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.

From the design entry brief: "Wooden sail ships and museums are kind of containers. Wood material and curving contour lines share the same origin."

"A 90-meter Ouroboros not only help [sic] catlyze the bay area and its surroundings, but also offer [sic] a changeable Mobius with fabulous 360-degree overlooking views overlooking [sic] the city of Helsinki."
"Symbolic geometry that appears like Northern Lights [...] The geometric solution for the museum detonates a sensorial amplitude, giving the character of permeable building, you can enjoy the wind flowing, the scents and the astonishing panoramas."
The “Finish Wood” cube dons several roles, that of structure, skin, program and technology.

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 proposal for the Guggenheim Helsinki's museum has the aspiration to be a permanent seismographer of society and its culture and as such architecture can be updated, revisited, modified."
"Clear and simplified function, and based on the form of the human eye."
"Inspired from the cityscape of Helsinki, the idea is in creating a new mix of a museum building resembling the waves of the sea scaled to a cruise ship, combined with an observatory wheel to create a new viewing experience for both museum interior and exterior exhibits, and undoubtedly
the city itself."
"A multi-cultural complex and remarkably open for the public, 'the stage' towards both water and city sides has metaphor s of huge lobby of Helsinki and island silhouette of the land of Finland."
"At the centre, an integrated and intelligent monitoring/lighting system around an interactive courtyard installation, together with surrounding galleries, blurs the lines between light and information, individual and social, interior and exterior."
"The structure is fabricated in ice based moulds by injecting high performance concrete into molten cavities. In contrast to the concrete structure the galleries are finely crafter timber hulls with flexible exhibition spaces of highest quality."

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.

"The basic design concept evolves from Whooper swan, which is the national bird of Finland."

This looks a little more like a museum. It's the same building as the one above. How that works is anybody's guess.  

Another view of the ol' Whooper swan.
"A knot is formed in the grain of an international community. In a dynamic landscape, situated between park, harbor and an historical urban edge, the architecture is composed as an exceedingly clear gesture founded through the represented spirit of a culture and a nation."
"Rational form with dialectical existence increases the architectural value of Helsinki."
"Our proposal reformulates Helsinki’s contextual conditions into a museum building with two internalized courtyards enclosed within a billowing roof, surrounded by four levels of museum amenities and gallery spaces that are covered with an irregularly serrated surface."
"Gleaming above its base, this artificial cloud is a synonym for the exchange of art, culture and architecture, from Finland and out into the world."

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.

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