Monday, 25 July 2016

Helsinki - Triple Vision

Three Cultural Buildings in Helsinki

Finlandia Hall - Alvar Aalto 1961-1975
Kiasma - Stephen Holl Architects 201222
Helsinki Music Centre - Arkkitehtitoimisto LPR-Arkkitehdi 2000-2011
















Comparison of Aalto's Finlandia concert hall with two more recent neighbours exposes contrasting agendas for these urban cultural institutions

The grand sweep of Alvar Aalto’s 1960’s master plan for the northern approach to Helsinki, where the city meets Kamppi-Toolonlahti (Toolo Bay), was never realised. He proposed a major new road stacked over the rail line into the city on the east side of the bay, with views across the water to a row of new cultural buildings, of which Finlandia Hall, was the only one completed. A vast paved open space, built over layered parking and shops at the city end of the bay, was also never realised.

For many years the sculptural white marble forms of Finlandia, Aalto's competition-winning scheme for a congress centre and concert halls, have been a magisterial presence on bayside central Helsinki. The architecture is highly legible: an elevated deck built out from the smooth glacial rock of the shore, with the roof of the main auditorium fanning out above. Numerous stairs lead up from the quiet road beside the lake to the principal circulation level: a great hall dedicated to arrival, with cloak storage fronted by serpentine counters. In what feels a rather low, wide space, the ceiling takes on great importance in the definition of character. Different combinations of white finished wooden slats and Aalto-designed light fittings accent the space.

Unlike the cultural institutions lining London's South Bank, which benefit from the relatively recent British adoption of 'continental style' urban cafe culture, Finlandia is a somewhat remote destination. Without people, its foyers are dominated by awkward arrangements of chairs and drinks stands. The main auditorium shares this slightly cavernous quality. Despite the best efforts of the designers, who created a large hidden ceiling volume and quasi-technical architectural sound-reflectors and diffusers, the acoustic of the hall is not ideal. Perhaps the conflicting requirements of the original auditorium brief, for speech and music, were incompatible.

Aalto resolves the potential conflict inherent in dual-aspect cultural buildings facing both water and city with assurance, investing the city approach with a more sober character, while the dramatic auditorium roof works well within the wider context of the bay. The foyer deck sits beautifully on the sloping shore of the lake. Access down from the broad avenue leading into the city is choreographed via flights of steps through the grounds. However, between bursts of social activity around the formal programme of performances and conferences, Finlandia feels a shell, somewhat disconnected from the city, at least in terms of current British cultural expectations.

Holl Architect's Kiasma Art Gallery provides loosely functional spaces shoe-horned into a flamboyant form. Although the elevation flanking the Mannerheiminttie avenue into the city and the entrance at the narrow end of the building are well defined, the relation with the park is weak and back side is a bland curved metal wall. A narrow alley flanked by a cascading rill cuts through the middle of the building, connecting the landscaped 'front’ space with a car park at lower level. The landscape context is merely the backdrop for the sculptural gymnastics of this 'object' building.

Holl is a master of theatricality and the interior of Kiasma is a good example: an etiolated ramp extends from the entrance foyer through a warped organic interior to the upper galleries. Movement through the building and between galleries is spectacularly contrived. To their credit, the gallery curators inhabit the building that Holl has created with panache, and not only for exhibitions. During my visit, pairs of performance artists were inhabiting different spaces with an improvised choreography accompanied by abstracted vocal sounds that tested and responded to the acoustic. Like Zaha Hadid's now defunct Maxxi Gallery in Rome, the building itself is the star exhibit, feeding the appetite of international cultural tourists for ever more extraordinary architecture.

The Helsinki Music Centre, the third building in this trio, is located between the other two, not only physically, but in terms of the approach. Off-trend for a winning competition entry, with a submission entitled 'a mezza voce', the architects made the case that what was required in this context was a self-effacing ’good neighbour’, rather than another ’icon’. The completed project demonstrates that a sound brief and an astute client are essential prerequisites for a good building. The Music Centre offers a programmatic alternative to the haunting absence of activity at Finlandia and the synthetic curator-injected buzz of Kiasma: it is a mixed-used building, combining the Sibelius Music Academy with concert halls for the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Students arriving from Mannerheiminttie to attend classes animate the site; they rehearse in the main concert auditorium, which is enclosed with glass walls and around which the concert foyer spaces wrap. Internal spaces are generous. Multi-level volumes allow good connections within the building, between different activities and to the outside. The concert hall foyers include bars and restaurants, which are open during the day, and the building spills onto a generous south-facing garden terrace with park benches and cafe seating. A large building, its bulk is diminished by the tenor of its response to the different aspects: street, park, or paved approach from the city. Green-tinged glazing and pre-patinated copper cladding tie the building into the environs of the park. Thanks to this multi-faceted approach, the building feels well integrated into its context. Despite these strengths, the envelope offers a poor sense of permeability and is not very transparent, at least during the day. This creates a slightly corporate tone of exclusion rather than one of invitation. Amid the cacophony of new attention-seeking public arts buildings, the modest intentions of the 'Mezza Voce'
approach is welcome, but its voice must still be heard.
Finlandia












Finlandia













Finlandia












Finlandia













Kiasma













Kiasma













Kiasma













Kiasma













Kiasma













Helsinki Music Centre











Helsinki Music Centre













Helsinki Music Centre













Helsinki Music Centre













Helsinki Music Centre













Helsinki Music Centre



















Helsinki Music Centre













Helsinki Music Centre

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