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AD Classics: Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art / Steven Holl Architects

AD Classics: Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art / Steven Holl Architects
AD Classics: Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art / Steven Holl Architects, © Ari Palm
© Ari Palm

The very concept of an art gallery implies an inward focus. While the need to showcase the cultural treasures contained within is self-evident, the need to connect these sheltered exhibition spaces to the outside world is less so, and in some cases is overlooked entirely. Even monumental design that turns the museum itself into a sculptural element may fail to make a reference to its particular surroundings. This sense of 'placelessness' is what Steven Holl sought to avoid in his design for an art museum at the heart of Helsinki, Kiasma – a museum whose carefully choreographed outward views, formally irregular gallery spaces,, and indeed its very name speak to the ideal of connection.

© Pirje Mykkaenen © Pirje Mykkaenen © Petri Virtanen © Pirje Mykkaenen + 14

© Petri Virtanen
© Petri Virtanen

Demand for a contemporary art museum in Helsinki arose as early as the 1960s, although debates on just how to create one delayed decisive action for three decades. It wasn’t until 1990 that the Museum of Contemporary Art opened to the public, and even then it was in a temporary setting. A design competition for a new, permanent museum launched in the autumn of 1992; the following year, Steven Holl’s entry, entitled “Chiasma,” was selected from over 515 other proposals.[1]

Webster’s Dictionary defines chiasma as “an anatomical intersection.” Kiasma is, as its name implies, a design of intersections. Its site in the center of Helsinki is a focal point between several notable structures: the Finnish Parliament building is directly adjacent to the museum’s west, Alvar Aalto’s Finlandia Hall lies to the south, and Eliel Saarinen’s Helsinki Station can be found to the east. The northern face of the museum. meanwhile, is bounded by Töölö Bay.[2]

Courtesy of Steven Holl Architects
Courtesy of Steven Holl Architects

These features served as driving forces to determine the form of the building: a curved “cultural line” links Kiasma to Finlandia Hall, while a straight “natural line” connects it to the landscape and the bay.[3] The result of this site synthesis is a structure comprising three main elements: two building components and water. The eastern building volume is a twisted, curving mass whose southern and eastern faces are truncated where they meet the urban fabric. Its western counterpart, meanwhile, is a more typical orthogonal extrusion. The two forms meet at the northern end of the site, where they intersect with the waters of a reflecting pool that calls out Holl’s proposed southward extension of Töölö Bay.[4]

Courtesy of Steven Holl Architects
Courtesy of Steven Holl Architects

Visitors enter the museum through a spacious lobby with a glazed ceiling. This lobby serves as the starting point for stairways, ramp, and corridors that curve off to lead into the rest of the building.[5] The gallery spaces are characterized by the architect as “almost rectangular,” each containing one curved wall. This irregularity differentiates each successive space, creating a complex visual and spatial experience as visitors pass through the museum galleries.[6] The initial impression is that of the typical closed-in, placeless museum interior; however, it is only by moving through each space that one discovers various unexpected views to the outside. This choreographed outward focus, combined with the irregular forms of the interior, creates what Holl called “a variety of spatial experiences.”[7]

Courtesy of Steven Holl Architects
Courtesy of Steven Holl Architects

This variety was, in Holl’s reckoning, essential to the function of Kiasma. Contemporary artists produce an endless stream of unique works, and so a museum that showcases them must be able to anticipate and provide for anything ranging from the subtle and restrained to the grandiose and unpredictable. The irregular, subtly differentiated spaces of the museum serve as exhibition halls that Holl describes as a “silent, yet dramatic backdrop” for the display of equally variegated art.[8]

© Pirje Mykkaenen
© Pirje Mykkaenen

Holl worked with more than pure massing and windows to give each space its own unique character. Natural light was an important consideration – Holl was fascinated by the constantly changing character of Finland’s daylight.[9] Many of the windows in Kiasma are composed of translucent glazing, which diffuses the Scandinavian sunlight as it enters the interior. The staccato rhythm of city views is achieved by the occasional inclusion of fully transparent glass – both as a narrow crescent that allows a view to Helsinki Station and as full curtain-wall facades at the north and south ends of the building’s volumes.[10]

Light also permeates Kiasma through an abundance of skylights. More than simple punctures in the ceiling, the skylights work with the curving, irregular lines of the building to turn light into a sculptural element in itself. Horizontal ‘light-catching’ sections along the ceilings and upper walls deflect and diffuse light from skylights and clerestory windows down into the museum spaces; this system allows natural light from a single roof opening to penetrate through and illuminate multiple levels.[11]

© Petri Virtanen
© Petri Virtanen


[1] "The Story of Kiasma." Kiasma. Accessed March 23, 2016.
[2] "Kiasma, Museum of Contemporary Art." Arcspace. November 11, 2012. Accessed March 23, 2016.
[3] "Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art." Steven Holl Architects. Accessed March 23, 2016.
[4] Lecuyer, Annette. "Art Museum, Steven Holl Architects." Architectural Review, August 1998. September 21, 2011. Accessed March 23, 2016.
[5] "Architecture." Kiasma. Accessed March 22, 2016.
[6] “Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art.”
[7] Bianchini, Ricardo. "Overview of Kiasma Museum." Inexhibit. December 12, 2014.
[8] “Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art.”
[9] “Architecture.”
[10] Lecuyer.
[11] “Kiasma, Museum of Contemporary Art.”
[12] Bianchini.

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Cite: Luke Fiederer. "AD Classics: Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art / Steven Holl Architects" 19 Apr 2016. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884
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