PRINT January 1998

International Shorts

Steven Holl's museum for Helsinki

WHEN HEADING INTO HELSINKI from the airport recently, I was surprised to see a mysterious new building emerge to the left of the car: greenish, translucent, and strangely weightless, it seemed to float in the air. The experience was over in seconds and had something almost hallucinatory about it. I soon learned that this apparition is the much-discussed Museum for Contemporary Art designed by Steven Holl, and went back to take a closer look. The curved structure did not lose its dreamlike quality on closer scrutiny. It is an unexpected stranger in the Finnish capital and the most fascinating piece of new architecture to be seen in these latitudes in a long time.

In 1993, Holl won a competition for the museum that attracted more than 500 entries. The project, titled “Chiasma,” is now close to completion: the offices will be in use by February, and the exhibition spaces will open to the public in May or June. Although the museum is a distinctive presence in the urban landscape of Helsinki, the architect responded to the context in subtle ways. The curved contour clearly echoes the nearby coastline of Töölö Bay, while “an implicit cultural line,” Holl says, “links the building to [Alvar Aalto’s] Finlandia Hall” and other landmarks, such as Eliel Saarinen’s Helsinki Station.

The ingenious connections to the museum’s surroundings are made primarily in the exterior form; the interior, by contrast, endeavors to create a neutral environment to make art the focus of attention. The chief tool for creating variation in the interior space is light. Although natural light will be used throughout, Holl has varied its quality in each of the twenty-five galleries. Most often the source will be invisible to the viewer. In this way, Holl aims to furnish the most flexible situation possible for the art on display; he is after, he says, a “Zen simplicity.”

Asked what kind of art he had in mind when planning the exhibition spaces, the architect emphasizes the great variety of contemporary art and the impossibility of predicting what art will look like in the future. “Especially important for my thoughts concerning art and architecture,” Holl remarks, “are the works by my friend Vito Acconci. But naturally there are many artworks that have passed through my mind . . . Ann Hamilton’s floor piece made of hair, and Bruce Nauman’s video works, just to mention two powerful examples.”

In the jury assessment of “Chiasma,” one finds a sentence that should go without saying, but unfortunately does not: “The architect has clearly set out to create a space for art.” Given the number of embarrassing art museums all over Europe, most of them built in the ’80s, the Helsinki museum seems likely to become the envy of other cities. It is a large building, about 130,000 square feet, yet it appears delicate and light. “The joy of living,” writes Holl, “is argued in a quality architecture. It is whispered in material and detail and chanted in space.” Finns will be hard-pressed to do less than shout about their spectacular new museum.

Daniel Birnbaum writes frequently for Artforum.