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Guggenheim Helsinki should not see the light of day

23 June 2015

After a design competition that received a record number of entries, a much-publicised shortlist and a public exhibition here in Helsinki, the winning design for the still-yet-to-be-approved Guggenheim Helsinki has finally been announced. Is it cynical to wonder why the decision has only been made after midsummer, when many Finns are by now far away in their summer houses, safely beyond the reach of the internet? Anyway, congratulations go to Paris-based firm Moreau Kusunoki whose winning proposal, entitled ‘Lighthouse’ was selected by the Guggenheim jury from 1,715 anonymous submissions.

The press release praises the building’s sensitivity to the surrounding city and its eco-credentials: ‘Clad in locally sourced charred timber and glass, the environmentally sensitive building would comprise nine low-lying volumes and one lighthouse-like tower, connected to the nearby Observatory Park by a new pedestrian footbridge and served by a promenade along Helsinki’s South Harbor.’

Perhaps architect and writer Mika Savela summed it up best when he tweeted his description of Moreau Kusunoki’s design: ‘diplomatic, docile and Northern, but slightly unurban & non-cosmopolitan – in essence, a Finnish dream?’

Savela apart, responses have predictably been polarised between those who were in favour of the project already and those who opposed it regardless. Former PM Alex Stubb has been tweeting pictures of the design, while Osku Pajamaki, vice chairman of the city’s executive board, has described it as ‘arrogant’ in the New York Times. As the article notes, ‘for the most part, economics have played a greater role than aesthetics in the discussion’.

This is largely because what a Guggenheim museum in Helsinki might eventually look like is the least of Finland’s worries. At a time of public funding cuts across the board, the last thing Helsinki tax-payers need to be saddled with is more debts: initial costings were projected at €130 million, with annual operating costs of €14.5 million. When the City of Helsinki rejected this in 2012, the Guggenheim returned with revised figures, but locals and local artists especially are strongly opposed to the scheme.

At least there has been discussion. One positive outcome, according to Katja Lindroos – whose Our House festival of suburbia opens near Vantaa in August – is that the debate around the Guggenheim has forced many in Helsinki to think hard about the future of their city and what role they want museums and the arts to play within it. In a recent piece in Helsingin Sanomat (in Finnish) gallerist Ilona Anhava was highly critical of the city’s museums for being too safe in their programming. She cited the Robert Mapplethrope exhibition at Kiasma by way of example (as I did too in March’s Baltic Diary). It will be interesting to see what Kiasma’s new director, Leevi Haapala, has in store.

For what it’s worth, I think Moreau Kusunoki’s designs for the Guggenheim look very nice. But I also hope they are never realised here in central Helsinki – not while the public sector is shouldered with the financial burden of paying for it. The discussion around the Guggenheim has certainly given Finland’s art scene something to think about. Now let’s hope the plans can be put at the back of the shelf – alongside the Guggenheim’s other aborted or failed attempts in Las Vegas, Berlin, Vilnius and Guadalajara.

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