The Guggenheim Helsinki Competition Draws 1,715 Entries From Around The World

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Winning Entry by Moreau Kusunoki Architectes

The Guggenheim Helsinki Winners on Stage in New York  by Jayne Merkel


Staging a completely open, international competition for one of their museum projects marked a significant departure for the Guggenheim Foundation. The Bilbao Museum had been an invited competition won by Frank Gehry, and the more recent Whitney Museum project in New York was a Renzo Piano commission. So the Helsinki Guggenheim project—though without any guarantee from the Finns that it will be built—was open to all comers, completely absent of shortlisting based on size of office or any history of built projects. But this was Finland, and that Scandinavian country is known for opening up important projects to international competitors—the most recent Helsinki Library and Serlachius Museum competitions being prime examples.

The soothing circular auditorium beneath the rotunda of Frank Lloyd Wright’s New York Guggenheim Museum was an unusually suitable setting for the revelation of the winning design for the proposed Helsinki Guggenheim and a discussion of the process that led to its selection. On July 1, the winners of the competition, Hiroko Kusunoki and Nicolas Moreau, of Moreau Kusunoki Architectes in Paris, took turns describing their scheme as they showed an impressive series of drawings and models. After their presentation, they joined a discussion, moderated by Architectural Record Editor Cathleen McGuigan, with Guggenheim staff members Ari Wiseman and Troy Conrad Therrien. Wiseman, a Deputy Director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, has shepherded the competition from the conception stage in 2013. Therrien, the Curator of Architecture and Digital Initiatives, has created the state-of-the-art digital archive that has brought this competition and its entries into the public domain. Although their English was sometimes halting, Kusunoki and Moreau managed to explain the thinking process that brought their scheme into being with a charming combination of confidence and modesty. Then they showed a few other projects they have already managed to build at their young firm. The couple met in Tokyo, where Kusunoki worked for Shigeru Ban after graduating from the Shibaura Institute of Technology there. Moreau, who was educated at l’École Nationale d’Architecture de Belleville in Paris, started out at SANAA, where he worked on the New Museum in New York, then joined Kengo Kuma and Associates. The two paired up to start a Parisian office for Kuma in 2008 and formed their own firm three years later.


From left: Jan Wurm, technical team leader, ARUP; Hiroko Kusunoki, Principal, Moreau Kusunoki Architectes; Nicolas Moreau, Principal, Moreau Kusuonoki Architects; Pekka Pakkanen, Architect, Huttunen Lipasti Pakkanen Architects. Photo: Ritta Supperi


They showed a minimalist Patisserie for a Japanese baker in Paris, a Sushi Restaurant, also in Paris, with a bent wood chair especially designed for its unusually peaceful interior, and an exposed concrete and glass Polytechnic School Engineering School for the University of Savoie in Bourget-du-Lac. Other early works include a granite plaza for the Paris District Court at the Porte de Clichy, the Museum of Culture and Memories of French Guiana in Cayenne, South America, and the Théâtre de Beauvaisis, which faces the Cathedral of Beauvais, an hour from Paris. Like the Engineering School and the Guggenheim scheme, it is composed of a series of pavilions and “in between spaces.”

The brief introduction to the young firm’s work provided a helpful prelude to the presentation of their Guggenheim scheme. It, too, consists of separate structures linked by walkways and is sensitively related to its site. There is no better one in Helsinki, right on the harbor, the gateway to the city, visible from all around, and central to the city’s history. Moreau Kusunoki’s scheme, “Art in the City,” had been fine tuned several times since it was first developed, and it will no doubt be refined further if it is finally built. That is by no means certain, as the people of Helsinki are divided about the wisdom of building it, since the country is still in recession, and the Finns will have to pay for it. As several speakers noted, Finnish society is unusually open and democratic, so the project is openly debated.

The architects started by showing a postcard of the city from fifty years ago noting, “it could be from yesterday. Much of the nineteenth century city still exists. But there are also the boats—very messy—that come every morning and leave every evening.”

Projecting an elegant drawing, they explained that every pavilion in the scheme would be a little different. The challenge is to connect all the little plazas, make the spaces accessible to the public, and relate to the existing market—to create a new sense of place without destroying the old one. One building, the tower, will rise seven stories and have a major exhibition gallery on the ground floor with “a funny bridge,” two floors of offices, a kitchen, and a restaurant on the top. The entire complex is to be made of locally charred timber and glass, with a wood structure, since wood is a natural Finnish building material. The wood will be treated with a blackened surface for both protection and appearance. Spectacular drawings and axonometrics elucidated their presentation, showing both details and the urban context.

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Images courtesy Moreau Kusunoki Architectes

Cathleen McGuigan, the editor of Architectural Record who moderated the panel discussion, began by saying, “I’m completely beguiled by the drawings.” She noted that Record did a survey of architects and learned that most found competitions an opportunity to explore ideas but disliked the fact that there was no compensation, except for the winners. “Architects do like the exposure though,” she added. The Helsinki Guggenheim competition has offered unprecedented exposure. All the architects who entered—all 1715 from 77 countries—were invited to show their schemes on the web. The competition site had had four million visits by the time of the panel.

