From the smallest seaside town to the greatest European capital the story is the same: bring in a starchitect, build a gallery. If we build it they will come. Image: The history of Finland extracted from the Guggenheim Helsinki Museum Competition Brief.
From the moment Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum was unveiled along the banks of the Nervión river in 1997, the term “Bilbao Effect” emerged as a battle cry from civic leaders, architects and city planners intent on revitalizing dilapidated city centers and elevating their status in a competitive global market. Funny how artists who would never admit to entering a chain fast food restaurant are queing in places like New York in order to be shown in a regional chain museum.
In fact, there was reason for elated optimism, as market research showed Gehry’s new building bringing an extra 3 million visitors to the city each year, with additional tax revenue and corporate sponsorship invading the flourishing post-industrial region. However, the success of the project would not rely on a single object, but on an inspiring urban strategy that cleared the city’s waterfront of old shipbuilding industries and introduced accessible green space that was capable of hosting popular city activities and attractions throughout the year.
The city, eager for a museum to compliment the region, gave the Guggenheim foundation complete control of the project throughout the process. The result was an efficient, yet impressive construction. Nevertheless, it was obvious to the media and aspiring cities that the “Icon” resulted in the sudden fortune of Bilbao, elevating an emerging cultural industry in architecture that relies on the shock of iconographic structures for supremacy in a global market.
Guggenheim Helsinki site context map (image via Guggenheim Helsinki proposal)
Helsinki has long been a target for the foundation, but their proposals have brought opposition from many Finns. Their last proposal focused on a site in the Katajanokka district of the city, but was voted down by city councillors. The Swedish People’s Party and National Coalition supported the idea, but Green and Leftist representatives were opposed. National Coalition mayor Jussi Pajunen has been a strong supporter of the Guggenheim project.
Finland is already an extremely creative country for its size , and certainly doesn’t need a load of international art investor super-rich fotzen winding everyone up and edging out the local art scene with hyped up squashy buildings and Damian-Hirst-mäßig nonsense. If I were running Helsinki, I would replace this whole project with ‘the world institute of Heavy Metal’. That would probably also attract a tremendous amount of tourists, and also ones who are not total tubes. Fantastic country. Wahey!
However, after several visits to Finland over the summer, the foundation is now ready to try again. As the official Guggenheim Helsinki design competition drew to a close this week, a rival contest was announced: Next Helsinki, backed by the New York architecture and urban policy think tank Terreform, Finnish nonprofit arts organization Checkpoint Helsinki, and the Gulf Labor offshoot Gulf Ultra Luxury Faction (GULF) along with Occupy Museums.
The foundation’s website states:
“Helsinki is one of the world’s great cities – a beautiful and cultivated place, dancing by the water. But it is a city – like all others – with real needs. For housing that is abundant and affordable. For an on-going retrofit for sustainability that is such an urgent part of the future of all the world’s cities. For rational transportation. For inventive platforms for experiencing and producing art. And for public spaces and a public culture that can generate decent livelihoods and be accountable to communities.”
The counter-competition is seeking submissions in any media across a wide range of disciplines and approaches. For jury chair Michael Sorkin of Terreform, this ethos encompasses “any representational conceit that [entrants] think is transparent to their intentions … inventive reflections on the future of Helsinki on any scale.”
It seems that the Guggenheim Foundation wanted Helsinki to produce an innovative and educative arts laboratory, a new kind of museum concept for the future, whereas Helsinki most of all wanted a landmark attraction with a lot of eye-candy for wealthy tourists. The latter would naturally have required some really iconic architecture, and names like Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid were already circulated in people’s wildest dreams. New York University sociologist Andrew Ross, an organizer with GULF, explained to Hyperallergic that the Next Helsinki contest is intentionally structured to reject the “traditional” confines of an architectural competition.
“We tried to get a spectrum of voices — pure architects, scholarly urbanists, arts practitioners, people who do urban consulting — not a typical jury,” Ross said.
The competition represents a joining of forces between urban policy thinkers suspicious of neoliberal cultural development models, groups opposed to the Guggenheim’s Abu Dhabi outpost, and a long-standing local opposition in Helsinki seeking an institution more in line with the domestic art scene.
But the tide has turned regarding these projects. They are becoming ever more frequently seen as impositions, and the rhetoric of regeneration that accompanies them. According to a New York Times article about the Finnish opposition to the Guggenheim proposal earlier this summer, a majority of Helsinki residents objected to the plans in 2012 newspaper polls. But the need for counter-gestures remains exigent, according to Ross. “Advocates of Guggenheim are ascendant in Finnish politics, which is becoming more neoliberal,” he said.
The idea of a subversive competition is partially borrowed from GULF, which in March published a spoof website, globalguggenheim.org, mimicking the format of the official Guggenheim website and seeking plans for a “Sustainable Design Competition” to replace the institution’s soon-to-be-constructed Frank Gehry-designed Abu Dhabi franchise.
The Guggenheim debate demonstrates how the cultural landscape in Finland has changed. Since the 1960s arts and culture have been the protege of the political left, whereas conservatives have favoured more material things like highways, shopping centres – and, of course, lower taxes. But today art is seen as a creative industry and a good investment. Hence, it was the conservatives who backed Guggenheim, and the left and the greens who smashed it. According to the Guggenheim action plan, the museum would have brought Helsinki so many visitors and so much tax money that it would have more than covered its costs. Some high flyers even saw Helsinki as a northern Bilbao, drawing arts crowds from all over Europe, Russia and even Asia.What was funny about the whole Guggenheim debate in Finland was the meagre amount of space given to discussion about the actual art which would have been presented in the supposed museum (or gallery). Maybe the question was never about the art itself, maybe the debate was properly political and for once those usually suppressed political divisions surfaced.
Over fifteen years have passed since Bilbao grabbed headlines from all over the world. In those years, the population of urban centers around the world began to exceed those of rural areas and the tourism industry was surging with no sign of abating, leading to an assortment of cities to invest heavily in their cultural infrastructure during the economic ‘boom years’. This initiative was spearheaded by substantial performing-arts complexes (theaters, concert halls and opera houses) and lead to a total metamorphic shift in the live-art industry with efforts to combat inclusion, globalization and a dwindling audience. Now, architects were forced to balance between civic responsibility and a new form of city-branding, with politicians overwhelmingly focused on the latter. After the global financial meltdown in 2008, many of these major cultural projects (some still in construction) – combined with government mismanagement and poor attendance – resulted in intense public scrutiny and questioned the foundation of this surging iconography in architecture. This study will focus on the characteristics and campaigns for new performance architecture in a post-Bilbao environment, with an emphasis on geographically-condensed regions in Europe that traditionally have had regionalist building attitudes.
Submissions are due in March 2015, and the group intends to raise funds for a prize. Also planned are workshops or public fora after the competition closes, to be held both in New York and Helsinki.