To the Finland Website: To Get an Icon, Don’t Strive for One

The 1,715 submissions to the open, anonymous Guggenheim Helsinki Design Competition went online on 10.22.14. The chance to design the next iteration of the most widely recognized modern art museum on Earth, the institution forever linked (however reductively) with contemporary urbanism’s Bilbao Effect, has unsurprisingly drawn a crowd. The jurors now face the formidable task of sifting out a six-proposal shortlist from that enormous mass of images and texts. A week before the avalanche went public, members of the jury and other prominent architects and academics met with an animated Archtober crowd to preview the project’s potentials and pitfalls. They considered what a new Guggenheim might accomplish in bringing Finland’s impressive design tradition to wider world attention, connecting the international art scene with the Finnish public, and carrying forward the complex cultural and economic endeavors that former director Thomas Krens set in motion by moving the Guggenheim brand beyond New York in 1997.

Centrifugal Guggenheims have been successful in Venice and Bilbao, temporary in SoHo, Berlin, and Las Vegas, and abortive in Vilnius and Guadalajara. The one in Abu Dhabi, designed by Gehry Partners, is still under construction (and plagued by Saadiyat Island’s reported abuses of foreign laborers; the Guggenheim is on record as insisting these cease). Considering these mixed results, when cities suggest feasibility studies for new branches, “we rarely respond positively,” said Guggenheim Deputy Director and chief curator Nancy Spector. Helsinki’s bid is an exception, strengthened by its local history in architecture, design, and urbanism (Alvar Aalto’s detailed plan for the city center being a salient case, noted Yale’s Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen), its potential role as a link between the East and West (the Allegro high-speed rail link to St. Petersburg is a plus, as is Helsinki’s position as a port city), and its “quite remarkable digital literacy.”

The decision to open a Guggenheim Helsinki is not free of local backlash, however, and the involvement of public funds raises questions of appropriateness and accountability. Those involved recognize frankly that the legacy of Wright and Gehry icons can be a burden. As moderator Joel Sanders, AIA, noted, Helsinki does not want “the kind of traditional museum typically conceived of as a temple to art, indifferent to its everyday surroundings. The new Guggenheim in Helsinki must operate as a kind of responsive urban sponge that needs to absorb a variety of environmental and infrastructural forces.” The mandate in this case involves a site on Helsinki’s southern harbor, adjacent to a 19th-century park; an emphasis on extra-artistic functions as a transit hub and educational center; sustainable construction and operations, of course, geared toward Helsinki’s cool climate and at least considering using Finnish wood; the capability of handling interactive, immersive multimedia works, allowing artists and curators to “rethink the white cube”; and “a design informed by Nordic ideals, including openness and accessibility,” with a balance between international and Scandinavian artists. Sanders challenged the organizers and jury to redefine the museum as a new typology, “a performative icon for the 21st century.”

Juror Jeanne Gang, FAIA, added that Finland’s architecture is already iconic in ways differing from Bilbao’s, defining iconicity more broadly—not as visual or formal exuberance, but through effects on people: “Is there something other that resonates in such a way that’s so strong everyone can recognize it?” Guggenheim Director of Architecture Cara Cragan noted that to some degree, “iconic has become a dirty word,” one that “makes architects… and museum people uncomfortable.” Her own stated preference was for “transformation” in design, which can be either loud or subtle. Spector recalled that, when Gehry was selected for Bilbao, the goal was never to create an icon: “That was never really part of the brief. It just was where Frank Gehry was in his career, and what happened on that site. I don’t think we’re going to turn down any wonderful visionary structure… but we talk about Bilbao as if that were a mandate. That’s an aftereffect.” Monumental, game-changing status came later, in the execution.

Likewise, in the new competition, with hundreds of architects (younger ones in particular) looking for the lightning-strike that would energize a career, the process may actually de-emphasize monumentality. Politics, Sanders noted, will be the elephant in the room. The audience discussion that followed raised the possibility that the Finnish officials on the jury might steer the choices toward postcard iconicity anyway, but the jury, Cragan noted, is not weighted to make any single entity or profession dominant. The new Guggenheim’s functions within urban and international ecosystems are paramount: it must balance the interests of local residents and tourists, and as Pelkonen observed, its emphasis on the vernacular must not become isolationist and lose sight of the global nature of the art world. At least in these preliminary discussions, both the challenges and the implications of past experiments are in clear view; we’ll know later this fall which specific designs get the chance to answer these difficult questions.

Bill Millard is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in Oculus, IconThe Architect’s Newspaper, and other publications.

Event: Guggenheim Helsinki Competition: Museum of the Future
Speakers: Cara Cragan, Director of Architecture, Helsinki and Abu Dhabi, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation; Jeanne Gang, FAIA, Founder and Principal, Studio Gang Architects; Nancy Spector, Deputy Director and Jennifer and David Stockman Chief Curator, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation; Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen, Associate Professor, Yale School of Architecture; Joel Sanders, AIA, Professor Adjunct, Yale School of Architecture (moderator); Rick Bell, FAIA, Executive Director, FAIA (Introduction)
Organizers: Guggenheim Museum and the Center for Architecture
Location: Center for Architecture, 10.15.14