Back in December, when the Guggenheim Helsinki released updated designs for the six shortlisted designs for the Guggenheim Helsinki Design Competition, columnist Aaron Betsky was not impressed, to say the least. With tomorrow bringing with it the announcement of the winner of the competition, we felt it was appropriate to revisit Betsky's take on the latest chapter of the museum's worldwide expansions and new buildings. His original story, from Dec. 9, 2014, follows below:
The Guggenheim is moving from shock and awe to meh and feh. After innumerable attempts to create a new building in everywhere from Rio de Janeiro to Guadalajara, with only an outpost in Abu Dhabi designed by Frank Gehry, FAIA, to show for two decades of efforts since the Bilbao branch opened, the would-be franchise king of the museum world has just released the finalists in the competition to design a new, rather modest, facility on Helsinki harbor. Not only are the prospects of this branch actually opening in our lifetime not that great, but, after a competition that attracted more than 1700 entrants, the jury picked ones that, at least from what we can see, do not seem to elicit much excitement.
Perhaps the jury, chaired by Mark Wigley, AIA, and including Jeanne Gang, FAIA, and Juan Herreros, wanted to first do no harm. Certainly there were many outrageous proposals among that mass of entrants, and I can imagine that both the jury and the organization wanted to counter the idea that the Guggenheim was still attracted to the heroin-like rush that proposals by the likes of Jean Nouvel, Hon. FAIA, and Zaha Hadid, Hon. FAIA, had given them in the past. Any of these buildings will, if they are ever built, hardly raise an eyebrow.
Just to be clear: the designs do not look so bad in the (of course) immensely seductive, drawings the teams submitted. Plan 04380895 might be the sexiest in the conventional sense, its charred timber tower rising above slinking slugs to evoke elements of water and shipping that are such a central part of the scene here on Helsinki’s waterfront.
Equally dramatic is scheme 76091181, which consists of twisted wood towers housing galleries with exposed timber ceilings grouped around a soaring atrium. Its plan imprisons the exuberance I was expecting to see in heavy walls, and there seems to be little relationship to the surroundings.
In contrast, two of the other plans are resolutely horizontal. Scheme 1128435973 preserves some existing buildings on the site, placing a long building over them. Its roof presents a long line of gables that might recall harbor buildings, but seems to have little in common with the row of mainly post-War office buildings that now populate the site.
5631681770 is interesting in that it goes furthest at refusing to make strong form, presenting a large shed that will act as a collector building for various urban activities, of which the museum would be just one. It seems to be the only scheme that really questions the notion of the art museum, though what its model really is remains rather vague.
My favorite so far is the iceberg. Scheme 121371443 proposes a box whose proportions are vaguely neo-classical, a sense that its materials reinforce and contradict at the same time: Vertical striations contain a system of “nanogel glazing and rollable thermal shutters,” according to text accompanying the entry—whatever that means. Whether it really is (or will be) an environmental marvel, it is the only one that looks like an abstraction and condensation of both its immediate and its wider context. At the same time primitive and—if I can believe the techno-jumble—startlingly new, it would be a dramatic piece of work.
We do not know who did what scheme, though we do know the names of the finalists. I suppose that a good detective could try to marry the images with the other work of these firms, all of whom are, I have to admit, unknown to me. That in itself is a cause for optimism: If this competition does nothing else, it might give a chance for a young firm to put itself in the limelight. I just hope that, as these schemes develop, they become more worthy both of their selection, and of the idea that the Guggenheim could help to reinvent the nature of the art museum in the manner that it did once in New York and again in Bilbao.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.