a Guggenheim for Helsinki

In The New Yorker on the 12th May there was an astute article by Ian Volner about ongoing uncertainty with the plans for a new Guggenheim in Helsinki. He sets out the problems and quietly poses the questions although, quite rightly as an outsider, he does not and can not suggest a solution but what I found interesting was that his one firm conclusion was that “ … the Guggenheim, with its global reputation at stake, may need Finland more than Finland needs the Guggenheim.”

Is a mega museum, designed by a star foreign architect and showcasing international art, a long-term and sustainable benefit for the city? Is this simply a matter of having to be pragmatic … balancing an income from fickle tourists needing to be entertained before they pay out a dollar or a yuan against gaining what might be an important resource for Helsinki that can be used to inspire young Finnish artists and aspiring Finnish architects? Surely the Museum of Design and the Museum of Finnish Architecture in Helsinki already do a pretty good job of that.

Certainly it would be too high a price to pay if a new building dominated the harbour visually or changed irrevocably the balance of an urban plan that has evolved slowly in response to local and regional needs and pressures. And it would certainly be too high a price to pay if, after an initial enthusiasm, the paying audience moved on to something they thought was newer or more entertaining. Surely, in order to be sustainable in the long term, a new museum has to have at least some local relevance.

I first went to Helsinki in 1974 and returned for the first time forty years later so perhaps I should not make comments about a country I cannot claim to know well but I hope it is reasonable to make one observation: Finland in 1974 seemed cautious and reserved … an amazing and beautiful country and one with strong, distinct architecture based in part on natural and available building materials - in part on the countries own history - in part on the style and influences of it’s neighbours and, in part, in a strong belief in its own contemporary designers and architects. Finns may have seen themselves as isolated but, essentially, they were also self sufficient.

Wandering around the design quarter of Helsinki forty years later that was all still true but there seemed to be a new and clearly justifiable sense of self confidence along with a friendly openness and a willingness to both explain and to discuss what was being built or made but it was, quite rightly, with a strong hint that those designers and makers were proud of what they are doing. You are very welcome … I sensed I was being told … but if you don’t like it that is your problem and not ours. I repeat, it was something I sensed - not something anyone said but the team from the Guggenheim should be and probably by now are painfully aware of that.

Part of the problem is the proposed site. It is close to the city centre and is certainly prominent and handy for tourists arriving by cruise ship but it is a curious mixture of urban architecture and relatively small-scale maritime buildings on the quayside backed by trees and it is certainly not an abandoned industrial site where any solution would be better than nothing. A building or group of buildings that is grandly civic or something that is vernacular in scale would both be inappropriate for the setting but then also surely a pastiche of maritime buildings would hardly seem to be honest or appropriate as a home for international art and a magnet for tourists.

One building I visited in Helsinki that still seems physically like a slightly awkward visitor is Kiasma - the museum of contemporary art. As a facility a new Guggenheim must be relevant and useful for and used by the citizens … otherwise it simply has the role of a new Hilton or a new Marriott: something a local might or might not use but probably not and is essentially something that is there for the visitor who arrived yesterday and will be gone tomorrow. The new Guggenheim, as a structure, has to be firmly anchored in the design ethos and architectural traditions of Finland … if not it will be a bricks-and-mortar version of an ugly cruise liner in the harbour that everyone hopes will sail away.

earlier apartment blocks by the water

Of course the idea of building large blocks of apartments overlooking a harbour or the sea is not new to this century and nor is the idea of building large expensive apartments to drive economic revival. 

In Stockholm large prestigious apartment blocks dating from 1880 onwards were built along Strandvägen overlooking the harbour in an extensive new area to the east of the historic centre of the city and in the 1930s in Malmö, as the city expanded to the west, large apartment blocks with balconies looking out over the beach were built along Limhamnsvägen as the then new area of Ribersborg was developed.

Strandvägen, Stockholm

Looking south from the new development of the west harbour in Malmö towards the 1930s blocks of Ribersborg

View over the north harbour in Helsinki towards the apartment buildings on Pohjoisranta

In Helsinki, again around 1900, expensive new apartments were built along Pohjoisranta looking east over the north harbour and as the city expanded to the south there were new apartments built along Merikatu looking south across a park to the islands and the open sea.

The situation appears to have been slightly different in Copenhagen where, in the late 19th century, the harbour was dominated by not only commercial docks but by naval dockyards so less land overlooking the sea or the harbour but close to the centre of the city was available ... or at least not available until the late 20th century. In Copenhagen in the late 19th and early 20th centuries the most exclusive new apartment buildings were constructed looking across parks and squares although of course in an earlier period, in the 17th and 18th century, many large houses were built facing onto the broad canals that were then commercial quays so ostensibly a similar idea.

The impetus for these new developments of apartment buildings was clearly the emergence, in the late 19th century, of a large, wealthy, urban middle class - families who not only wanted large, well-lit apartments to rent but wanted to move out of the crowded and tightly-packed buildings in the centre of these cities.