“Blind competitions like this (open ones) are rare in the U.S.,” she noted. Then she asked the Guggenheim’s Ari Wiseman why the museum decided to partner with Helsinki. “The Guggenheim received an invitation from the Mayor of Helsinki in 2011. We’d had many such invitations before, but he was interested in thinking differently about museums—and in how a Guggenheim could relate to Finnish society,” Wiseman said. He noted that this was very different from Bilbao, which was “the first time we set out to develop a museum with the government of another place. One difference here is that the program was entirely based on an exchange of ideas.” Over the years, the Guggenheim has had a lot of discussions with the people in Helsinki, where everything is very open. “Now that we have a building, there will be more to discuss,” not only in Finland, but on the web.


McGuigan asked Troy Therrien, the Guggenheim’s Director of Digital Initiatives, if there had ever been anything done on this scale before. Therrien, who had trained as a computer engineer then “ran away to architecture,” pointed out, “Something to know about Finland is that, though California gets a lot of credit for its technology, Finland was the birthplace of the Linux operating system. It was started by a nineteen-year-old student at the University of Helsinki, Linus Torvalds.” He did it because he couldn’t afford other operating systems. He just put his code out there. It would have cost $8 billion to build, but he didn’t ask for any money—or get any.” Since its inception in 1991, Linux has grown to become a force in computing. It powers everything from the New York Stock Exchange to mobile phones to supercomputers to consumer devices. “Finland has a super complex political system. It takes a lot of time” to reach agreement. “We developed an app, and about 3,000 people played this kind of dating personality test game,” Therrien said. “When I came, we said, ‘How can we recycle this?’ and we made it possible to download. We asked the architects if we could use their submissions, even for commercial purposes, thinking we wouldn’t get much response, but half of the architects agreed.” “This is not the era of Bilbao. Today things are different,” McGuigan said, then asked the winning architects, “Do you think about it in terms of the city or form making?” “We imagined the people of Helsinki and asked ourselves what kind of character would be charming for them,” Kusunoki said. “The shape came from that.” “We fought all along,” Moreau said. “One point we were sure about about: Helsinki is very special. When we went there, we realized how much they were concerned with walking and with design, and how highly educated they were. It is very different than it was 25 years ago in Bilbao, but it’s not so easy. You always want to do a tower. You want to be humble, but you want to reinvent the landscape.”


McGuigan noted that they (Moreau and Kusunoki) had been to Helsinki before, which many competitors had not, and asked how they had revised their scheme, after their visit in January with the other finalists. “We learned two things from the crits,” Kusunoki said, “the importance of height of the towers and the roof shapes. We tried different positions and studied the operation of a museum. There was testing, testing, and testing the scheme with different stories. A number of the boxes changed. The tower was moved to the south side and shortened.” “We decided to create some smaller galleries for emerging artists,” Moreau added. “It was good to listen.” “Am I to understand that the design will continue to evolve?” McGuigan asked. “In a competition, architects work independent of the brief,” Wiseman said. “But as it evolves, you have a client and people from the city” with ideas. It becomes a more dynamic process. The evening ended with a brief question period. One man brought up the famous competition for the Sydney Opera House, when Eero Saarinen salvaged a scheme that had been discarded before he arrived. “Isn’t an architectural competition very dependent on the jury?” he asked. “We were fortunate to have the former Columbia dean, Mark Wigley, as the chairman and one of eleven members who included Yoshi, and Jeanne Gang. Juan Herreros, and Yoshiharu Tsukamoto of Atelier Bow-Wow” as well as Finnish architects, planners, professors, and the deputy mayor of Helsinki and members of the Guggenheim staff, Wiseman explained. The architects had already explained the dynamic process the final stages had involved. A woman asked what changes they expected to be made. “We just finished it and you already want us to change it?” Therrien quipped. “You have to believe in the project you choose.” Another man asked how the scheme would deal with the fact that in Finland it is dark almost all day in winter and light almost all day in summer. Then he asked it if would have a sauna to help visitors with “museum feet.” It seems no sauna is planned. The last questioner asked the people from the Guggenheim staff, “What stood out?” “The way it engages the site and nature,” Wiseman answered. Agreeing, Therrien said, “The building really won my heart when I saw the place.”


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Images courtesy Moreau Kusunoki Architectes (click to enlarge)

The scheme proposed a collection of linked pavilions, each orientated to respect the city grid, and anchored by a lookout tower. The building would cohere around a covered street landscape that expanded and contracted according to its interaction with the discrete pavilions and is animated by different activities. The Jury found the design deeply respectful of the site and setting, creating a fragmented, non-hierarchical, horizontal campus of linked pavilions where art and society could meet and inter-mingle. The connections between the pavilions have been well considered to permit a continuous gallery experience, if required.

