Propaganda or magic – what the Guggenheim can do for Helsinki’s South Harbour

Today The Usual (Helsingin Sanomat) waxes excited and naive about the power of the Guggenheim Foundation’s winning competition entry for improving [sic] Helsinki’s South Harbour.

Ankeasta satama-alueesta on nyt mahdollisuus loihtia ainutlaatuinen, kuhiseva satama, joka houkuttelee niin kaupunkilaisia kuin turisteja. Siksi Helsingin ja valtion päättäjien kannattaa käydä läpi Guggenheim Helsinki -hankkeen taloudelliset ja kulttuuriset vaikutukset sekä uskaltaa tehdä päätöksiä.

[And our translation] The grim harbour area can now be conjured up into a unique, teeming port that attracts citizens as well as tourists. That is why Helsinki and the state would be well advised to go through the Guggenheim Helsinki’s economic and cultural impacts, as well as to dare make decisions.


One big flaw in their argument is that the South Harbour is not broken. (See above or come and see for yourself in case it is soon broken).

The desire to “fix” this wonderful place comes from a well known source. The business-friendly ideology that produces all the rubbish novelty that has already turned our home planet into “pile of filth” (as the Pope put it last week) but calls it progress.

More like urbanicide.

The Eteläranta site temporarily set aside by the city for the Guggenheim currently works as a ferry terminal forecourt. It’s not the waterfront boulevard of which the editorial writers dream. But it is functional. Its adverse impact on traffic is manageable. Its ambiance is that of real life, real people doing real things.

OK, most of it is car park, but compared to the nuisance of the proposed winning design, it is benign in the extreme.

And yet, all we hear from the nation’s biggest newspaper and city leaders is how this all needs to be made better. The improvement rhetoric is overwhelming. It seeks to persuade us that all people want is pretty and safe custom-built spaces for standard-issue, non-stop, surprise-free (and no doubt begger-free) entertainment. For loitering suitable for homo neoliberalis.

The phrase “entertainment-security complex” comes to mind.

Well, the harbour does have a bit of a problem. Europe’s smallest and most pointless waterfront ferris-wheel went up on the Katajanokka site on the other side of the water. But theoretically it can at least be dismantled and something more appropriate built on the site.

Next to the Eteläranta site is also the old Palace hotel. This jewel of modernism was not exactly loved when it went up in 1951 to accommodate Olympics tourists. But since then, Viljo Revell’s and Keijo Petäjä’s sleek lines have housed hotel guests and business leaders not to mention fashion shows and become part of our collective memory. And since then Helsinki residents have also come to breathe easily around its restrained elegance, which adds to, rather than takes away, the richness I call my home town.

Sadly and mysteriously hotel operations in the building ceased in 2009.

Even more mysteriously, the editorial in today’s Usual ponders on how fabulous it would be if international hotel chains were to come here in the wake of the Guggenheim.

Perhaps they believe magic is better when it’s imported.

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The Guggenheim wants in Helsinki – oh no!

The mood at the editorial office is distraught. Helsinki’s South Harbour, quite a fantastic piece of existing city, is at risk from the unholy alliance of creative city doctrine and international architecture.

See here for some good views on it from wonderful The Next Helsinki team.

Earlier today the winner of the prize for the notional Helsinki Guggenheim Art Museum was unveiled. There has been quite a lot of enthusiasm, even from unexpected quarters.

Guggenheim entriesIt’s unlikely that the jury ever concentrated on its task in the manner we Helsinkians deserve, given that there were 1 715 entries (some featured above, more on the G website).

And JHJ is not impressed by the architectural merits of the winning entry, Moreau Kusunoki’s dark tower called Art in the City (but Beacon/Majakka as well).

It looks glum and too tall and totally unsuitable for the waterfront.

Art in the CityNobody here in the editorial offices here knows anyone who wants this thing – in pretty much any shape or form. (But especially not this Moominvalley wannabe glumness!)

There’s also no money for it. There’s no planning consent. The city already turned the idea down once. Officially. There’s little desire for it among ordinary people and not much among artists.

Those of us who desire the Guggenheim Foundation to eff off, frequently get told that were we more cosmopolitan we would want it.

At one point we all (at least here at JHJ) thought the horrible thing had been sent on its way. But no.

