More than ever, the media shapes architecture. The controversial Helsinki Guggenheim competition is as much about the use and exploitation of contemporary media as it is about design. The competition organisers are hugely proud to have over 1,700 entries to tweet about, but informed critics are less impressed. Has quantity ever guaranteed quality?
The competition has certainly created an impact. Some celebrate this, while others feel it has been detrimental to the profession, with so much unpaid time invested resulting in a low-level contribution to museum design.
Meanwhile, the spectre of Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim, an “iconic” building that gave the American foundation so much positive publicity when it opened in 1997, haunts the Helsinki project. Finnish politicians hope for a similar success, a Sydney Opera postcard effect in this remote corner of the earth.
The pressures on the competition organisers themselves have been real enough: how do they please politicians who sit on the money but, culturally speaking, are still living in the Nineties? How can they be credible in an ever-evolving art world? How do they come out of this looking good? If, for example, the Guggenheim commissioned another building by Gehry (in addition to the Guggenheim museum he has designed for Abu Dhabi), it could be slammed for being old-fashioned and predictable.
We do not know the identities of all those who have taken part in the Helsinki competition, yet the word in PR circles is that many well established architects did not bother with this highly speculative exercise. As a result, the six shortlisted practices are, in design terms, a remarkably cohesive group - so cohesive in fact, that eyebrows have been raised, with five of the six practices being under eight years old. Just how anonymous have these studios been in the eyes of the jury? This is not to call foul play: experienced juries do not find it hard to identify the work of individual practices (a friend of mine even put in a “star” architect lookalike submission in the hope of being mistaken for a sure hit). At the very least, it is not difficult to identify practices which fit a certain mold in terms of background, experience and ideals.
Perhaps in the absence of “star” architects, there was an appetite for a shortlist that might yet surprise us. Or, perhaps there had been a genuine desire to do something different, to be a bit daring and thereby gain media favour with the Guggenheim “discovering or supporting young and upcoming practices.” It would be churlish to run such intentions down. And surely no one wants to have a go at a fresh-faced architect hoping to make their mark on the world.
The six-shortlisted studios are essentially groovy, go-getting practices with relatively little experience of building and no major projects in their portfolios. Together, they come across as new kids on the block who have worked on fashionable events, pavilions, exhibitions and other ephemera, and are proud of their conceptualising, even describing themselves as not “just architects” but “thinkers with scenarios.”
Reading the single-page descriptions of the shortlisted practices’ proposals, one also recognises a particular type of studio through language alone. Quite possibly, these are the very voices the jury has wanted to associate with the project. The language is that of the hip and pseudo-intellectual artsy jargon architects have learned to employ with curators keen on “accessibility”, fearful of accusations of elitism and concerned that theirs might be mistaken for the kind of “boring” institution associated with dusty scholars.
This architectural language typically employs a repetition of essentially meaningless terms: “cultural core”, “cultural destination for community”, “outreach”, “refuge”, “'other' space”, “accommodate flux of daily life”, “accommodate conditions and situations”, and that clichéd favourite, “beacon”. The Helsinki competition’s short-listed studios have used all these terms, as if to tick the right boxes.
It is surprising that not more has been made of how the short-listed practices' submissions engage with where museology as a discipline is heading. One would like to have thought that depth of thinking on that front would be important to how this project is communicated to the world. Instead, we are faced with highly affected rhetoric aimed at curators more interested in branding and marketing (of both the museum and themselves), and perhaps pure survival than rewarding ideas about art, architecture and the museum as a cultural institution.
With the right brand and marketing strategy most organisations can attract good coverage in attempts to prove how successful they are, especially around a museum’s opening day - which is all that really matters to careerist journalists who need to survive, too, in a world of “scoops” and “me first” media. There are always enough soft-touch journalists keen to hop on a plane, enjoy a press trip and write up glowing pieces in return on whatever is new and, preferably, sensational. Many have little more than a press pack to go by.
There are of course journalists with the necessary general culture and resources to act as proper critics. If I were promoting this project, I would certainly stay well clear of them!
The sad truth is that Helsinki may find itself with a headline winner that might also be a turkey. In an interview for the London Evening Standard with one of the shortlisted architects, Rob Bevan made an excellent observation about Asif Khan as being a “branding and social media friendly” kind of guy. This of course has little to do with the skill needed to create something worthy of Helsinki’s South Harbour, yet with the right imagery someone with these modish credentials might well create a lot of media buzz.
The media reception the project craves is thus having a real effect on the outcome of the competition despite criticism by writers, internationally, who are able to see through this marketing exercise, and speak against it.
This is no longer about the artistic legacy of Frank Gehry and the Bilbao Guggenheim. It is about the hype it generated. This hype has rather tainted the project with the highly problematic and much discussed “Bilbao effect”. Looking back what Gehry achieved, not altogether unlike the Centre Pompidou by Piano and Rogers, was truly radical, transforming and even sublime. City mayors like those of Bilbao however are rare, as are cultural leaders like Andre Malraux (France’s Minister of Cultural Affairs from 1958 to 1969) whose vision for Paris was realised thanks to a major international design competition and its pair of Anglo-Italian High-Tech winners.
If it happens, the Helsinki project may well be a media success and help embellish the CVs of all those involved, yet it is unlikely that an architectural strategy thus motivated will accomplish anything much more.
Laura Iloniemi, a Helsinki native, 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 on Twitter @BiennaleBooks.