The waterfront, park and city each had a dialogue with the building yet the forms and materials were distinctive and contemporary, without being iconic. The drawings were imbued with a sense of community and animation that matched the ambitions of the brief to honour both the people of Finland and the creation of the museum of the future.

It was recognized that further work would be needed to resolve vertical circulation, use of the main terrace and the construction of the roof, but these issues were considered to be a normal part of design development and the Jury had confidence in the strength of the design concept. The concept is extremely flexible and is designed to embrace evolving urban, museum, and technological requirements.

-Jury Comments

Runner-up: ‘Two-in-One Museum’ by agps architecture

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Image courtesy agps

The Jury considered this scheme to be an elegant and strong concept, absorbing the existing terminal and creating a fascinating conversation between old and new. The form and orientation of the building picked up on the strong industrial/ harbor context. The homage to the industrial heritage of the South Harbor was applauded.

The Jury was positive about the concept of re-use of the original terminal building and the resultant architecture was well considered and polished. The scale of the building in the urban setting and its drawn-out horizontal form was striking and well balanced, although the connection between the reused terminal and the elevated gallery bar was not fully resolved.

The interiors were generous, even if the renderings did not communicate the full potential of the respective spaces. It was felt that the long upper open art hall offered a range of options but would ultimately inhibit curatorial programming, and that the lower reused terminal space needed to be much more dynamically organized. But there were agreeable social touches such as the long bar.

There were strong features in this scheme and it remained in consideration until the closing decision. The Jury identified this scheme as the runner-up.  -Jury Comments

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Images courtesy agps (click to enlarge)

Finalist: ‘Quiet Animal’ by Asif Khan

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Image courtesy Asif Khan

The Jury enjoyed the iconic representation of the building, which was beautifully rendered and presented. The identity of the slip-glazed form was unique and could be a fascinating addition to the waterfront. The technical analysis of structure and cladding were impressive and persuasive.

The form of the building was skillful and had a strong character. However, it was felt that the location of the building on the site and its relationship to the city were not convincing. The roof’s unrealized potential as a public space and the positioning of the fence were perceived as shortcomings. This led the Jury to question if the scheme had developed holistically since Stage One.

The grand hall offered an interesting social potential. The Jury felt the scheme was full of promise but was lacking in sophistication internally, resulting in problems for art display and handling.

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Images courtesy Asif Khan (click to enlarge)




Finalist: ‘47 Rooms’ by Fake Industries Architectural Agonism (Cristina Goberna, Urtzi Grau), Jorge Lopez Conde, Carmen Blanco and Alvaro Carrillo


Image courtesy Fake Industries Architectural Agonism

Conceptually, the building offered a fascinating commentary on climate and the role of the museum in exploring this. The careful re-use of the existing buildings on site and sensitive planning of new additions was well thought-out but lacked a convincing architectural articulation.

Technically, the building structure and arrangement was well presented and the low-level, single story design was humane, responsible, flexible, and anti-monumental.

Ultimately, however, it was felt that the strength and relevance of the proposition would not endure. The narrow temperature range within the normal human comfort span would need to be explained rather than be experienced and other criteria would need to drive the organization and experience.

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Images courtesy Fake Industries Architectural Agonism (click to enlarge)

Finalist: ‘Helsinki Five’ by HaasCookZemmrich STUDIO2050

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Image courtesy HaasCookZemmrich

The Jury understood the building to be a landmark, architecturally-orientated museum with interesting notions about bringing green spaces to the water’s edge – a principle that was felt to be very relevant to the future of the city.

The inner courtyard could be a very memorable space. However, the scheme relied on convoluted internal circulation and a complicated arrangement of gallery space that would be a challenge to navigate and operate without offering substantially new opportunities for curating and encountering art. The external spaces were lively yet ultimately disconnected from the building.

The wooden shingles were an exceptionally attractive part of the design, with local relevance, but the Jury questioned if the technical issues related to maintenance and replacement had been appropriately addressed.

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Images courtesy HaasCookZemmrich (click to enlarge)

Finalist: ‘Guggenheim Commons’ by SMAR Architecture Studio


Image courtesy SMAR Architecture Studio

The Jury enjoyed the underlying architectural concept of the building as an engine of creativity – using the tension between street and gallery to create content and animate space.

The glowing façade, animated street and programmed spaces could be spectacular, although there were strong concerns that this scheme would not have the outcome anticipated when the climate and social conditions in Helsinki had been taken into account (for much of the year the street would be inhospitable).

The elevated gallery landscapes and the interpenetration of the street and internal gallery spaces were highly appreciated. The presentation was lively and detailed (especially the models), but the design failed to develop resolutions for key functional and operational issues raised by the concept.

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Images courtesy SMAR Architecture Studio (click to enlarge)