Third time lucky for Katajanokka site?
Where the Armi Centre and a wow-architecture hotel failed, will Guggenheim succeed?
This is the last of a series of articles published in the print newspaper on blighted - and often hugely imaginative projects - in Helsinki, marking the 200th anniversary of Helsinki's becoming the capital of Finland in 1812. The move from Turku to Helsinki prompted an intense period of growth in the city, with countless grandiose ventures put forward. Many of them proved to be stillborn fantasies that never got beyond the ink and paper of the architect's office. This particular case is rather more topical on two counts, in the sense that the "failure to launch" occurred quite recently and also because the location is the same as that proposed for the hotly-debated Guggenheim museum project.
By Antti Manninen
The building of the Kiasma Contemporary Art Museum and the excitement stirred up by the possibility of a spanking-new Music Centre to replace the acoustic disaster of Alvar Aalto's Finlandia Hall led in the late 1990s to moves on other cultural fronts.
The idea was formed for an information centre, dubbed "Armi", to spotlight Finnish architecture, design, and building knowhow under one roof.
The City of Helsinki put down a marker for the new building on a site in Katajanokka, close to the Market Square and on the waterfront of the South Harbour.
Armi was put forward by the Museum of Finnish Architecture, the Finnish Society of Crafts and Design (which administers Design Forum Finland), the Building Information Foundation, Helsinki's own City Planning Department, and other professional associations, and this grouping arranged an international architecture competition in 2001.
It was won by a group of young Finnish architects - Asmo Jaaksi, Samuli Miettinen, and Juha Mäki-Jyllilä.
Their design was for a somewhat restrained and low-slung white building that did not cast a shadow over Alvar Aalto's nearby Stora Enso headquarters (though there would probably be many in the capital who would not mind a huge shadow being cast over this largely-unloved edifice, recently described as "that awful marble sugar cube").
The trio were partners in the architects' bureau of JKMM, which as since gone on to become one of Finland's most successful offices in domestic and international competitions.
However, the Armi Centre came a cropper. The venture collapsed (or was "put on hold") because the party that had originally booked the greatest space in the premises - Design Forum Finland - pulled out in 2005.
The association behind Armi would have wanted the centre to include the Design Museum, but Design Forum Finland deemed the Katajanokka site was not sufficiently central.
Armi - an acronym of the Finnish words for architecture, construction, design, and information - was also conveniently redolent with echoes of female beauty (Armi Kuusela was a Finnish girl who became the first-ever Miss Universe in 1952) and possibly even contained a nod to one doyenne of Finnish design and entrepreneurship, the Marimekko founder Armi Ratia.
Whatever. It was dead in the water as soon as the Design Museum pulled out.
Soon after the Armi Centre capsized, discussion began on on whether some iconic building, a piece of striking "Wow" architecture by a famous name, might be able to tempt up to Helsinki the same flood-tide of tourists as was being enjoyed by Bilbao in Spain after it got a spectacular Guggenheim Museum.
Helsinki's Deputy Mayor of the time responsible for city plannning, Pekka Korpinen, replied promptly in the affirmative, and we were off and running.
"Finnish architecture is at a high general level, but the real peaks are lacking. If one runs a finger down the list of the top ten names in contemporary international architecture, there are no Finns to be found", Korpinen said in an interview with Helsingin Sanomat in 2006.
Pretty soon, Korpinen got something down on paper.
This was not going to be a museum project, but a waterfront hotel.
Korpinen showed off a draft for a luxury design hotel to go on the Katajanokka site, as commissioned by a Norwegian real estate investor.
The plans had been put together by the top Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron.
The absence of any competition in advance of the hotel venture immediately put backs up among Finland's best-known architects, as well as annoying the museum fraternity, and it ticked off a good many Helsinki residents into the bargain.
The project went on haltingly through various committees, accompanied by op-ed pieces and angry letters to editors, and finally crashed and burned in the City Council two years ago, when councillors voted 47 to 38 against the plan.
And now we have Round 3 in prospect.
At least at the time of writing*, the City Council could be making a decision as soon as next month on a Guggenheim museum that has been proposed for the self-same site near the Market Square and in front of the Stora Enso HQ.
The latest project has also got a very conflicting reception with the public and the politicians alike.
A good many councillors are said to be still unsure which way they will go on the issue.
If it all falls through, we shall just have to make do with what is there - a none-too-beautiful old harbour terminal building.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 15.4.2012
*Note: The article appeared on Sunday, and on Monday it was decided to postpone the actual decision on building the museum until after this autumn's municipal elections, thereby automatically turning the venture into an election issue par excellence (see linked Commentary piece).
More on this subject:
COMMENTARY: Guggenheim elections in the offing in Helsinki
Previously in HS International Edition:
BACKGROUND: Was the axeing of the Armi Center in Katajanokka a missed opportunity? (8.8.2006)
Helsinki City Council rejects Katajanokka hotel project at heated meeting (8.4.2010)
"Wow" architecture does not fit comfortably into the Helsinki skyline (8.8.2006)
Guggenheim decision to be put off until next year (17.4.2012)
Helsinki celebrates 200 years as Finnish capital (13.4.2012)
Abandoned: Eliel Saarinen´s meticulously detailed Munkkiniemi-Haaga plan became a dead duck (28.2.2012)
Rejected: a jewel in Helsinki´s crown that never materialised (21.2.2012)
ANTTI MANNINEN / Helsingin Sanomat