Winning Helsinki Guggenheim design ‘a wake-up call to architecture’
Paris-based architects Moreau Kusunoki win controversial competition with design praised for restoring idea of public space to museums
The open walkways are intended to enrich the artistic experience for everyone in society, in harmony – theoretically – with Finland’s deep social democratic roots.
But the winning design for the Helsinki Guggenheim museum, announced on Tuesday, will find it hard to shake off a long-standing controversy over the cost of art in an era of austerity.
Hailed as “a wake-up call to architecture” that champions the idea of public space, the design by Paris-based architects Moreau Kusunoki was revealed in the Finnish capital, where the museum is intended to transform the city’s waterfront and become the third Guggenheim in Europe, after Venice and Bilbao.
The project has divided the country, with Helsinki’s city council at one point voting against it due to concerns that much of the expense would come from the public purse at a time of severe budget constraints. Finland’s culture minister has questioned “whether Finnish taxpayers should finance a rich, multinational foundation in the first place”.
The budget for the museum is estimated at €156m, with private money contributing only 18%, or €28m, and the state and Helsinki covering the rest.
Finland elected a rightwing government in April that has pledged to reduce a large public spending deficit. “Hands up how many Finns believe the Guggenheim museum in Helsinki will be built under this government,” asked broadcaster YLE’s culture correspondent, Jonni Aromaa.
But the project’s opponents are mainly on the left, while the right sees it as a boost for Finland, citing the example of the Bilbao Guggenheim, which has helped transform the Spanish city into a popular art and architectural destination.
Dazzled by the promise of the “Bilbao effect”, dozens of cities court the Guggenheim every year. But when Helsinki city councillors were asked recently if the museum would benefit Finland as a whole, none agreed strongly, while almost half disagreed.
The design by Nicolas Moreau and Hiroko Kusunoki proposes a collection of dark pavilions clad in charred timber and glass with concave roofs, cohering around a covered street landscape and anchored by a lookout tower. A panel of 11 judges, including the Studio Gang founder Jeanne Gang and Atelier Bow-Wow’s Yoshiharu Tsukamoto, found the design “deeply respectful” of the setting and “imbued with a sense of community and animation that matched the ambitions of the brief to honour both the people of Finland, and the creation of the museum of the future”.
Moreau, whose practice with Kusunoki opened only four years ago, said architecture did not have to sloganise, but needed to “bring poetry to society, to make people gather”, using their potential to enrich the museum from below. “I can see in the specific context in democratic Finnish society that we can bring a new kind of architecture that would learn from the bottom, that could play a new role in the city,” he said in a video interview accompanying Tuesday’s announcement.
Mark Wigley, dean emeritus of the graduate school of architecture at Columbia University and chair of the judges, said the “genuinely dignified” status of the public in the winning design was “a wake-up call to the Guggenheim and architecture in general”.
“I am so bored with 80-year-old white men getting out of their aeroplanes, not knowing anything about the city but pretending to love the clients and dumping one more uninteresting museum on them.”
There was a deep sense of social democracy in Finland, Wigley said, and his biggest wish was for a museum to emerge that was embedded in this political dream.
“The competition was as radically democratic and open and transparent as I have ever seen,” he said. “I just wish that buildings in the US and elsewhere were as controversial and argued about and debated.”
The design, entitled Art in the City, was chosen from a shortlist of six finalists that was reached during a process that began last summer with more than 1,700 proposals from 77 countries. The process of choosing the winner was anonymous, with the panel only learning the names of the winning architects once they had been chosen.
Notable projects undertaken by Moreau and Kusunoki include the Théâtre de Beauvaisis in Beauvais and the House of Cultures and Memories in Cayenne. They receive a cash award of €100,000 (£100,000), while each of the other five finalists receive €55,000.