Jeremy Melvin, 24 April 2019
It has always been possible to have a good time in Helsinki, despite decades of Russian domination, the harsh climate, and the grim granite-faced buildings with their strange figures from Nordic mythology painfully carved into their stone portals.
For these reasons many of the city’s most exciting experiences were concealed under snow or needed determination to enter. From its opening last year, Amos Rex Art Museum, though, represents an important stage in a decades-long process which is turning the Finnish capital into one of the most appealing and engaging cities in the world. What is especially remarkable is that it manages to do this while referring to its site, its institutional history as the Amos Anderson Art Foundation, and broader currents of Finnish culture. This contrasts with the failed Guggenheim project and Steven Holl’s partially successful Kiasma Contemporary Art Museum, just over the road and a tram track or two from Amos Rex. Both were alien imports, though Kiasma at least, with its sweeping but broken curves does suggest the occasional fissure in Helsinki’s hard bedrock and sometimes forbidding urban fabric.
Exterior view. Photo: Mika Huisman
From his statuesque position astride a horse alongside Kiasma, Marshal Mannerheim, hero of Finnish independence and the later conflict with the Soviet Union during World War II, seems impervious to it all. But even he would be hard pressed to miss the obvious contrast between the opening and inviting curves of Oodi, the new city library opened last year, and the forbidding 1930s national parliament which it faces a little further down the street.
This though is rather a one line interpretation. Amos Rex is more subtle, sophisticated and multi-layered in its engagement with site, culture and the contemporary world. It re inhabits lasipalatsi (glass palace), one of the most attractive examples of 1930s Finnish functionalism, with the resources of the Amos Anderson art foundation, one of Finland’s most venerable cultural institutions, on the site of a Russian barracks which was largely destroyed in one or other swing of fortune in the vicious civil war that followed independence in 1917. Its combination of new and old buildings, its programme and the associations of its site are a skeletal layering of Finland’s history over 200 years told in visual terms.
Lasipalatsi, won in competition by three architecture students, Viljo Revell, Heimo Riihimaki and Niilo Kokko, and finished in 1936, first brought a sense of lightness to the site. Its white walls, glass and elegantly Aalto-esque metalwork, reflected the optimistic of Finland’s all-too-brief experiment with democracy between the wars, as well as catering to popular entertainment with a cinema and various cafes and restaurants. Its heyday came in 1952 when it offered affordable leisure to crowds from Olympics, which finally landed then in Helsinki after the 1940 games were cancelled. Over the following decades lasipalatsi suffered slowly declining fortunes until the early 21st century, when the its owner the city council realised that something radical would have to happen to preserve its fabric and live up in the future to its optimistic promise. The Bio Rex cinema lacked the latest equipment, but its neon signs, the earliest in Finland, still made an impression in the urban fabric.
Meanwhile the Amos Anderson Art Foundation was looking to expand its activities and capabilities. Funded by Konstsamsfundet, set up by the newspaper magnate Amos Anderson (1878-1961), its previous field of activity was the urban palace, typical of its time, which Anderson commissioned in 1913 from Einar Sjostrom (father of YRM’s founder partner Cyril Mardall) and WG Palmqvist. Designed as Anderson’s office, home and private gallery for his growing collection of Finnish and international mainly late 19th and early 20th century art, it operated as a public museum from 1965. But lacking art handling, loading or conservation facilities – moving items in or out necessitated closing the street – it was ever more limited in its capacity to function effectively.
If the base building and the Anderson Foundation had potential to create a dynamic new cultural institution, it took architects JKMM to bring it to fruition. Working on one hand to conserve lasipalatsi but on another to create a large underground space for new galleries, art handling, storage and conservation areas, it was necessarily a hybrid, but that can be an advantage in creating both new public realm and new institutional spaces.
A large Finnish firm known mainly for work on public buildings including renovation of two Aalto libraries at Seinajoki and Otaniemi, JKMM were pointed directly in 2013 and the project, with €50m from the foundation and the council chipping in Latsipalatsi, began. JKMM”s concept, in line with the city planners’ goals, was to bring Lasipalatsi and in particular its 550-seat cinema back to life, and to preserve for public use the space within the C-shaped building with the only remaining barracks block on its fourth side.
From this position JKMM’s main moves seem quite logical. They adapt the main entrance to lasipalatsi, with access to various areas for shops and refreshments, and the cinema, and then to the new subterranean gallery space which, at 6,000 sqm or so almost doubles the complex’s total size to 13,000 sqm. Visitors could remain at ground level, but they would have to be pretty hard core mid century moderns fans to do so, because the descent to the new galleries is alluringly dramatic and more clearly resonant of contemporary culture. A flight of steps leads downwards, but while doing so you do not lose contact with the surface. A picture window gives views to the courtyard, with the barracks block as a backdrop but in the middle distance is a strange protrusion from the ground with a sheet of glass angled to optimise illumination in the gallery.
Interior staircase. Photo: Mika Huisman
This introduces what is undoubtedly the most obvious creative idea in the design – the courtyard surface which doubles as the gallery roof. Though already a public space it had little real character, until JKMM introduced a series of low, shallow domes and roof lights. On the upper surface they are, apart from the skylights, covered in a tessellated tile which deflects to their multiple curves to make one continuous plain. They might invite skate-boarders, but also echo the curvaceous forms of Mooninvalley, a whimsical and more benign aspect of Finnish culture than the forces which shaped the site.
If this is fun, so is the effect in the gallery below. But it is also serious. On plan the gallery shape is essentially a series of regular spaces of differing sizes but as is appropriate, able to reconfigure in various way to change shape and size for a particular exhibition, including heavy drapes which can make the limits of the space hard to perceive. Its ceiling, bringing something in from above, is covered with 8600 metallic discs, concealing the lighting and other services but also making a playful texture to the curved surface.
This is about as far as the prevailing views for displaying art – especially of the contemporary variety – that prevailed around the turn of the millennium. Then it was assumed by many curators and artists alike that plain, white boxes, with plain, white light, were not just the ideal but more or less the only sort of environment to view art. Tate Modern was perhaps the apogee but it all sprang from Max Gordon’s design for the original Saatchi Gallery in that St John’s Wood dairy in the 1980s. The problem was that Tate was not quite plain enough, and the spaces in the vast obsolete industrial relic were smaller and more restrictive than they first appeared, hence its need to expand, first into oil storage tanks, and then with the most recent extension, essentially a staircase worthy of a post millennial Vignola with a gallery or two attached.
Interior light show. Photo: Tuomas Uusheimo
Not surprisingly curators, clients and possibly even donors got bored. Amos Rex is not the first or largest art museum to challenge this view, but it does so well and effectively. What might seem eccentricities bring a new dimension to its curatorial possibilities. The first exhibition, of a Japanese digital art collective, fitted well in this milieu, but the next, Finland’s first exhibition of the Belgian 20th century Surrealist Rene Magritte, can fit equally appropriately. It also plays to the museum director Kai Kartio’s characterisation of himself as an ‘architect manque’, but more broadly it fulfils the ambition he, his trustees and colleagues set for themselves, to make a space which could take a wide range of exhibitions – they may even consider architectural exhibitions in the future. Is so it will turn the site and institution full circle, from a condition where architecture was more or less given, to a position where it can be explored and redirected.