Helsinki’s new Guggenheim museum turns heads and raises eyebrows

Helsinki CNN  — 

After years of public scrutiny and six months of jury deliberations, the Guggenheim has finally revealed the winner of its Helsinki museum design competition.

It is young Paris firm Moreau Kusunoki, which has proposed to break the museum into a series of nine low-slung pavilions, connected by outdoor walkways and oriented to frame views of both the city and the South Harbor where it aims to reside.

The procession of individual structures would be led by a single lighthouse-like building, and all would be clad in glass and charred timber, Finland’s principle natural resource.

Since the breakout success of Frank Gehry’s glittering Guggenheim Bilbao in 1997, the Guggenheim has been courted by cities the world over to build an equally iconic behemoth that would lure tourists in by the millions.

By contrast, Moreau Kusunoki’s design is physically open to its environment, conceived by a relatively unknown firm, and a selection from an anonymous, open competition that produced 1,715 submissions – in short, a total divergence from the Guggenheim brand, which had previously been built on the hand-selection of celebrity architects.

Acceptance and controversy

This sea change in approach is a reflection of the institution’s painstaking efforts to appeal to the Finnish, who have thus far been vehemently anti-Guggenheim, specifically for its large price tag, now set at $147 million with an additional $1.4 million in annual operating fees, as well as the the threat of a hulking symbol of American imperialism landing on its waterfront.

“The implication is that a country as small as Finland should not invent anything itself, but rather learn from and copy foreign masters,” Finnish artist Merja Puustinen opined last year.

Consequently, the Guggenheim charm offensive has been set to full force.

The museum sought a proposal “worthy of Helsinki’s position as the mecca of design and architecture,” and “aspired to the transparency your society is known for,” Guggenheim director Richard Armstrong gushed during Tuesday’s press conference.

The radical structure of the design competition itself was an effort to align with the Finnish architectural tradition of anonymity in order to uphold democratic design. Yet even now, only a handful of the 85-member Helsinki City Council, the legislative body who owns the final say on the matter, have voiced their support in this investment.

What would Helsinki stand to gain?

While critics argue that Helsinki should invest its capital inwardly to raise the profile of its its existing cultural institutions – The Helsinki Art Museum and the Ateneum branch of the Finnish National Gallery among them – it’s here that we find Guggenheim Helsinki’s greatest proponents.

“From the point of view of the museum and cultural industry sector, I think [the Guggenheim] is a huge asset for the whole region and the country,” added Ateneum director Susanna Pettersson, who lamented the fact that while Finland is best known internationally for its wildlife, aurora borealis and strong sauna culture, its visual arts rarely make the list.

Helsinki Art Museum director Maija Tanninen-Mattila sees the Guggenheim as a possible catalyst for the industry. “If you came to see the Guggenheim and stayed the night, you’d likely see another museum the next day,” she said, dismissing any fears of competition.

In the context of its Nordic neighbors, Helsinki is now being eclipsed: Copenhagen saw a 10-percent increase in overnight stays in the first quarter of 2015; Stockholm 9 percent. Meanwhile, Helsinki reported a 7 percent drop.

A chance to rebrand

“From the outside, Northern countries often get grouped together, but the Swedes and Danes are so much better at communicating the country as a design and architecture destination,” says Finnish International Design Foundation communications director Laura Aalto, noting the new opera houses, museums, and other cultural centers sprouting throughout Scandinavia, whereas Finland’s best known architect continues to be Alvar Aalto (no relation), who died in 1976, and whose venerated furniture brand Artek was acquired by Swiss manufacturer Vitra in 2013.

“We’re a bit stuck with old names,” she said. “Today we have a lot to offer, and the Guggenheim is a potential platform to communicate that.”

What becomes clear, then, is that Helsinki’s primary benefit from the Guggenheim would be rebranding.

The Guggenheim Muesum Bilbao.

But the effect is mutual. Like Finland, the Guggenheim’s architectural claims to fame are rooted in the 20th century, but this competition already marks baby steps away from the so-called “Bilbao Effect,” and towards the the anti-monumental sentiments of 21st-century museums.

Whether this Nordic cultural capital will elect to join the Guggenheim in the 21st century remains to be seen.

In the meantime, the local Guggenheim Helsinki Supporting Foundation, led by Finnish investment banker Ari Lahti, has pledged to raise 30 million euros in private support before the Helsinki’s City Council is scheduled to cast its vote in the first half of 2016.