheim’s earlier proposal.

Since then the Guggenheim Foundation has changed its offer, found a new site in another part of the South Harbour, and hired better PR consultants. While the artistic and cultural content of Guggenheim Helsinki remains irritatingly obscure, the competition seems promising from the point of view of architecture and planning. There is a real need to reorganize harbour traffic and create new high-quality public space. At best, Guggenheim Helsinki would kick-off the renewal of South Harbour with force and grace. The competition programme seems well written and the jury includes top names such as Jean Gang, Juan Herreros, and Rainer Mahlamäki.

The results of the two-phase competition should be known in June 2015. When the envelopes are open and the winner announced, the real game will start. Both the funding for the project and formal city planning rules remain unclear and contentious. Can cool Helsinki accommodate starchitecture? Will Guggenheim find sufficient private funding to make the project politically possible? Are Helsinki’s planners and national authorities able to accept a major spatial change in the historical harbour, a listed ‘national landscape’? How will the obvious link to St Petersburg’s art offer be developed?

Maybe a brilliant piece of architectural design will have sufficient soft power to bridge the gaps in the institutional and economic terrain. A white box is clearly not enough. Space and programme will have to be conceived in close conjunction with one another and must involve multiple audiences in novel ways. Personally, I wish that Helsinki could have a Guggenheim, and a good one. For a moment, the ball is in the architects’ court.

Panu Lehtovuori

 Guggenheim Helsinki competition programme

A critical review of the earlier proposal by Sampo Ruoppila and Panu Lehtovuori

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