The Guggenheim Foundation is going all out with its competition for the Guggenheim Helsinki. And that's a problem.
Is the era of big museums over? That's the question posed by columnist Aaron Betsky in a recent post for Architect. In the column, Betsky expands on his contribution to a new volume called Museums on the Map: 1995–2012, an essay collection assessing the cultural building boom over that period. It's also a period that starts roughly with the construction of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain. Some might even go so far as to say this museum triggered the building boom.
"I think that we now realize that the making of stand-alone, expensive, and iconic objects rarely benefit their communities and their arts," Betsky says, summing up the new conventional wisdom on the so-called Bilbao Effect. "Investments that make use of existing facilities—working with, rather than building on top of existing conditions—and energize, rather than merely temporarily creating audiences make more sense."
There is at least one voice out there that would disagree: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. The Guggenheim's ongoing effort to build a new museum in Helsinki now includes what is maybe the most exaggerated design competition in history.
For starters, there's the staggering number of submissions: 1,715 collected from 77 different countries. Maybe that's not out of hand, given the global reach of the Guggenheim brand and the tantalizing prospect of designing a jewel-box museum in one of the world's finest cities. But museum foundations don't typically turn process into a pitch for building the museum. (Hell, usually they just give the job to Renzo Piano.)
Individually, some of these designs look just fine. Taken all together, though, they create the impression that architecture is a funhouse of frivolous forms.
There are at least enough reasonable-looking designs to field a shortlist (which will be announced on Dec. 2). But even these entries don't include enough information to determine whether they're rational buildings. Only a few include interior renderings (or rather, only a few of the ones I clicked did). Most raise weird questions like, "Will the courtyard get any natural light during winter?" or "Did they melt that building in a microwave?"
This one's so weird I had to double-check to see it was an actual building and not some kind of wilted Peeps diorama.
This looks a little more like a museum. It's the same building as the one above. How that works is anybody's guess.
Wait one sec. That last one looks like a plausible museum design. Some of the massing even looks like it might contain galleries. What's that one doing there?
Given all the problems that the Guggenheim has had trying to expand as a global franchise of museum outlets, appalling architecture is the least of its problems. The effort to build a Gugg in Helsinki has already failed once. Recent history has shown that, in the U.S. at least, demand for a museum doesn't create itself. And if there isn't demand for a museum, flossy architecture can't fill the gap.