After all that jumping up and down, with 1,715 entries from around the world, the competition to design Guggenheim Helsinki has coughed up a winner, by Paris-based Moreau Kusunoki Architectes, of decidedly modest design, “an indistinct jumble of pavilions faced in charred wood.” Here is rest of The Economist’s assessment, called “Lacking Spark.” No writer is credited but it is James S. Russell, who inscribes criticism for its Books and Arts section. He writes:
The design, announced on June 23rd, is as quietly deferential as Frank Gehry’s Bilbao design is self-consciously flamboyant. … It is extraordinary that a design that triumphed over 1,700 competitors should turn out to be rather ordinary. It is respectful, yet teases out no identity unique to Helsinki. Moreau Kusunoki makes nothing of the waterfront site (in contrast to the much-loved Oslo Opera House, where the alluringly warped roof dips into the sea). The design considers no new way to look at art that would make it a must-visit.
Decidedly modest? Certainly. But no, it is not deferential, let alone respectful. Modern architecture does not try to be respectful and is not supposed to be respectful. Guggenheim Bilbao was not respectful. Russell says the “Guggenheim Bilbao transformed yet belongs.” It does not belong. It is there, and its success is hard to deny. Because millions of modernists – architects, artists, wannabes – have gone to pay homage, the citizens of Bilbao have decided to accept the boon of jobs and revenue to their long-depressed economy.
This boon has not proved replicable. Referring to city officials’ arguments to counter public skepticism of the Gugg’s plan for Helsinki, Russell writes:
These include the shopworn “Bilbao effect,” but efforts to replicate the Bilbao magic have foundered, from Guadalajara to Rio de Janeiro and Salzburg to Vilnius. Branches have closed in New York, Berlin and Las Vegas. Even Bilbao’s remarkable catalytic effect occurred in the context of a massive planning and infrastructure overhaul of the entire city.
Be that as it may, I wonder why any city would want to build a new civic structure composed of wood blackened by fire. Isn’t that tempting fate?