A very strong desire for it is coming from somewhere.

The politics is horrible but then the idea of the Guggenheim interfering [sic] in our art world as well as the cityscape, was always going to be controversial.

Proponents, including the country’s biggest daily newspaper, have spewed endless supportive propaganda for a Guggenheim. A little less outrageously, the G Foundation briefed Miltton Communications Group to do its propaganda locally (so-called public relations and marketing being the way business manipulates public opinion).

Given that the post-industrial economy we live in produces mostly data-fog and commercial entertainment, it’s not surprising that information about the museum is abundant but rather untrustworthy.

For Finnish-speakers, however, I do recommend listening to this YLE radio interview with architect and critic Tarja Nurmi. She covers many, many of the shortcomings of the project in a short space of time. Starts at around 9 mins into the programme.

It’s all so upsetting we can’t possibly pursue this any more.

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Bits of Helsinki awaiting development


Over 80 hectares of prime real estate awaiting improvement by a construction-friendly urban administration somewhere near us. JHJ feels it needs saving from such improvement.

Meanwhile in Lapinlahti (below), where architectural and natural beauty helped generations of Finns find meaning in their lives again, one wonders what the administration has in mind.

Designed by C. L. Engel (of Senate Square fame) and opened in 1841, in 2006 its remarkable therapeutic environment was abandoned. Like empty buildings usually, this one has also started to feel alienating and problematic. Yet its beauty is such that even after a decade of neglect, its charms are definitely still there.

The city’s website suggests that finances and ideas for bringing Lapinlahti back into use of any kind may require selling part of the land (owned by the city) to a developer. They are apparently the creatures that make enough money that some might be siphoned off for breathing new life into our shared legacy.

Active citizens are campaigning for the old mental hospital to be turned into a beacon of forward-looking care.

And administrative documents (a source of jobs for a number of us, so I won’t knock them) describe the area as a unique site of cultural heritage with special architectural, landscape, recreational and botanical values.

Lapinlahti 2015

Shame about the noise! The motorway going West to Espoo starts just across the water.


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In danger – over 82 hectares of local cultural and ecological riches

Vartiosaari rockIt ain’t easy in these days of transparent decision making to cut through the thickening informational fog on and offline to find what the planning committee has decided about Vartiosaari. Have they decided it’s just a bit of white (as in the pic below, also online) on a map, waiting for “development”? Or do they have the senses and the imagination to appreciate what I do, that to turn it into a suburb would be the dumbest thing ever?

Vartiosaari osayleiskaava

You can email the committee members before 12.5.2015 (presumably they understand English too). Here:;;;;;;;

Some excellent “material considerations” as they say, from the capital city region’s conservation types (in Finnish).

Whether facts, rants or imploring will have much effect we can’t know. The imperative of squeezing as much profit out of anything you can point at (Vartiosaari qualifies) is party line here as in most places. Certainly in the administration of the city of Helsinki the idea of values other than commercial ones seems increasingly hard to imagine.

Some people do though. Here’s one heartfelt and pithy facebook post on the topic. Wish I could write so well!

So it is possible to imagine alternatives to speculative suburb-building. Many of us live by more ordinary and human dreams every day. In fact, some people are so outraged and upset by the idea of sacrificing Vartiosaari and its many delights that they are already agitating for something else.

For JHJ it seems to mean being hooked again into a time-consuming and dubiously productive blogging habit. We shall see.

Someone’s got to!

3 Vartiosaari

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Helsinki as commons 19 April 2015 – election day

Commons? Urban space? These days? With these election prognoses?Vaalitulos klo 22

But, to more hopeful things. This afternoon a packed seminar room at Kiasma museum of contemporary art heard three excellent presentations and discussion that exploded many a myth about the benefits of cultural projects like the Guggenheim Foundation’s/franchise’s efforts to woo Helsinki’s leadership and public to let it come here and play. While we, of course, pay.

