Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Finns are right to ask whether Helsinki needs the Guggenheim as much as the Guggenheim needs the harbor city.
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation has whittled down the 1,715 design entries it received in its unprecedented Guggenheim Helsinki Design Competition to a finalist lix of six entries. Bummer for the 1,709 architects who didn't make the cut.
It's a bummer, in fact, for just about everyone involved. If the jurors for the competition deliberated for a hasty 5 minutes on every entry, then all told, they spent about 142 hours together—or 18 working days, according to the Spanish architecture collective Taller de Casqueria, which did the back-of-the-envelope math. That's to say nothing of the architectural teams who poured approximately $12,000 of work into each submission, for a total of $23 million in design labor (which the Guggenheim got for free).
If design competitions are bad for designers, then this one was the worst there has ever been. Not only did this competition cull free ideas from a global pool of entrants eager to work for the promise of recognition, it then arrayed those entries in a gridded gallery designed to promote the contest as a whole over the designs individually. The sum of the contest didn't celebrate the diversity of design. It made a mockery of architecture.
Down to six finalists, the list is more manageable now, of course. But the presentation remains objectionable. The Guggenheim has released a list of the finalists—AGPS Architecture, Asif Khan, Fake Industries Architectural Agonism, Haas Cook Zemmrich Studio2050, Moreau Kusunoki Architectes, and SMAR Architects—but has preserved the anonymity of the final designs.
So this finalist entry:
...might belong to any of the finalist teams. Hardcore design nerds might be able to puzzle out whose is whose, maybe. But the insistence on anonymity at this late stage reflects a mistaken belief that a design proposal is best judged on a rendering alone, without any reference to past work or future promise. While a contest that's utterly anonymous from start to finish sounds meritocratic, what's the use in a rendering if the firm doesn't have the experience or qualifications to actually build it?
And plainly the jury is deciding on renderings alone: There's no way jurors gave each of 1,715 entries the weight of consideration that a central, harbor cultural institution deserves.
There's nothing especially wrong with any of the individual designs, but taken as a whole, they cast a cynical view of the purpose of architecture (as hype for a project). "The Internet has no winner’s platform. If anyone comes out ahead, it’s those who reach farther rather than stand higher," writes David Huber in an essay on the contest for Artforum. "Buzz—not best—is the name of the game."
In Helsinki, critics are asking whether any museum is the best use of the harbor site. An organization called The Next Helsinki is hosting its own competition to discover alternative uses for the site.
"However different in detail, the starting point for the competition is the creation of a landmark building with little or no connection to the local context and the urban fabric as a whole," says a release from the group. "The announcement of the finalists will re-kindle a heated debate among Finland’s citizenry about the probity of handing over a sizable amount of public money to a private museum."
The Next Helsinki maintains that the Guggenheim is pursuing a Bilbao Effect for Helsinki, independent of whether building a Gugg is the best use for the site (or whether the Bilbao Effect still has any juice at this late day and age). Instead of channelling that supposed transformational effect through the brand of an architect, the museum has elected to crowdsource the design.
"The City of Helsinki is tempted to spend hundreds of millions of municipal euros in return for the benefits of the branding of the city with someone else’s mark," the group's site reads. "Is this really the best use for the site and tax money?"
This alternative competition follows in the mold of the very competition to which it is objecting: pseudonymous entries, limited proposals, no promise of compensation, high-profile jurors, and so on. At least, though, it's open to the prospect of other possible uses for the site. Turning it into a museum is hardly a bad outcome. But turning it into this museum, critics say, means handing over the site to "cruise-ship visitors" (per the release).
That cruise-ship dig is a very specific dog whistle that refers to the recent history of the South Harbor, where the new museum would be located. As the main symbolic entryway to the city, it attracts a ton of tourists arriving by cruise ship. Building a Guggenheim there would enhance the perception that the area is reserved for tourists. Since the South Harbor is also home to the Presidential Palace and a newly renovated market hall, Finns are hesitant to give it over to a use that might further change the area's character.
And why should Helsinki be a passive partner in this decision? The city's Helsinki 2050 plan maps out the steps the city plans to take in anticipating its near-future growth. But it doesn't resolve a lingering question from (still another) international ideas competition, this time about the future of the South Harbor—a contest that went nowhere. Putting down a flagship building before a master plan is in place is putting the cart before the horse.
Finns are right to ask whether Helsinki needs the Guggenheim as much as the Guggenheim needs South Harbor. The proposal is estimated to cost the city at least $160 million, which doesn't account for ongoing salary requirements or the fee that the city would need to pay the Guggenheim to license the name. But the biggest price Helsinki would pay is in the incredible land subsidy it would be giving to the Guggenheim. And from the design competition, it's not clear what the city really gets in return.