Why No Guggenheim Museums?

From all the countries in the world I have lived, in 2014 I chose Finland as my permanent residence for the sole reason of its high level of social welfare politics. A country, that became famous for its egalitarian society, where every citizen enjoys a good life quality.

Everyday more, Finland is succumbing to the worldwide trend of trickledown economics, allowing private wealthy individuals to take over our society, transforming the welfare into a “corporate-fare”, misleading with the white collar people’s promise.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation is at the top of the list with its schemes, conveniently labeled as a non for profit organization (but run by flamboyant billionaires like Mr. Krens), paying its executives seven-figure salaries often justified by the market scarcity of arts organizations executives. Mr. Armstrong’s salary is of 612,550 USD of declared salary.1

In 16 years at the Guggenheim, Mr. Krens, turned a modestly scaled museum — with an endowment and a collection a fraction the size of much less well-known institutions — into a global art circus, positioned conceptually somewhere between a casino and a department store.2

2015 06 23 debate day guggenheim the winnersThe 23rd June 2015, there was a debate in Helsinki about the results of the Guggenheim Museum competition for Helsinki, with a focus of if it should be built at all? This debate was organized by the Guggenheim Foundation itself, to display their open mindedness! The debate started at 16:00 on a Tuesday afternoon (not the most convenient of times) and the discussion consisted of two questions posed by two elderly people selected from the audience by the moderators yet, there was a good representation of Finnish politicians among the discussion panel.

Summarizing some of the past arguments in favor of the Museum:

“Some of the financial figures associated with the Guggenheim may appear high if you don’t recognize the long-term returns on a project such as this. Hundreds of jobs would be created, significant tax revenue would be generated and there would be an increased number of visitors to the city.” … “Finland’s art and architectural scene has an extraordinary reputation, but not necessarily a platform to share it with the wider world.” (Ari Wiseman)3

And some against: “In today’s globalized economy there’s an idea that, for a city or country to be competitive, it needs to give up its local identity. Rather than having our own national arts collection” … “National branding and regeneration projects like these commodify historic urban centres and package national culture for financial profit. They are designed to look flashy in pictures and on social media. And behind them there is usually an economic elite who had taken control of politics through lobbying and advertising. As such, they are symbols of political strength and undermine the democratic process.” (Merja Puustinen)3

Among those present, were the Deputy Mayor of the City of Helsinki, Ritva Viljanen, the winning team of the Guggenheim competition and Ari Wiseman, Guggenheim Foundation Deputy Director. Interestingly, all gathered in the lobby space of the Sanomat Building, the main Newspaper of Finland, which is famous for being a right wing one, and one of the few in the world that sells its front page fully to advertising.

After Mr. Wiseman’s “…rarely so many architectural intelligence has been gathered…” introduction text, he presented the winning architects out of the over 1700 who participated in the competition. The presenters went on nervously showing their work, still poorly convinced of their recent star status. The talk was the usual uninspiring one: “we felt this tower was needed to create a dialog between artifacts”, or the “renew the identity” or the usual inclusive jargon: “democratic space on top of the harbor”. the S.R. Guggenheim Foundation would not of course re-invite Frank Gehry, Koolhaas, or Zaha to design another failed Guggenheim.

As a quick reminder: In Rio, the Brazilian Guggenheim museum designed by Jean Nouvel would be mainly underwater, was budgeted at $250m but the deal was ruled illegal by the Rio courts. In Taiwan, this time by Zaha Hadid, with a plan to build it in the provincial city of Taichung, that has no international airport, in the hope of attracting more tourists. The city council overruled its mayor and refused to allocate funds for it.2

“The Las Vegas Guggenheim, in its Rem Koolhaas-designed rusty steel box in the bowels of the Venetian casino, opened and shut after a humiliatingly short life, and Guggenheim.com vanished in a flash of very expensive pixels. The huge, new, Gehry-designed Guggenheim on New York’s East River was cancelled. Even Bilbao saw a collapse in its visitor numbers.”2

The idea of an open competition had the logic of winning the heart of the Finns, especially relevant in Finland where open source Linux was created!

I am an architect; and I also sent a proposal to the Guggenheim competition in 2014, but saying NO to competition. By accident (or maybe not!) my proposal was on the debate billboard (middle left side, saying explosion!)

