Bucolic Site as Museum Context: The Serlachius Museum Competition in Finland

 

by William Morgan

 

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Winning Entry ©MX_SI Architectural Studio

 

In Finland, a land where architectural competitions are a way of life, a design contest for an addition to a small art museum drew the greatest number of entries in Finnish competition history.

That the Serlachius Museum in an out-of-the way city could attract 579 entrants from 41 countries may say something about the flat world economy. But it is more likely a measure of the attractiveness of the project, the reputation of the client, and the above-board way competitions are run in Finland.

It also says something about this Nordic country’s expectations about the quality of life and the high esteem in which cultural institutions are held. The art of architecture, too, is deemed essential to the fabric of national life, and it is not just the exclusive province of large cities or major corporations. Mänttä is the 91st largest municipality in Finland, situated in the forest halfway between Jyväskylä and Tampere, yet size and apparent obscurity do not diminish the demand for architectural greatness.

 

As is with many mill towns in Finland, Mänttä was dominated by a single company whose owners took a benevolent interest in all aspects of the lives of the employees. The Serlachius family were discerning collectors, primarily of Finnish art. So, the factory owner’s widow, Ruth Serlachius, opened the family’s collection to the public in 1945, turning over Joenniemi Manor (1930, Jarl Eklund, architect) to the Gösta Serlachius Fine Arts Foundation.

 

The museum was greatly enlarged in 2000 when the company headquarters building was added to the Serlachius Museum. Originally called the “White House,” this flat-roofed, stark Functionalist building of 1934 couldn’t be more different from the grand Gustavian manor next door. Demonstrating the avant-garde sensibilities of the Serlachius family, this cool piece of Modernism was designed by Walter and Bertel Jung, the latter an associate of Eliel Saarinen, as well as Helsinki’s first city planner.

 

But the new addition would be part of the manor that is set in one of Finland’s rare examples of an English park-cum-garden, with commanding view down to Lake Melasjärvi. The new € 15 million, 3,000 square-meter block will add a main entrance lobby, conference rooms, a restaurant, offices, and collection storage, as well as exhibition spaces. But “the natural connection of the proposed extension with the unique environment, and how well the solution is in harmony with the environmental values of the manor grounds,” was a key criterion for evaluation. And it is fair to say that those entries that lacked understanding of the landscape issues were the first to be eliminated.

 

Even more important was the program’s brief that the new building must be “a high-quality representation of modern construction” and “provide the area with a new attraction whose values will stand the test of time.” In other words, the “idea behind the competition is that the new building shall be a work of art, not simply a functional framework for operations.” The jury included museum director Pauli Sivonen, the city architect, and three other architects. Henrik de la Chapelle, chairman of the museum’s board, led the jury. The competition rules were those of the Finnish Association of Architects. Demonstrating the museum’s serious commitment to the design, top prizes were €40,000, 30,000, and 20,000, along with a commitment to erect the winning scheme. There were also three purchase prizes of €10,000 each, and eight honorable mentions.

 

Because of the tsunami of entries, the jurors grouped the schemes according to which side of the manor house the new museum was placed. This seemingly random approach was surprisingly helpful, even self-selecting, as architects who planned for the eastern and southern approaches blocked views of the manor or obliterated the view down to the lake. Or else these designs required considerable construction under ground–not a happy occurrence in so mindfully a heliocentric northern country. Only one of the top designs was successfully sited on other than the west side, making one wonder how the brief’s “the spacious quality of the landscape shall be the focal point for the design” could have been misunderstood by so many.

 

Because of Finnish competition rules, jurors can only open the name envelopes of the winners–the others were destroyed. So we do not know which if any superstars were eliminated. We do know, nevertheless, that a third of the entrants were from Finland, a majority were European, and there were less than half a dozen American entrants.

 

The museum has published a comprehensive 67-page booklet about the competition, primarily extensive jurors comments on ten per cent–”the upper class”–of the entries. Seen all together, these designs point to some general comments about the quality of Finnish and European design right now, and perhaps about how the architectural world thinks about Finland (the long shadow of Alvar Aalto hangs over several competitors’ boards).

 

But the Alvaristi were outnumbered by the Zaha Hadid wannabes; Daniel Libeskind’s violent angles also appeared. Round, organic, wiggly, and sculptural wedges dominated. Yet, classically modern simple rectangles fared well among the finalists (the winning design combines an organic plan within a mostly rectangular container). Overall, the museum sought thoughtful design, with respect for the landscape and for the museum’s needs–the jurors wanted quality, not flash. A strong case could be made for most of the purchase prizes or the honorable mentions, although that may reflect the huge applicant pool rather than just the refined taste of the jurors.

