In­side Helsinki’s ethe­real un­der­world

The Fin­nish cap­i­tal’s Amos Rex mu­seum is a colos­sal art bunker, dis­cov­ers Oliver Wain­wright

The Guardian Weekly - - Culture -

Bulging white mounds rear up out of the ground in the mid­dle of Helsinki, taper­ing to cir­cu­lar win­dows that point like cy­clo­pean eyes around the square. Chil­dren scram­ble up the steep slopes while a skate­boarder at­tempts to glide down one, past a cou­ple pos­ing for a selfie at the sum­mit.

This cu­ri­ous land­scape sig­nals the ar­rival of Amos Rex, a €50m ($58m) art mu­seum for the Fin­nish cap­i­tal, which opened last week in a subter­ranean space be­neath a former bus sta­tion park­ing lot.

“It is as if the mu­seum didn’t quite agree to go un­der­ground,” says Asmo Jaaksi of lo­cal architecture firm JKMM, which mas­ter­minded the project, “and it’s some­how bub­bling up into the square.”

Be­neath the lumpy land­scape stretches a gar­gan­tuan 2,200 sq m flex­i­ble ex­hi­bi­tion space, which has been clev­erly ex­ca­vated in the cen­tre of town, be­tween a former army bar­racks and the Lasi­palatsi, or glass palace, a 1930s en­ter­tain­ment and re­tail com­plex. This glory of Fin­nish func­tion­al­ism has been im­mac­u­lately re­stored, with time­warp in­te­ri­ors of fleshy sal­mon col­umns, a sweep­ing spi­ral stair­case and spher­i­cal glass light fit­tings that dan­gle like clumps of frogspawn from bright-red and blue ceil­ings. Its 500-seat cin­ema is a won­der, with chrome-edged red up­hol­stered seats, fly­ing saucer lamps and pleated mus­tard-coloured cur­tains. Out­side, the build­ing’s former boil­er­house chim­ney stands proudly in the cen­tre of the new square with a nau­ti­cal air, like the fun­nel of a ship now cast adrift in the churn­ing sea of paved mounds.

De­signed by three rad­i­cal young ar­chi­tects when they were still stu­dents, the Lasi­palatsi was in­tended to be tem­po­rary, giv­ing them a freer rein and al­low­ing them to in­cor­po­rate such de­tails as the first out­door neon sign in Fin­land. Eighty years on, the white build­ing pro­vides a stylish foil to the fu­tur­is­tic un­der­world that JKMM has con­cocted.

En­ter­ing off the city’s main Man­ner­heim­intie av­enue, vis­i­tors are greeted with a big pic­ture win­dow that frames one of the new mounds in the square be­yond be­fore de­scend­ing a broad stair­case to a bright white foyer. The ceil­ing is cov­ered with spi­rals of white il­lu­mi­nated fab­ric that gen­tly throb, giv­ing the im­pres­sion of be­ing be­neath some ethe­real cloud canopy (a wel­come sight in Helsinki’s dark win­ter months), while two great con­i­cal voids plunge down from the pi­azza, fram­ing views of sur­round­ing build­ings through their cir­cu­lar win­dows.

“Art used to be some­thing you hung on the wall and went re­spect­fully to con­tem­plate,” says the mu­seum’s di­rec­tor, Kai Kar­tio. “To­day it is in­creas­ingly in­ter­ac­tive and con­ver­sa­tional, some­thing peo­ple make and ex­pe­ri­ence to­gether. We re­alised that, if we wanted to meet the chal­lenges of the fu­ture, we had to have some­thing dif­fer­ent from our charm­ing old of­fice build­ing.”

The re­sult­ing space feels like a group of con­joined cir­cus tents that form a sin­gle un­du­lat­ing ceil­ing above the ex­pan­sive hall, clad in a con­tin­u­ous skin of cir­cu­lar white disks, and soar­ing up and swoop­ing down from the gap­ing round roof-lights. Or at least that’s what you would see if the place hadn’t been di­vided up and blacked out for the open­ing ex­hi­bi­tion, Mass­less, a vir­tual-re­al­ity spec­tac­u­lar by Ja­panese group TeamLab.

It is an odd de­ci­sion to launch an airy top-lit gallery with a black-box in­stal­la­tion, but the in­ter­ac­tive, hi-tech bo­nanza prom­ises to be a crowd­puller. Fea­tur­ing 140 pro­jec­tors, and an en­tire room of su­per­com­put­ers and servers, the series of hyp­notic en­vi­ron­ments trans­ports you to another realm. A “dig­i­tal ecosys­tem” of but­ter­flies, frogs and geckos mul­ti­plies around one mir­rored labyrinthine space, the psychedelic jun­gle re­spond­ing to vis­i­tors’ move­ments. Kids can draw an­i­mals, scan them and have them added to the fairy­tale for­est; some will de­light in chas­ing these crea­tures around and stamp­ing on them to re­lease dig­i­tal splat­ters of paint. Stand still for long enough and bunches of flow­ers be­gin to bloom at your feet, min­gling with the tech­ni­colour flot­sam of pul­verised bugs.

Else­where you can mar­vel at a flock of Yata­garasu, the three-legged crows of Ja­panese myth, as they glide around an in­fin­itely black room at nau­seous speeds, weav­ing neon vapour-trails in knot­ted loops to the sound of trance mu­sic. The crescendo comes in the big­gest room of all, where the pro­gram­mers have sim­u­lated a bib­li­cal flood of wa­ter gush­ing up from the ground and spi­ralling around the con­i­cal ceil­ing in a great vor­tex, as if the whole build­ing had been tipped up­side down, the roof-light trans­formed into a mon­u­men­tal plug­hole.

Af­ter all this dig­i­tal wiz­ardry, the small room ded­i­cated to a per­ma­nent ex­hi­bi­tion of post-im­pres­sion­ist paint­ings seems like an af­ter­thought, tucked into a low-ceilinged win­dow­less space – some­thing the ar­chi­tects had to in­clude but didn’t quite know how.

Up above, more fam­i­lies are clam­ber­ing on the mounds and peer­ing in through the win­dows to get a glimpse in­side their new cul­tural bunker. The ar­chi­tects hope their slop­ing land­scape will be­come a spon­ta­neous au­di­to­rium for out­door con­certs and events, but even with­out any per­for­mances it has al­ready be­come a mag­net of ac­tiv­ity in the mid­dle of the city, whose over­sized squares of­ten feel a bit windswept. And there’s a spec­tac­u­lar gallery un­der­neath it, to boot.

‘It’s as if the mu­seum is bub­bling up into the square’: Amos Rex, Helsinki

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