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When Helsinki freezes over: Guggenheim competition shortlist revealed

The competition for the Helsinki Guggenheim was as unedifying a spectacle as the proposals threaten to be

The BIG news is that the Guggenheim Helsinki Design Competition attracted 1,715 entries from 77 countries. If these were to be stacked end-on-end they might shape some phantasmagorical art gallery representing the collective desires of architects from Alaska to Zimbabwe for a gallery that might make Helsinki the world’s greatest art-tourist magnet. Or, international laughing-stock. There is no virtue in numbers. Imbibing so much architectural plonk could not have been good for jurors, nor is it good for the image of architecture.

Jurors, chaired by Mark Wigley, author of White Walls, Designer Dresses: The Fashioning of Modern Architecture, chose a shortlist of six at the beginning of December, and it is just possible that one of these might actually be built, for a reputed £83 million, on Helsinki’s South Harbour. What will not be built is a Guggenheim spawned from the vast salon des refusés of unlisted entries. So there will be no new gallery in the guise of a grotesque Dali-esque potato, titanic scallop shells, various floating things and, quite extraordinarily, a pile of spiralling dog turds that might have been sketched by Steve Bell, the English cartoonist. Was this supposed to have appealed in some malodorous way to one of the competition jurors, Yoshiharu Tsukamato, founder of Atelier Bow-Wow?

A rejected entry proves that you can polish a turd, but that doesn’t make it more appealing

A rejected entry proves that you can polish a turd, but that doesn’t make it more appealing

The winner will be announced late next spring or, better perhaps, in the dog days of summer 2015 when it might add to the gaiety of the Finnish and other nations. It has to appeal to the Finns, of course, as they will be footing a substantial part of the bill for this latest, if still putative, branch of Guggenheims. Remarkably, and not without controversy, the Finns paid for a costly feasibility study conducted by the Solomon R Guggenheim Foundation itself. Quite why Helsinki needs, or wants, a Gugg is anyone’s guess, although it appears to be driven by a policy conjured in the Mayor’s office aimed at diverting passengers changing planes at Helsinki airport to spend a few hours − and fistfuls of dollars − in a newly fashionable, Vegas-style Helsinki.

‘Imbibing so much architectural plonk could not have been good for jurors’

As, presumably, only the most démodé tourists could care for Helsinki’s Neo-Classical and Jugendstil architecture, or even such radical later works as Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen’s Rock Church, winner of a competition held in 1961; exciting new venues showing iconoclastic contemporary art in media-savvy iconic buildings are needed as visitor bait. To prepare the ground, a Starbucks can now be found on the ground floor of Aalto’s once perfect Academic Bookstore, and a Burger King in the once charming Finnish restaurant of Eliel Saarinen’s central railway station.


A gaggle of cubistic ducklings following their mother to the water’s edge


Clustered timber towers stand on tippy-toes around a central atrium in this vertically oriented proposal for five gallery silos

Meanwhile, once dignified city streets have been made over to big-name global shops, aimed first at glad-handed Russians and now to visitors from newly rich authoritarian states. Helsinki’s special and haunting character − its masterful balance between modesty and display − is being spirited away faster than anyone can knock back a ‘Marski’ schnapps, the tipple of choice of Marshall Gustav Mannerheim, hero of Finnish independence. In between the lead up to independence in 1917 and the triumph of globalism, Finland went its own way, shaping its particular, richly animated version of Arts and Crafts − walk the streets of Katajanokka and look around you, eyes wide open − followed by a Modern era in which young architects excelled in creating a new sensibility that became both an essential part of Helsinki and a magnet for architects and, yes, cultural tourists, too, at a time when Finland seemed so very far away from the rest of Europe and, of course, from the United States.

