The Guggenheims Helsinki and Abu Dhabi: A Telling Tale of Two Outposts

Guggenheim Helsinki Design
Moreau Kusunoki Architectes, “Art in the City,” the winning proposal for the Guggenheim Helsiniki Competition (© Moreau Kusunoki Architectes / Guggenheim)

The Guggenheim Helsinki will likely become the third museum of the Solomon R. Guggenheim’s global armada. The history of the Guggenheim’s cultural outposts is mixed. The Guggenheim Bilbao was met with near-universal acclaim for its innovative design and significant boost to its host city’s tourism sector. Meanwhile, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, first touted as a house for a more “globalized” vision of the art world, has more so become a vision of controversy and fracas. As the Guggenheim becomes a cultural hegemon in the museum world, it has led the vanguard of globalization within the arts. That kind of authority comes with great responsibility to set an example for museums, arts institutions, and governments.

Last month, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation announced the winners of its “Art in the City” competition to design the Guggenheim Helsinki: the Moreau Kusunoki architecture firm. As described by the jurists of the competition: “The scheme proposed a collection of linked pavilions, each oriented to respect the city grid, and anchored by a lookout tower.”

To address only its formal qualities, the Guggenheim Helsinki’s design is beautiful. Its sloping roofs mirror the adjacent waters cresting across Helsinki’s South Harbor and simultaneously recall the sleek, metallic curves of its sister museum in Bilbao. The Guggenheim Helsinki design also complements the city, integrating itself with the surrounding landscape. The galleries here represent good contemporary design similar to that of the new Whitney Museum in New York. They are spacious, replete with large windows, yet unburdened of any structural beams or columns to make room for large installations and performances.

Back when the design for Guggenheim Abu Dhabi was chosen, the Guggenheim announced that it would create a museum with an “essentially global orientation.” The Guggenheim Foundation’s response to the Helsinki design is similar, but doubles down on the rhetoric of globalization. The jurists believed the museum’s design would create “a fragmented, non-hierarchical, horizontal campus … where art and society could meet together and inter-mingle.”

From what we can tell, the museum is split into ten distinct, yet connected, buildings. Nine of those buildings are clustered art pavilions that will be used for exhibitions. The final building, sitting at the edge of the complex and resembling a lighthouse, will hold the museum’s permanent collection.

The focus of the jurists’ statement is on the Guggenheim Helsinki’s cluster of pavilions. The stated goal of this design is to democratize the museum space — not only for new media that require flexible (and increasingly large) spaces, but presumably for non-Western artists that will round out the Guggenheim’s new global focus. By imbuing the pavilions with so much significance, however, the Guggenheim Foundation damns itself.

If the Guggenheim wants to develop its new global character, it should focus on the construction site of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi rather than the proposed pavilions of the Guggenheim Helsinki. In Abu Dhabi, workers are continually subjected to police raids, beatings, extortion, and deportation while the Guggenheim Foundation remains tongue-tied on how to resolve these issues with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) government.

While the lives of poor workers in the UAE are being uprooted and destroyed for the sake of building one of the Guggenheim’s satellite museums, the jurists of the Guggenheim Helsinki claim to be proposing a “non-hierarchical” museum — which in itself is a bit of an oxymoron. Moreover, how could the Guggenheim Helsinki, built by one of the world’s most prestigious cultural institutions, and designed with its permanent collection sitting in a tower literally above the museum’s exhibition pavilions, democratize the museum space?

Moreau Kusunoki Architectes, “Art in the City” (© Moreau Kusunoki Architectes / Guggenheim)

The decision to choose the Guggenheim Helsinki’s pavilion cluster design was a specific and deliberate choice. No other finalist provided a design that suited the Guggenheim Foundation’s global focus. In fact, most other designs for the competition looked inward at what the museum’s relationship to the city and its people would be. One design, “47 Rooms” by Fake industries Architecture Agonism, attempted to replicate the sauna culture of Helsinki by creating a series of intimate galleries with various climatic conditions.

The Guggenheim Foundation seems to lose itself in the big, illustrious picture of globalization. Instead of choosing a design specifically marketed toward the people of Helsinki — who mostly oppose the project — the museum chose a design abstractly proposed to decenter Western thought. But how can the Guggenheim build a museum where “art and society will inter-mingle” when, a few thousand miles away, its workers suffer under abominable conditions for the construction of one of its museums?

The Guggenheim has been through the planning, if not the execution of eight museums around the world. For better or worse, the Guggenheim has one of the highest profiles of any arts institution in the world. With that reputation comes power, money, and influence. And the Guggenheim Foundation has the opportunity to use that influence to facilitate positive change in Abu Dhabi and implement best practices and ethical policies for foreign construction projects. Without progress in Abu Dhabi, a celebration in Helsinki would be premature.

Correction: A previous version of this article described the Guggenheim Helsinki as the Guggenheim Foundation’s third museum and did not make clear the project has yet to be officially approved. This has been fixed.


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