Commentary: Does Helsinki Need Two Competitions?
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation won’t take no for an answer. Two years after the City Board of Helsinki rejected a proposal for a Finnish version of the Guggenheim Bilbao, the Foundation is trying again. First it revised its operating plan for the museum (reducing projected costs while increasing projected revenue). Then, with a party at the Peggy Guggenheim Foundation in Venice in June, it launched an architecture competition, organized by British consultant Malcolm Reading. Now it is reveling in the news that the competition drew 1,715 entries, which a museum press release calls “the largest number of entries recorded for a competition of this kind.” Jurors, who include Chicago architect Jeanne Gang and former Columbia architecture dean Mark Wigley, will begin going through the entries in November.
But the outpouring from architects doesn’t guarantee support for the project in Helsinki. The earlier proposal was rejected in part because of the estimated cost of the building—$160 million—money some said would be better spent on local institutions. The new plan makes many concessions to local sensibilities, including a promise to show Finnish art.
The new plan also came with a new site: a waterfront parking lot in South Harbor (an area known as Eteläsatama in Finnish). But it still contemplates a single large building, with a minimum of 130,000 square feet. That’s why the participation of so many architects in the competition isn’t entirely good news. It suggests the profession is saddled with its own version of the Bilbao effect: instead of focusing on a step-by-step approach to improving Helsinki, architects are hoping to design the next “blockbuster” building.
Michael Sorkin, the New York architect and educator, believes Helsinki, and the profession, deserve more. A group of architects led by Sorkin has mounted a counter-competition called The Next Helsinki. “We hope to find something better for this important site than the anachronism of another containment vessel for art,” he says. His competition is casting a wide net, seeking ideas for making the city “a more accessible, equitable, sustainable, and beautiful place.” Proposals, according to the brief, can be “at whatever scale contributors consider appropriate,” from the Guggenheim site to the whole city (or, for that matter, country).
The Next Helsinki isn’t a stunt but a real competition. The jurors includes Walter Hood, the landscape designer; Sharon Zukin, professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York; and Mabel Wilson, the Columbia architecture professor—and that’s just on the American side. To Sorkin’s credit, he also enlisted five Finnish jurors; one of them, Juhani Pallasmaa, has been a Pritzker Prize juror for years.
Ari Wiseman, the Guggenheim vice president in charge of the Helsinki effort, says of Sorkin's competition: "It’s good that the project has stimulated this kind of discussion." But how will the Next Helsinki competition influence the Guggenheim? The Foundation’s efforts (not only in Helsinki, but in Abu Dhabi, where it is building a monumental outpost) suggest it isn’t looking for a new approach. Then there is the problem of timing: entries in Sorkin’s competition aren’t due until March, four months after the Guggenheim jury meets in Finland to select six lucky finalists.
But perhaps Sorkin’s ideas could influence that jury’s thinking. On October 15, Joel Sanders, an adjunct professor at the Yale School of Architecture, will lead a panel discussion about the Helsinki project (at New York’s Center for Architecture). Gang will be on the panel, as will another juror, Guggenheim curator Nancy Spector. The discussion, which will end with a Q&A, will provide an opportunity for outsiders to be heard.
If you think Helsinki might benefit from something other than a massive edifice, now is the time to say so. And why not encourage jurors to choose proposals—and surely there are some among the 1,715—that take the Guggenheim’s requirements as mere suggestions? (In so doing, they would be honoring a long tradition among architecture juries.) Jurors like Wigley, who rarely thinks inside the box, and Gang, author of a terrific proposal for reusing industrial infrastructure, should be amenable to seeing beyond the single-building solution.
Sorkin’s competition raises important issues for the Guggenheim jurors to consider. It’s too bad the two competitions can’t be merged, officially, but it would be great if the “shadow” competition helped the Guggenheim jury see clearly.