12/2014: Guggenheim Foundation’s Gazebo by the Sea

A new brand art museum for the Guggenheim Foundation at the Helsinki South Harbor?

Building art museums and concert halls on the waterfront came into fashion again in the early 2000s. Older modern models include the Sydney Opera House, the Royal Festival Hall in London and the string of public buildings envisioned by Alvar Aalto at Töölönlahti Bay. More recent examples are found in Bilbao, Copenhagen and Oslo.

Questions arise from the realities. Building on the waterfront is technically demanding and expensive. At Helsinki South Harbor (Eteläsatama), a rise of 1.5 meters at sea level, as occurred in January 2005, leads to grave problems. If global warming is taken seriously as the point of departure, the Eteläsatama site is not possible for building a new art museum.

The function of the building is ill-matched with the character of the place. Visual arts museums require good protection from direct sunlight and external walls with few openings. On the Eteläranta site, an enclosed museum building would mean that its activities could not be visible to the outside. This would emphasize the building as a mere object, its large size and absence of scale.

The Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma and the Helsinki Music Center are prime examples of this, like gazebos for giants or huge sculptures. Their significance to citizens can be compared with that of the nearby Lasipalatsi building where the scale continues that of its surroundings and the activities open into urban life from all sides of the building. The sculptural image of the Opera Houses in Sydney and Oslo may look elegant in pictures, but the connections of their activities to the surrounding city remain flimsy.

Many well-known museums and concert halls have been built in former docklands or industrial areas. The Sydney Opera House is located on the site of a former tram depot, the Royal Festival Hall in London was built on a reclaimed industrial site, and the Bilbao Art Museum as well as the Oslo and Copenhagen Opera Houses are located in what used to be docklands. The new buildings were used as vehicles to replace the industrial image that was perceived as ugly and to attract new kinds of users.

For a company seeking investment profits, the location at the western seafront of Helsinki South Harbor is an advantage. The Guggenheim Foundation assumes that it will gain positive responses through the competition process in the ”promised land of architectural competitions”. The proposed site, however, is unsuitable for art museum functions, and the financial plan of the project does not stand up to critical appraisal. The decision of the City of Helsinki to offer the site for the competition was irresponsible.

For the citizens and the cityscape of Helsinki, a suitable location for the art museum of the foundation could be found at Jätkäsaari or Hernesaari, both former port areas, comparable with the sites of the well-known cultural buildings referred to above. Earlier the waterfront area at Eteläranta and Laivasillankatu contained port buildings and in the 1930s even a dockyard, but contrary to the international sites mentioned, the urban milieu is not industrial in character but part of the valuable and fragile historical center of Helsinki.

Massive sculptural buildings with facades that lack scale, standing apart from the fine-grained urban structure of the surrounding blocks, are not possible next to the neoclassical center and in the visual totality without endangering the iconic view of Helsinki.

Although the Guggenheim Foundation does not seem to appreciate the historical layers of our capital city, we must protect the values and meanings that they embody. We cannot afford to lose the historical cityscape of Helsinki.


Anja Kervanto Nevanlinna

*The article was written before the announcement of the six finalists of the Guggenheim Helsinki competition and published in December 2014 in Arkkitehti / Finnish Architectural Review 6 / 2014.