Michael Sorkin, Andrew Ross, Miguel Robles-Duràn and Mabel O. Wilson had come from New York invited by Checkpoint Helsinki to share with us their experiences and analyses. As they spoke, the idea of a Guggenheim museum in Helsinki benefiting anyone in Helsinki started to sound even crazier than it had previously. Such a project would draw us into an international urban renewal circus in which there are no winners, only exhausted competitors. I’d note that the madness of “titanium-clad-starship-cruiser-museums” (I think that was Andrew Ross) as serious municipal endeavours, hasn’t yet – thankfully – quite engulfed us because we are a little behind in so many policy fashions. It also need not cheapen our city or diminish its charms if, as Juhani Pallasmaa put it, we (or our city managers, whoever they are) learn to be a bit less naive than hitherto.

Alas, Helsinki’s public is not known for its critical sensibilities, at least not when it comes to the kind of free-market, free-world, free-everything rhetoric peddled as standard across (still) wealthy European cities (not to mention elsewhere).

As the speakers all pointed out, if city making in general continues on what is now its “normal” trajectory, the homogenisation even of European cities brimming with heritage and sense of place as they are, will be inevitable. (It’s not that I don’t like Marks & Spencers, I just don’t like a political system based on the big swallowing or shoving aside the small, in this case similarly priced Finnish garment manufacturers and retailers. Star*ucks, now that’s another thing altogether. I like Finnish coffee).

Opening Helsinki up to the Guggenheim would mean that our lives, our streets and our most creative impulses would mingle with the evils [sic] of the global construction industry and its truly appalling discounting of human lives. As we heard today, the Guggenheim is among several institutions blithely ignoring yet massively benefiting from the subhuman conditions in which construction workers (and others) in the United Arab Emirates have to live.

So, no longer is one’s ire just (?) a result of confusing cities with theme parks. It’s about just how entangled one wants to become in the global intensification of a totally crazy and utopian set of values and aspirations that passes for mainstream and wreaks so much destruction, throughout the production chain. And yet which, in shy little Finland, only a few dare question.

And so it was with sadness that I was reminded of how earlier commentators on Helsinki’s urban changes have identified a problem here that goes deeper than arguments over costs and benefits.

In a short film by Marja Heikkilä & Martti Saarikivi about the old picture house, Kino Palatsi (1911-1965), the narrator notes “the city may not be that old, but it is full of memories. People shape their environment and the environment shapes them”.

I was born after Kino Palatsi was torn down, but vicariously its memory has shaped a small part of my life too.

Later in the film, he goes on: “a last-minute public debate failed to yield fruit before the hasty implementation of a demolition order meant that the sounds Kinopalatsin salonki (SRM)of debate were drowned out by the noise of machinery. Seeking explanations for this frenzy of tearing down buildings, one usually hears arguments about the economics. The reason lies deeper, however. Our towns are young and most of their inhabitants recent arrivals. That is why we lack urban tradition, and why the majority of people do not feel the kind love for their hometowns that would be expressed by respecting tradition (heritage).”*

Well, I don’t buy that, quite. I don’t believe people are that uncaring, and besides, that documentary was shot in 1968.

Helsinki has grown a lot since then and urbanization around the world keeps accelerating. The throughput of stuff and life and rural land required to service all this urban change has taken on such unfathomable dimensions that er, words fail.

So what I’m getting at is that in a way we are all – at least anyone for instance who might stumble on this blog post – living urban lives. And whether it’s in Helsinki or Hong Kong or Hamburg, surely the chances of good urban futures are better without the cheapening and democracy-weakening antics of global brands and global privatisers of all kinds.

Tomorrow, when we know who will represent the people of Finland for the next four years, there will also be excitement as the public gets to see the results of the Next Helsinki Competition tomorrow.

(And I don’t think the fear and parochialism I read into the election results is unrelated to the embrace of these shiny and placeless vehicles of spectacle captured to serve new urban, though not always civilized, ideals).

The Next Helsinki visions April 2015 site

* Viime hetkessä herännyt julkinen keskustelu ei ehtinyt vielä kantaa hedelmää kun jo purkupäätöksen nopea toimeenpano hukutti virinneen keskustelun kiviporien meluun. Kysyttäessä syytä … purkuvimmaan viitataan yleensä taloustekijöihin. Syy on kuitenkin syvemmällä. Kaupunkimme ovat nuoria ja suurin osa asukkaista on tulokkaita. Siksi meillä ei ole kaupunkitraditioita eikä asukkaiden enemmistö tunne kotipaikkarakkautta, mikä kuvastuisi perinteiden kunnioittamisessa.