Blidah Park, Hellerup

Bellavista, Charlottenlund

Perhaps the most influential apartment buildings in the Copenhagen region from the early 20th century, in terms of the more recent developments around the harbours in Copenhagen, are Blidah Park, a housing scheme of 1933-34 at Hellerup on the north edge of Copenhagen and that of the contemporary development of Bellavista by Arne Jacobsen slightly further north and overlooking the beach. The clean, uncluttered lines; the large windows; the flat roofs and prominent balconies set a style and the standards for quality of design and building emulated in many of the new apartment blocks being constructed.

2nd Cycle

It is easy to miss this Helsinki gallery and shop at Pieni Roobertinkatu 4. There is an archway in a line of shops and a very steep and dark ramp leading down to the entrance. Part of Artek, and just two blocks south of the main store but, more significantly, just one block north of the design museum, the two could not be more different physically. The store is bright, spacious, sharply clean to reflect the style and quality of the products. 2nd Cycle is a series of irregular basement rooms and spaces piled high with storage on display but here perhaps is the soul of the furniture company. That sounds stupidly melodramatic but I spent some time here looking at the furniture  and other items and discussing design with Antti Tevajärvi, a member of the staff. As we talked local people and tourists wandered in to buy or often simply to indulge in a little nostalgia and exchange stories about pieces of furniture they own or had once owned.

In an earlier post I recommended a film profile about 2nd Cycle that was made by Monocle design magazine. All I can add for myself, now having visited 2nd Cycle, is that this gallery and shop shows that not only should good design for mass-produced pieces have an important place in our lives but that well-made and well-designed items should have an ongoing place in our lives. The finest pieces here are of museum quality and as part of an Artek archive they are of real significance in the history of design but equally the less well-preserved pieces, scratched or chipped or worn,  reflect their important place in the real lives of real people.

20+12 Design Stories from Helsinki

This is a book of photographs by Katja Hagelstam (of LoKaL) with interviews by Eva Lamppu and graphic design by Piëtke Visser. The book shows clearly how good design and well-made products enhance our lives. I hope they won’t mind if I quote the first paragraphs of their introduction in full because I am afraid that if I tried to paraphrase their aims I would not express it as clearly:

“We set out to find examples of design that bring joy to our everyday lives, and we wanted to showcase interesting people and their surroundings in our hometown, Helsinki. We conducted 20 interviews with designers and artists who influence the cultural life of the city. In their own environments, be it at work or at home, we listened to their stories of what their work means to them and what inspiration they draw from Helsinki itself. In addition we asked 12 people from a variety of creative fields to consider what makes Helsinki unique and where the city should be heading next.”

“These voices reveal that our city is developing day by day and that it is becoming increasingly open and accessible to its citizens through initiatives all of their own. Turning wasteland into vegetable gardens, organising neighbourhood block parties - all this breathes new life into Helsinki’s urban landscape.”



This is a book where images and text work together on the page with the lens of the camera zooming in on a detail, isolating things you might have missed, or zooming out to make a broader statement with humility and humour.



LoKaL at Annankatu 19, just west of The Old Church in  Helsinki, was opened about a year ago by the photographer Katja Hagelstam. It is a simple but very elegant space that is a gallery and cafe ... the 72% art 28% coffee mentioned in an earlier post.They have a commendably ambitious programme of exhibitions, normally changing monthly, to show the work of Finnish craftsmen, photographers and furniture makers. The present show is entitled Element and is the summer exhibition that focuses on “different elements in Finnish nature.” 

The space appears to have been a shop but the aim is to create displays that are intimate as if they are in a home. There are just two rooms so you sit on furniture that might or might not be part of the exhibition to drink coffee, the coffee cups are taken down from shelves above what appears to be a normal kitchen unit but comes from a local maker and the tiles behind the sink were commissioned for the gallery. Throughout there is a sense of humanity and subtle humour ... or perhaps not so subtle for a notice above the sink points out that “everything is for sale unless it speaks” ...

In terrible danger of sounding like a travel guide, I would say that LoKaL is the one gallery in the Design District that you should not miss.  

Museum of Finnish Architecture

The Design Museum and the Museum of Finnish Architecture are on the same city block and a single ticket can be bought for access to both. 

But the buildings could not be more different. 

Where the high school, completed in 1895 but now housing the design museum, is wide and shallow and built in brick in an ornate style that looks to North German Gothic architecture with a skyline of gables and a thin spire, the building of the architecture museum, completed in 1899 for a number of scientific societies, is narrow across the street frontage but the building itself is high and the facade inspired by Classical architecture with pilasters and a clear hierarchy of floor levels set above a rusticated basement with very tall windows regularly spaced across the top floor to light what was presumably a lecture theatre. 

The bookshop, library and exhibition rooms of the museum are set around a very imposing but also very beautiful staircase. 

Not only are the two museums in buildings of such different styles but they face in opposite directions, turning their backs on each other. There were plans in 1987 to build a shared exhibition space in the wide gap between the two buildings but the idea was abandoned and at the moment the area seems to be a community garden with herbs and vegetables in grow bags. 

Perhaps I am reading too much symbolism into this where none is intended because of course craftsmen, product designers and architects should always be close bedfellows.