But, who cares about history? Move over Engel, Sonck, Aalto et al, the new generation is here with the rap’n’roll Guggenheim and they’ve got something to say. Like, for example, ‘The world is full of architecture, more or less interesting; we do not wish to add any more. Fuck originality.’ This is from the website of one of the six finalists, Fake Industries Architectural Agonism, New York, a practice unlikely, however, to shy away from adding its own more or less interesting building to the beleaguered Helsinki skyline.

One of the finalists depicts a gallery interior adorned, if this is the right word, with Maurizio Cattelan’s They Told Me I Could Be Anything I Wanted. What the Fuck, displaying the back end of a horse sticking out of a white wall. Tellingly, the Paduan artist was a finalist in the 2010 Hugo Boss Prize in association with … the Solomon R Guggenheim Foundation, and the New York Guggenheim was given over to a retrospective of his clown-like and undeniably popular work from November 2011. A clever move by the architects? Perhaps, although as one online commentator told Dezeen, ‘Yeah, I saw that retrospective. I get that his art is about subverting art world and museum expectations and being an all- around prankster, but man did that Guggenheim show do nothing for me. I walked away from that with the impression that I was the butt end of the art joke here.’ This was not, I think, a response from Helsinki in relation to the Guggenheim competition, yet − tellingly − it might have been.


A luminescent tablecloth draped over a glass box


A floating saw-toothed shed alludes to the industrial past (and present: icebreakers are still built here) of Helsinki’s waterfront

Other finalists − these are AGPS Architecture (Zurich and Los Angeles), Asif Khan (London), Haas Cook Zemmrich/Studio 2050 (Stuttgart), Moreau Kusunoki (Paris) and SMAR (Madrid and Western Australia) − have been equally adept in their successful attempts to woo jurors and the Guggenheim. Aside from its competition entry − in theory, these are anonymous, so you are not meant to be able to put names to drawings − SMAR, for example, has built a temporary pavilion in Madrid, named ‘Scaffolder’, that calls to mind the Pompidou Centre, a radical art gallery by young architects chosen through an international competition, although, as the organisers of the Helsinki fest are keen to point out, this attracted a mere 681 entries.

Asif Khan could be on the American money in Helsinki − as much of it as there is − as his London studio Pernilla & Asif designed the ‘Coca-Cola Beatbox’ pavilion for the ‘world-class’ 2012 London Olympics. Visitors were able to ‘play’ the pavilion, interacting with sounds embedded in its structure.

While the ultimate quality of these six finalists can only be judged by looking through their complete competition submissions, it is clear that the Guggenheim and its judges are keen to find something young, provocative, eye-catching and newsworthy. Hopefully they haven’t overlooked the most exciting new talent; there are rumours of one such architect whose only known work to date is for a rejected bubble-gum factory published in an obscure Hungarian quarterly.


A recycled version of the existing ferry terminal in laminated timber


A stealth bomber-style low-lying building that is an extension of the street

There is, I think, an underlying problem in the idea that such a sophisticated city as Helsinki with a powerful presence in architecture and the arts should feel the need to pay an American ‘brand’ to somehow rejuvenate it and thus appeal to hordes of Venetian-style day-trippers. As Jeremy Till said, imagine if all the energy expended on this competition had been given over to something useful. And, how can Helsinki take seriously a competition suggesting entrants consider making extensive use of timber, as if Finns had just come out of the forest, awed by an offering of glass beads, the rear ends of horses and more wood, and as if Helsinki is a not a city of granite, brick and stucco.

For many Finns, too polite and modest to tackle the onslaught from global design and branding undermining Helsinki, this is a clear case of an arts building too far. If my jeremiad seems a little too harsh rather than carefully reasoned and cautiously balanced, this is because so few people will speak up for those who don’t allow themselves a voice. By all means, build a hospital or sanatorium here by the sea, or a new market, swimming pool or shipyard constructing ultra-modern vessels, and encourage the best young architects, but Helsinki should ensure that encroaching global brands, fashioned modern architecture and other dispiriting flotsam and jetsam are sent packing from its South Harbour with the next tide.

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