Kiasma (1992-1998) is Helsinki’s Contemporary Art Museum. Like Saarinen’s Central Railway Station, a competition was held to pick a design for the new art space in Helsinki. The winner, Steven Holl, was the sole architect of international renown to enter from the United States.
This building’s name and philosophy are based on the term chiasma (in Greek, χίασμα), meaning “crossing.” From Holl’s website:
“The concept of Kiasma involves the building’s mass intertwining with the geometry of the city and landscape which are reflected in the shape of the building. An implicit cultural line curves to link the building to Finlandia Hall while it also engages a ‘natural line’ connecting to the back landscape and Töölö Bay.”
The architecture may look familiar for those of you who have visited Cranbrook’s campus. Holl also designed and built the Cranbrook Institute of Science (1993-1998).
Holl’s consideration of human scale and the light in the design imbue the space with a palpable sense of calm. Despite the height of the ceiling, the curvature of the pure white wall on the right has a cradling effect. I felt small by comparison to the overall size of the building but somehow, the division of space within the building is manageable. In Kiasma, Holl is very conscious of the placement of the building within the city and of the museum attendants within the space. When I entered this museum, I immediately left the city behind and was transported to a much more contemplative, austere space.
The experience of the light within the space also encourages reflection. Fluorescent lights illuminate individual galleries but many of the spaces like the lobby pictured above are lit mostly by natural light. The glass walls and ceilings have been sandblasted, softening the light as it enters the museum. To guarantee the natural quality of the light, the greenish tint of the glass (ferric dioxide) was also extracted. Seasonal or daily changes in the natural light are controlled electronically so the quality of the light is consistent– bright, yet indirect. While many other people were wandering around the museum, somehow the experience still felt very private and removed. By contrast, Detroit’s Museum of Contemporary Art, a renovated car dealership, is inseparable from the character and history of the city. Kiasma, on the other hand, invites an experience of contemporary art as a departure from daily life.