2015 06 23 debate day guggenheim billboard

So, as an architect, do you want me to evaluate the quality of the building proposed? No need at all, arguing about the building is like arguing if a steak from human flesh is well cooked. There is a wrong doing behind which must be forced into the light. Architecture and Architects must act morally and say NO to dubious contracts if its motives or the results are against one’s principles. To those who argue that it’s better to have a museum then a parking lot, please see the counter proposals for the same site, this was a parallel competition which cost 5000 Euros to us, the citizens, not the 2.5 million as the Guggenheim’s did. Here is how we can do better isn’t it?

So, instead of some tower to send out a signal to the upcoming boats like some nostalgic cheap version of the Statue of Liberty, a better signal would be sent by Finland reinforcing the distribution of its tax money to its citizens and not to the pockets of Jeff Koons. Or even supporting Helsinki’s already existing 83 museums, or even the upcoming new Amos Anderson Museum at the heart of Helsinki, which is privately funded.

Now, we had a small surprise intervention ready for this debate, but such was not necessary to put in practice. From my broken Finnish knowledge and from the after talk with Veronika Honkasalo from the Left Alliance Party (part of the debate panel), this Museum/Corporation will unlikely be built. There will still be a proposal that will soon be evaluated, but all politicians on the panel, from all wings and tails, were reluctant about it.

I am both happy and sad today. Happy because I was constantly followed by a security guard (due to my latest protests), because of the two elderly women flirting with me in the audience and because I acted morally.

BIG-Gang (2)I am sad because my fellow architects are losing all ethics. Back in April, I asked Bjarkels Ingels and Janne Gang to donate their starchitect’s fees to support the parallel discussion of nexthelsinki, for the promotion of democracy and equality of opportunities (read the letter here). YES, Guggenheim invited these two to give a warm speech on how to do architecture, and NO, none of them donated any of their fees nor replied to our requests (I did give the letter to Bjarkel personally!). Hedonistic sustainability so says BIG but for a single few, I may add!

I am also sad that my University where I teach and research (Aalto University) has been a partner of the Guggenheim Foundation, and it seems, in favor of it. Something needs to be done! And here I am biting the hand that feeds it.

2015 Guggenheim competition in kallio by kids (3)But luckily Guggenheim oversaw the 3rd parallel competition ongoing on Kallio (see right), otherwise a new Bilbao effect would have arisen, which is, according to the scholar Michael Guggenheim, “the fetishistic belief that a city can build a single building with somewhat eccentric shapes, built by a famous architect, and that such a building can change a whole region.”

Now that aside, now that Guggenheim will be out of Suomi, what we should be asking is:

How was this allowed to happen?

Who pays the exploited 1700 architects? (I start to wonder of the legality of such competitions!)

Who pays the over 2.5 million euros this debate has cost?

Is it legal what Guggenheim is doing?

They have been bullying cities all over the world for years to build their franchises and enforcing competitions. Isn’t this a Human rights violation, energy waste, speculation, incitement of corruption…? (Certainly not legal is the workers exploitation in Abu Dhabi’s construction site!)

Despite all its frantic activity, the Guggenheim could not generate enough revenue to stabilise its budget. It has been forced into a constant search for new sources of cash. They have no endowment to speak of – it’s been spent to meet the running costs, which has left it very fragile. It’s a vulnerable institution.2

Ladies and Gentlemen this was a warning sign to Finnish democracy.

In order for Finland to get its hands cleaned from this shameful process, and be again proud of its welfare state, we must make the people responsible accountable and improve the political system to prevent such closed door negotiations to happen again, as a clear sign that in Finland, we protect the citizens and/with transparency. No society is static and these moments are valuable for us individuals, to collectively improve our social contract.

  • All Photos and Graphics by P. Aibéo and Andre Vicente.
    1. “Richard Armstrong, current director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and Museum, received $612,550 in his first full year in the post, according to the tax return.” Katya Kazakina and Philip Boroff, “Guggenheim Pays Former Director Triple Salary of Current Chief,” Bloomberg, 22 November 2010. []
    2. Deyan Sudjic, “Is this the end of the Guggenheim dream?Guardian, 23 January 2005. [] [] [] []
    3. Ari Wiseman versus Merja Puustinen views in Iconeye. [] []
    Pedro Aibéo is a trained Design Architect (M.Sc., Dipl. Ing., TU Darmstadt, Germany) and Civil Engineer (M.Sc., Licenciatura, FEUP, Porto) with over 50 buildings designed and built on 15 countries currently practicing at "AIBEO architecture". He is also a Kone Säätiö Research Fellow, a Visiting Associate Professor at UNAM University, Mexico and at Wuhan University of Technology, China, and a Lecturer, Research Assistant and Doctoral Candidate at Aalto University, Finland on "Architectural Democracy". Read other articles by Pedro.