Visions for The Next Helsinki

Celebrating the plurality of good ideas

Michael Sorkin: Our rival competition to the Guggenheim Helsinki

Posted on 21 Jan 2015 | 1 comment

This Next Helsinki ‘competition’ is a riposte to that for a new Guggenheim museum in the Finnish capital. Our motivation is both to raise a righteous cry against this most egregious act of high-Starbucks cultural imperialism and to defend a different vision of the artistic genius loci, the idea that government arts spending should reinforce a more sophisticated − or perhaps primitive − idea of locality: the support of rooted production.

This all seems particularly acute in Helsinki, not simply because it is hardly a city that requires a lustrous bauble to put it on the map, but also because of its own exemplary history as capital of a welfare state with a long project to make the arts integral to communities via participation, not simply spectatorship. And, from a more urban perspective, handing over one of the tastiest sites in the city without a more comprehensive look at its broader formal, cultural, and infrastructural implications is simply foolish.

Of the six ‘anonymous’ entries advanced to the second round, there’s not much to say (although the critical establishment has weighed in with views ranging from indifference to contempt) because they’re simply objects (a point well made in The Architectural Review magazine by Jonathan Glancey). To be sure, the Guggenheim deserves credit for running an ‘open’ competition, rather than its previous MO of simply commissioning a bankable star. Perhaps this is a tithe to local sensibilities, to the independent-minded Finns. Of course, an open competition only works out if some unrecognised brilliance emerges from the heap, which looks not to have happened here, and the jury appears to have opted for a ‘one from Column A’ approach to the mass of entries.

Our own ‘competition’ has received some mild criticism 
for too closely cleaving to the Guggenheim format, with its anonymity, distinguished jury, lack of prizes, etc. It’s a fair cop, sort of. But it’s not as if we were unconscious of this, nor that we aren’t looking to make our intervention better. The most misleading aspect of our effort may have been to call it a ‘competition’. This was to make it clear that we were criticising the Guggenheim effort by running something quite different under the same rubric. In fact, what we hope for is a consultation,
 a spontaneous outburst of alternative suggestions, a wildly diverse set of inventions and polemics. More, since the remit
of our call is wide open (in scale, scope, and media), it will be hard to compare the apples and the oranges and our criteria will span the social, environmental, formal and political. Indeed, one of our internal debates continues to be whether to post entries on our website as they come in. While some of us think this would be excellent as a stimulus and a way of getting into the debate as quickly as possible, others remain unsure of whether we’d have a respectable number of postings in advance of the deadline and whether their quality will encourage more submissions.

As to matters of the jury and anonymity, this seemed slightly clearer. To begin, our ‘jury’ is more interesting − and far more diverse − than that of the official adjudicators. One assembles such a group both for the acuity of its opinions and as a draw to those who might submit. We hope our crew will signal our more progressive and open desires than the MOR gang assembled
by the Guggenheim. Anonymity
is thornier but, conventionally, it’s meant to avoid favouritism by jurors acquainted with entrants. Again, we thought about bagging this because of our self-confidence in our fair play and openness but then thought it better not to beg that particular question.

Finally, as to the matter of prizes: give us a break! We’re all doing this for nothing and out 
of some sense − not to preen −
of civic duty. We aim to engender something much closer to a collaboration than a competition and we hope that many will participate in this spirit. We’re looking for ideas. We’ll exhibit and publish as many as we can. And, as many of the ‘winners’ as we can afford will be flown (coach) to Helsinki for a conference,
 an hour in the delightful public sauna on the harbour, plenty of booze, the best of Finnish cuisine, the chance to meet comrades from Helsinki, and to strike a blow for an engaged and activist idea of public art.

Michael Sorkin
Chairperson of the Jury

This article will be published in the February 2015 edition of Architectural Review.