 

Pseudonyms were required, and maybe because of the seriousness with which the competition was handled, they were less than inspiring–oftentimes names chosen by the architects can be fascinating, even revealing. There was a Saskia, for Rembrandt’s mistress, and a few evocative and/or clever names, such as Sound of Silence, Across the River and into the Trees, and Peppermint. Along with the ATM pin numbers–HP1002, 7D3A, MFRD1988–were the predictable Echo, Waltz, Square Mirror, and Mountain Pass.

 


Third Place:
“Ruth S”
Riku and Katri Rönka, Helsinki

 

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Images: ©Riku and Katri Rönka

 

 

The third place finisher, Ruth S. (sweetly honoring museum founder Ruth Serlachius) by Helsinki architects Riku and Katri Rönka is the most radical. Calling its sculptural pyramidal shape “as light and airy as Ruth’s summer hat,” the jury notes the “play on the forms of the roof is distinctive, delicate, and delightful,” with clear precedents in Swiss architecture (i.e., Le Corbusier, say, his Firminy church). Clever, light-hearted, and functionally well planned, Ruth S. is something of a sleeper–the sort of way-out design that appeals to a jury knowing that it will never be built.

 

 


Second Place:
“Thyra”
Mikko Heikkinen and Markku Komonen
, Helsinki

 

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Plan (above, left); level 1 diagram (above, right)
Images: ©Hiekkinen Komonen

 

The runner up design is a magnificent piece of modernism by leading Finnish architects, Mikko Heikkinen and Markku Komonen. Employing their typical dry wit, they called their entry Thyra (shoebox). This “splendid proposal is convincing with its clarity and beautiful exhibition rooms.” Recalling museum designs by Heikkinen and Komonen (the shoebox is one of their signatures), this “a classic piece of modern architecture: plain on the outside but rich on the inside. After feasting on all kinds of shapes, one returns to the basics.” The jury called Thyra “a fresh deviation from the mainstream of the competition.” The basic black box, however, would have been enlivened with glass ramps on the park side.

 

 

 

 

First Place: “Parallels
MX_SI Architectural Studio
, Barcelona

 

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Sections (above)

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East elevation (above)

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Ground floor plan (left); level 1 floor plan (right)
Images: ©MX_SI ARchitectural Studio

 

The winning design by the Barcelona-based firm of MX_SI Architectural Studio, whose principals include two Mexicans, Héctor Mendoza and Mara Partida, and Slovenian Boris Bezan, was a splendid choice. Wrapped in a delicate wooden building, the museum seems genuinely quiet and in harmony with the landscape. Yet the roof gently sloping up at both ends and the vertical siding beautifully reproduces the rhythm of the trees in the surrounding landscape. The walls do not reveal that the interior plan is composed of several angles, allowing “a spatial experience wherein the indoor and outdoor spaces are in continuous dialogue.” The new museum is sited in such a way that would allow further extensions, something not possible with the more sculptural proposals. In an almost immodest comment from Finns, MX_SI’s design is praised for its demonstration of its knowledge of “the existing building stock, the history of the location and the client, Finnish culture, and contemporary architecture.”


For their part, the young Barcelona team, which had competed successfully in a number of competitions, had only good words for the jury. Previously they were first prize winners for the Garcia Lorca Cultural Center in Grenada in 2005, and three years later won the competitions for the Lucena Municipal Auditorium in Córdoba and the Rog Art Center in Ljubijana, Slovenia. They regret having been unable to visit the site before preparing their entry, yet they are eagerly looking forward to traveling to Finland, not least of all “to know personally Alvar Aalto’s work.” Even so, their design picks up on the great Finn’s poetic side, and in words that sound familiar, MX_SI declared, “We believe architecture is a professional service with an emotional touch.”

 

The last word on the competition is perhaps best spoken by the chairman of the Gösta Serlachius Art Foundation and chairman of the jury, Henrik de la Chapelle:

“I am glad that we made the decision to run an open competition. When the entries started to go over 500, and we had to hire a huge warehouse to fit in all the entries, I had my doubts. But to be able to attract young architects around the world is important and also very much in the spirit our foundation. The Serlachius paper industry was created by brave men, and they supported young artists in the art they collected. Taking part in the selection process was a great experience. The time needed to go through all the entries obviously had to be extended by weeks but my firm belief is that all 579 entries were treated fairly, even if it was impossible to comment on them all. After getting to know the architects, I am even more convinced that the end result will be great.”

 

 

Purchase Prize 1: “Piparminttu,” Thomas Gebert, Switzerland

 

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Purchase Prize 2: “HP1002,” magma architecture Ostermann & Kleinheinz, Germany

 

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Purchase Prize 3: “MKS101,” MAKS | Architecture & Urbanism, The Netherlands

 

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William Morgan is an architectural writer based in Providence, Rhode Island and has served on the Competitions editorial board since the magazine’s founding.