REVIEW OF: "THE HELSINKI EFFECT: PUBLIC ALTERNATIVES TO THE GUGGENHEIM MODEL OF CULTURE-DRIVEN


The Guggenheim Effect is an urbanist fairy tale about how a starchitect-designed museum transformed a sleepy backwater into a celebrated global destination. In this story, architect Frank Gehry’s undulating design for Bilbao’s Guggenheim museum jolted Bilbao out of post-industrial doldrums by garnering international acclaim and drawing an influx of tourists and investment.

The Helsinki Effect: Public Alternatives to the Guggenheim Model of Culture-Driven Development punctures the prevailing mythology through a case study of the failed 2011 proposal for a Guggenheim branch in Helsinki, Finland. Edited by Finnish artist Terike Haapoja, American cultural studies scholar Andrew Ross, and the much-missed Michael Sorkin, the book is an accessible antidote for all those entranced by fantasies of a “world-class” museum catalyzing urban revitalization. Divided into an essay section and a design proposal section, the book fuses together critique with practice to answer the “clear need for alternatives to… blockbuster design.” [1]

The eight contributors to Part One launch a far-ranging interdisciplinary critique of the multi-scalar origins, logics and processes of exploitation embedded within the mega-museum franchise. Curator Juhani Pallasma begins with the key premises and problematics of the proposed Helsinki Guggenheim, with attention to its discursive, aesthetic aspects. The essays include reflections by collaborators from Checkpoint Helsinki arts coalition and the New York City-based G.U.L.F. collective – founded to challenge worker abuse in the Abu Dhabi Guggenheim construction.

The second half of The Helsinki Effect features a kaleidoscopic set of creative possibilities generated by the Next Helsinki counter-competition organized in 2014 and 2015 by several of the book’s contributors. The compiled proposals vary wildly in approach, but all seek to reinterpret the museum as an institution and redefine culture within urban space.

In the 21st century, municipalities compete in a global beauty pageant, with cities crowned as capitals of culture or design. As urban sociologist Sharon Zukin describes in her essay, cities are measured against an ever-growing list of indexes purporting to measure livability or creativity (p. 103-105). The rise of international architecture competitions, biennales and the skyrocketing number of museums measure the financial might fueling this cultural logic. Urban designer Miguel Robles-Duran delves into the “dogma of inter-urban competition,” noting that 71% of the world’s private museums were founded between 2001 and 2016 [2]. Finnish architect Kaarin Taipale deconstructs boosters’ promises that the future Guggenheim would be a “new symbol of Helsinki” with a detailed accounting of the financial burdens and faulty justifications. Taipale also deconstructs the ubiquitous architectural competition won by an ostensibly Nordic design that alluded to the waterfront site’s industrial uses [3].

Museums are the art-washed manifestations of hyper-financialization and the neoliberal ethos that have bloated private coffers while raiding public budgets. Andrew Ross notes that, like previous growth machine “turnaround” projects such as stadiums and convention centers, museums are proffered as solutions for uneven development [4]. As the editors point out, however, what has been invisibilized behind the Gehry facades are the local enabling conditions for Bilbao’s much-touted growth. $4 billion in public infrastructure improvements go unmentioned in the tale of the Guggenheim as “savior of Bilbao.” Also invisibilized are the material conditions of the laborers who construct the physical museum and the real-world impacts of the investment portfolios of museum trustees. These assumptions and omissions are dissected with careful thoroughness by architect Mabel Wilson in “Rendering Labor Invisible” and Ross in “Fine Art of Urbanism.” Michael Sorkin’s “WALMART Comes to Helsinki” reveals that the museum franchise and the big-box chain are intertwined manifestations of colonialist and capitalist logics. Yet despite the naturalization of such logics in global structures, their success is far from inevitable; we remember the Guggenheim’s never-built outposts in Guadalajara and St. Petersburg and their quickly abandoned galleries in Las Vegas and Venice [5].

The Next Helsinki proposals featured in the second half of the book are a counter spatial imaginary to the spectacular architecture of contemporary museum world. From the autopsy of the failed Guggenheim springs forth the seeds of other cultural futures for Helsinki. The collective ethos of the “consultation rather than a competition” is revealed in the fact that the book includes all of the entries, and not just the eight shortlisted by the jury. The featured co-winners stretch definitions of culture, ignore physical boundaries, and reframe institutional assumptions. My personal favorite, Welfare State Preservation Plan, “exhibited” the preserved artifacts of the welfare state: public sector, public schools, public health, public housing, and public transport [6]. Another shortlisted proposal, practical and practicable, the Hidden Bigness of Helsinki’s Local Museums inverted the mega-museum to encompass the scattered multiplicity of the city’s 80+ museums [7].

To be sure, some of the entrants use aspirational concepts of community and civic connection that echo the promises of the Guggenheim boosters. The original 2011 sales pitch positioned the museum as an “agent of change” that would “provide civic space where local residents can gather and socialize.” [8] Praise for the official winner of the Guggenheim design contest described the “social commons” formed by the structures. The ubiquity of such words might be a sign that we need more precise vocabulary or new metaphors to describe what we want. Along with “revitalization,” notions of “common ground” and “participation” connect too easily to processes of social domination.

Many of the proposals also assert the subversive possibilities of art and design with unwarranted optimism. Temporary adaptive structures and public art on and along transit systems are not inherently resistant to spectacle and consumption. In the essay section, both Haapoja and Sorkin ask difficult questions about the processes by which artists, architects, and criticality gets coopted. The book situates cultural processes within international economic shifts and intra-national politics, while also foregrounding the possibilities generated from local artists/global activism. The entries to Next Helsinki offer abundant examples of cultural alternatives to the mega-museum. We should bear in mind, however, that the effects of any given design, aspiration, or cultural model are never foreordained.

Annette Koh is a lecturer in the department of urban and regional planning at Cal Poly Pomona. She co-organized the 2017 and 2018 Decolonizing Cities symposia at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

[1] Haapoja, Terike, Andrew Ross, and Michael Sorkin. The Helsinki Effect: Public Alternatives to the Guggenheim Model of Culture-Driven Development. New York: Terreform, 2016, p 7. [2] Haapoja, 25. [3] Haapoja, 76. [4] Haapoja, 40.

[5] Haapoja, 88-89. [6] Haapoja, 116. [7] Haapoja, 118. [8] Haapoja, 100.

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