Helsinki Gugg goes glug glug

The winning entry from the Guggenheim Helsinki competition. (WSJ)

The winning entry from the Guggenheim Helsinki competition. (Moreau Kusunoki Architectes)

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?

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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4 Responses to Helsinki Gugg goes glug glug

  1. A sign of the times perhaps?! Not only modest i havent been but the photo looks like an attempt to revisit alvar aalto but a shabby
    cheap rudimentary copy, very bad really!


  2. kristen says:

    just an fyi…the publication is The Economist — not Wall St. Journal (the author is noted critic and author James S. Russell — but Economist doesn’t use bylines).


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