The Guggenheim is planning a new museum in Helsinki. The site is in the heart of the city, next door to the late 19th Century market hall and open-air market place, two minutes from Helsinki Cathedral. The project, therefore, has great landmark potential for the city. And many Finns are lured by this very potential, wanting to increase tourism and put their capital city more evidently on the world map. There has also been discussion in the country’s main newspaper Helsingin Sanomat about how Finns should welcome a more joyous and fun architecture.
Destination-creation and architecture as entertainment are certainly strong themes of our times. They were treated with great artistry by Frank Gehry with the Bilbao Guggenheim, opened in 1997. However, it’s important to remember that the Bilbao Guggenheim might best be considered a spectacular one-off. Mayors, politicians and world leaders have since sought, in perhaps too facile a way, to rebrand their cities and countries with iconic landmarks. There has been much talk of making cities “world class” through such architectural gestures, and yet much of this marketer’s fodder is wholly out of touch with what makes great architecture great.
A backlash against such “wow factor” architecture has ensued since Bilbao, with architects for such projects tending to fall into two, very simplistic camps: the neutral box-makers versus the gratuitous shape-seekers. Yet, all great architecture has some “wow factor” - if we take this to mean inspirational and even awe-inspiring effects. An architecture that is strong, even willful, is not the problem. An architecture that seeks impact through sensationalism or to simply brand a city or cultural institution, however, is. Great architecture is always more than sensationalist imagery, and certainly much more than a marketing tool.
One could of course argue that, through the centuries, religions, kingdoms and states have all sought to carve out their patch develop status through monuments and artworks. But has all this gone too far today? In trying to win commissions, architects now sell their wares as an extension of corporate or institutional identity and branding - even though most would agree that the best buildings, contemporary or historical, surpass any kind of gimmickry. The best architecture is founded on ideas that are about a particular building’s typology, about a project’s physical context and its relevance to the wider world, and in moving these considerations forwards.
So how do we go from meaningless advertising mantras to forms of creativity that genuinely give back something worthwhile to the city?
In Finland, for example, the Guggenheim would do well to explore what a museum means today. Museologists know from experience that people spend more time studying merchandise in their gift shops than the authentic works of art on display in their care, while the huge push of didactic material and audio-guides to visitors suggests that, to enjoy a collection, you need to know what a particular educationalist or curator chooses to tell you. These are all phenomena that need rethinking. Might we instead curate and create galleries that re-engage visitors with original works of art?
The Guggenheim should also ask itself what kind of museum architecture would work well with Finnish culture: a culture that is self-effacing, pragmatic and that values facts, ingenuity and skilled workmanship above sensation. Here is a population that has grown up with modern design modernism and modernist ideals and have high expectations for these.
Sometimes it seems as though we are hanging onto design ideals by the skin of our teeth, and justifying their necessity for all sorts of prosaic reasons: good for business and so forth. Much of this goes hand-in-hand with an obsessive fear of boredom and a desire to make everything into a shopping experience, something more amusing, accessible, interactive, “fun” - without much thought about what these words mean. Projects like the Guggenheim Helsinki should be about something much more serious. They should be about this city’s - any city’s - artistic, spiritual and intellectual stance, both locally and in the world.
Museums and architecture need to think bravely beyond knee-jerk marketing ploys to attract visitors or they will lose the very ground that once made them special: a belief in the value of their collections. There is a great opportunity for Helsinki Guggenheim to think things afresh, but this project will require an independent minded, resourceful and cultured client. A less confident client will be inclined to run after trends and basically focus on a building for its press day. A confident client will know that higher motives and originality will not compromise a project’s success in attracting positive attention and popularity. Quite the opposite. Finns should remind themselves of this as they think how to build themselves out of their current economic down turn: popularity and true quality need never be mutually exclusive.
Laura Iloniemi has been working in architectural PR for over fifteen years. She wrote a book on the subject -Is It All About Image- published by Academy & Wiley. Iloniemi studied architectural philosophy at The University Cambridge and arts promotion at The Ecole du Louvre. Follow her @BiennaleBooks