On the top floor, the museum of architecture has a permanent display of photographs and information panels that pick out major themes that help to explain how the architecture of Helsinki has evolved.


A hollowed out log - the exhibition piece from JKMM Architects

A hollowed out log - the exhibition piece from JKMM Architects

The present temporary exhibition is beautiful and thought provoking. Called Light Houses. Young Nordic Architecture, it is a recreation of an exhibition in the Nordic Pavilion of the 2012 Biennial in Venice. Young architects from Norway, Sweden and Finland have created compact pieces, set or suspended at eye level and in a mixture of materials, more like sculptures than architectural models, that reflect their ideas and concerns about the current state of of their profession.

If there is a clear common thread it seems to be a move away from the architecture of engineering and a return to architecture dependent upon ideas, concerned with ethics and concerned about sustainability ... a sense that architects should be involved with ideas, politics and philosophy as much as with drawing and design.

One comment from the partnership of Haugen/Zohar stood out. They “believe there is a shared Nordic Common Ground, best understood as a fundamental mind set pertaining to a profound relationship to nature and a sincere understanding of our social responsibilities.”

Helsinki Design Museum


The design museum in Helsinki has a well-displayed reference collection of Finnish design as well as a programme of temporary exhibitions. As it is celebrating its140th anniversary there is a special exhibition now of major design objects with a time line around the walls that traces the history of design in Finland. This line starts in 1630 with instructions from King Gustavus II Adolphus for a collection of historical heritage and later points include the founding of the Fiskars ironworks in1649 and the opening of the Finlayson Cotton Mill in Tampere in 1820. 

What this highlights is the uncertainty or ambivalence felt by some designers. Is their role a link to traditional crafts, because part of their work is to understand the process of making, or is their work industrial and therefore mechanical because economic reality and simple practicality dictates that now most furniture or tableware has to be manufactured commercially? 

A school of crafts was founded in Helsinki in 1871 but it was in 1873 that the school’s teaching collection was organised to form the basis of a Museum of Applied Arts. Many of the objects in the collection came from the Vienna Trade Fair of that year. So, at first, the idea was to teach through showing outstanding examples of craftsmanship. In 1875 a Finnish Society of Crafts was established and the Society then maintained the school and the museum.

From 1878 until 1911 the Keeper of the museum was Ernst Nordström (1850-1933) who was also principal of the craft school so teaching and learning from crafts of the past were seen as inextricably linked with contemporary design.

The establishment of the design museum in Helsinki reflects the similar history of a move from hand crafted pieces to commercial manufacture in England ... remember that the Victoria and Albert Museum was founded both as a reaction to industrialisation, with a collection of master pieces of craft, but also as a celebration of manufacturing ingenuity.

The collection in Helsinki was put into store in 1954 and it was only in 1979 that the present building in Korkeavuorenkatu, formerly the Broberg High School, was adapted for the museum. In 1992 the museum was given the status of a national specialist museum and in the following year it was separated from the Finnish Society of Craft and Design. 

The museum has beautiful and thought-provoking displays and here good design is clearly revered. There is an extensive shop with an impressive selection of design books and carefully-chosen design objects for sale but I detected either a sense of uncertainty, because of the current economy, or perhaps simply a search for affirmation and support. A large quiet room has been set aside and comfortable seating and paper and pens are provided for visitors to write their thoughts down. A text, written on the wall, begins “Museums are not dusty storehouses, but instead treasure troves. For one thing, they contain stories and experiences. Secondly museums have good cafes and thirdly ... You tell us.”

the flea market

Hietalahdentori is a very large square at the west end of Bulevardi so basically continue west along Esplanadi to the south of the Swedish Theatre and on almost to the dock. A very large flea market is held here, I think daily. You would have to be up very early to beat  a dealer to a rare early piece of mid-century design but there were good spreads of Iittala so this might be the place to look for a replacement piece for the one you broke years ago to make up the full set and there were quite a few Marimekko dresses and bags if you are looking for second-hand bargains. 

Across the north side of the square is the market hall built in 1903. At the moment this has food stalls with amazing spreads of vegetables, fresh meat and of course fish with bakery and coffee stalls. I believe that these have been moved here temporarily - displacing books and antiques - while the building of another food market is being restored.

Design District Helsinki

Helsinki now has a large and well-established Design District and the city was designated as the World Design Capital for 2012. There is an excellent pocket-sized map of the District available in English. Well, it starts out as pocket sized but unfolds and unfolds and unfolds to show an area more than 10 city blocks by 10 blocks fanning out, mainly to the west and north of the Design Museum. 

Each shop or service is numbered and there are separate groups for interior and design, clothing, antiques and art, jewellery, galleries and museums, food drink and hotels and finally services ... all coded by colour. 

If trying to cover this large area and the 200 or more businesses that make up the District seems daunting then remember that in Finland coffee and cakes are much appreciated so there are plenty of places to have a break as you search the shops and galleries. In fact one place that I will certainly seek out is LoKaL which describes itself as 72% art 28% coffee so it sounds exactly my kind of place.