Lumpy cultural space

Helsinki will soon have a new live music venue (as even BBC listeners will know). The media are preoccupied meanwhile with the possibility of more new architecture to house the arts on the expanse of land between the Railway station and Töölö Bay. A hodge-podge of attempts at iconic buildings is a real possibility, at least if the letters pages to the usual suspects are to be believed.

Meanwhile it’s not the container but the contents of the art that’s preoccupying Helsinki’s art world. While the Ateneum (built 1887) drew in punters by the coach-load to see Pablo Picasso’s super-famous works, in 2009 it seems almost all other exhibition spaces saw their visitor numbers decline – and massively. Feast or famine …

For instance, Emma, the Espoo Museum of Modern Art, which has a disused former industrial space in which to display a permanent collection as well as variously interesting visiting shows, had half the number of visitors in 2009 compared to 2008 (Below the work by sculptor Raimo Utriainen in front its main entrance). Helsingin Sanomat 5.2.2010 reports similar figures for other shows in the capital region.

Surely this can’t be good news. But Helsinki isn’t alone in suffering – we think that’s the correct word – from this kind of spatial lumpiness. Some places are packaged as a must-see cultural experience. If they are successful in their efforts, the momentum of positive feedback – media coverage – will accelerate and reach the whole tourist world in no time. No wonder some places get swamped while others get overlooked. (Interactive media, the communications mode of choice in a do-it-yourself economy, is partly to blame, but let others deal with that!)

Swooping ever so briefly beyond Finland’s borders, not to Bilbao, famous for its great container of art, but to London, famous for, well, art and stuff. Most of which could, for decades, be found north of the Thames (excepting Dulwich Picture Gallery, but that was almost in the country when it was built in 1811.) For historical reasons the South Bank of the Thames was left to industry and poverty. Herzog and de Meuron, the Swiss duo (who so upset some folks in Helsinki) did something quite remarkable there when helped “revitalise” the South Bank of the Thames with the Tate Modern in 2000. It is a beautiful art space and a source of justified pride. The old Bankside power station built there by Giles Gilbert Scott was a great piece of architecture in itself, perfectly situated across from St Pauls. (Let’s be frank, nobody was ever going to allow anything as prosaic as a power station to be constructed there).

But the Tate has been TOO successful. The original redesign by Herzog and de Meuron made brilliant use of the old space with minimal and always respectful changes to the industrial building. Now, as architecture writer Hugh Pearman argues, it’s as if folks want to come to the Tate not to look at the art, but just because everyone else does. Result? An extension is being built, to designs by the same architects, which, JHJ in its rather conservative mood, fears will detract from the thing that made the “original” so appealing – its ingenious and life-embracing reuse of a box-like, calma and a few decades old, but not demolition-ready, piece of great industrial architecture.

Also a former power station, Suvilahti in Helsinki may become another cultural centre to “regerate” post-industrial waste. Though plans are still very much open. The venue is certainly wonderful, even if it is hemmed in by motorway on one side and water on the other.

It does make one think what a weird world we live in, where spaces are either to neglected they’re thought of as wasted, or so vaunted that the only way to enjoy them is as part of a crowd.

Or was the lack of crowds in  Finnish venues besides the Ateneum just a symptom of recession?



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2 responses to “Lumpy cultural space

  1. Pingback: Plenty of theres there in Helsinki « Jees Helsinki Jees

  2. Pingback: Guggenheimful of resentment | Jees Helsinki Jees

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