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Mad, bad, and sad – just a road in Pasila

Dear reader,

Do you recall JHJ getting rather hot under the collar about the comprehension-defying prospect of a new major road flooding Helsinki’s lovely peninsula with ever more cars? About a year ago on this very blog?

Driving a massive road through an as-yet-unbuilt residential area is crazy on any number of grounds. Articulate critical voices in the blogosphere and even, amazingly, on the letters page of Helsingin Sanomat on 16.4.2013 have made that much clear.

Blog posts today, e.g. here and here, indicate that friends of progressive transport planning in Helsinki are simply dumbfounded.

Trailing behind everyone else once again, Helsinki is about to build a brand new road including an enormous underpass. Nothing of this scale exists here yet.

Where such massive underpasses for cars do exist, they tend to be liked by drivers (from other places) in a hurry. Most other people fear and loathe them. Some cities are turning them back into useful spaces for real people, reconnecting neighbourhoods that were earlier disconnected by … er… roads like the proposed Veturitie.

Veturitie KSV 4.2013

And this also feels like a grim day for democracy in Helsinki. As massive a road as this in this place, with its patchwork of land ownership, and with the superlative-defying monetary, spatial and human resources that are being poured into the vast “regeneration exercise” of which it is a part, must have been pushed through the system (even in as complacent a city as Helsinki) by dedicated and big-stakes behind-the-scenes horsetrading.

Unfortunately, unlike at, say King’s Cross in London, where local residents took up arms and waged battles for years and years, here Helsinki’s planners and politicians are in the fortunate position (disastrous for future generations as it may be) of working in an area that is almost tabula rasa.

Mad, bad and sad.



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Sceneries of Helsinki – Adieu on this snowy Independence Day

If you are interested in how ideals congeal into matter, and if you appreciate that a seven-storey building can be “human-sized”, do come and visit Helsinki.

But whether you’re here or just planning a visit, make sure to enjoy it before it’s too late. The “pressure” to build (particularly on the water) is producing a stunning list of new and attractive opportunities for the building sector. The Planning Department’s webpage contains so much architectural and planning dross it makes me weep.

From redesigning the rural idylls of Östersundom and the fast-growing suburbs to the east, to the bombastic dullness of the other so-called New Helsinki zones, up the high-rise-hotel (a new symbol for Helsinki?!) on the western edge of the peninsula, and down to the wrangle over a helicopter pad in Hernesaari … our enormous Planning Department must be a hive of activity.

Presumably everywhere architecture and construction have sped up through computer-aided technology and politics-to-suit-the-rich. The craze for big and showy in Helsinki is also capitalizing on the genuine problem that Helsinki’s land-use is wasteful by European standards (as even Wikipedia will tell you). So as they turn over more and more of the city to speculative building, the usual suspects (Kokoomus politicians like young Mr Männistö who heads the planning committee, for example) have at their disposal a machine more powerful than ever with which to smother the city with monuments to today’s impatient capitalism, but also a vaguely green-sounding argument for building high.

Ei ole symboliksi

Can protesters and activists keep up? They are beginning to try. Some have stepped up their campaigns with letters to the planning department and to editors (if you have access to Helsingin Sanomat you can follow an interesting exchange here), and with new websites and blogs.

A unbuilt

Perhaps the new little exhibition at the Architecture Museum, Unbuilt Helsinki, is also a kind of protest. Maybe. I’d describe it as difficult art. But it is based on a larger, longer project that might yield some stories yet, about how the choices were once made that created the city we  still love.

Is there any point in trying to resist? Haven’t the rich always shaped the city?

Probably. But I can’t believe the rich have always been this stupid or careless. In this little gem of a city we appear to have rich folks who can’t distinguish a fine skyscraper from an a architectural erectile dysfunction.

And, to give me the excuse to share this bit of silliness (below), Helsinki’s rich presumably also think a good evening’s eating out might have some connection to forest sceneries. I think, Helsinki, we have a massive problem on our hands.A21 menu

A21 sceneries

If, dear reader, you have any thoughts on the design of future Helsinki that haven’t been taken up on this blog, or that should be taken in new directions, I’d love to know. The thing is, I’m not going away, but I think this blog should now wind up. It’s time for something more serious.

Thank you so much for reading. JHJ.

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