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Guggenheim Time: could the competition's winning proposal become Helsinki's new landmark?

The untypically open call for a museum in the Finnish capital is a dream commission for those seeking a big-break - but the complex web of priorities make it an eye-watering challenge that may never be realised

Great architectural competitions can shape architecture. They can act as trials and later as points of reference for emergence of new architectural phenomena and idioms. The Chicago Tribune Tower, Sydney Opera House, Centre Pompidou, the Jewish Museum in Berlin and Yokohama terminal are seminal buildings, yet all stem from competitions. Could the Helsinki Guggenheim competition, an untypically open call for a prestigious new art museum in the Finnish capital, be of this lineage? In decades to come will it be seen as breaking new ground?

If it is actually built, perhaps, but otherwise, it will be just another footnote in the compelling history of the unbuilt Helsinki, and the less compelling history of unbuilt Guggenheim museums. The project stands perilously close to becoming bogged down in local politics. It may never be realised, no matter how strong the design. The museum proposal has already been voted down by the city more than once, and a large part of the Finnish art world is sceptical of it. Some private money is now backing the competition, but nothing is yet certain.

The central Helsinki site gives the building a real chance to change the urban beat of the city — back towards Engels’ original vision in conversation with Aalto’s masterly masterplan. However, to achieve this the design needs not only to seduce the jury, but the politics too.

Detractors resent the capitalist model of the Guggenheim Foundation and argue the process has not been open enough. Some fear the new publicly funded museum would draw resources away from existing institutions, while others accuse the Guggenheim model of being outdated. This is the discussion the proposed design will enter and must debate with.

Yet here is another way of looking at it where, for once, all is up to the architect. Three years ago, when the Guggenheim Helsinki project was launched, Richard Armstrong, director of the Guggenheim Foundation, raised eyebrows by claiming to a major Finnish newspaper that ‘a museum is a concept, not a site or a building’. Now, after the foundation’s catastrophic first proposal, and a second proposal last year, the tables have turned − the whole project is dependent on the architects’ creativity and the power of the design, as even Armstrong recently conceded in the New York Times. The winning scheme is expected to win over the local decision makers on top of architectural and urban issues. The design is now expected to solve the whole thing.

The competition brief by the Guggenheim Foundation that lists the mission and purposes for the museum fails to define an exact programme of the building. The listed provisions for ‘artistic processes’, and ‘architecture, design and their intersection with art’, for instance, appear to be almost meaningless phrases left wide open for the architects to approach as they see fit.

The open competition appears to be an unrivalled opportunity and a dream commission for any architect looking for a big break, but lurking beneath its brief is a complex web of competing priorities that combine to become an eye-watering challenge. As a museum, the design should enable and embody something beyond the brief, but without bending it (a faux pas in Finland); it must be for the people, reflecting Scandinavian social democracy but confidently international; it must solve the friction between the local and the global; be proud but not bold, and simple, yet beautiful. It needs to be silently right and needs not to give up. In short, it must make the impossible possible.

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