Amos Rex, Helsinki by JKMM Architects
Amos Rex domes shielded with concrete tiles, urban design inviting to interact

Helsinki goes underground: Amos Rex is shortlisted for the Finlandia Architecture Award

Asmo Jaaksi, founding partner of JKMM Architects, spoke to us about the new museum designed as an extension of the 1930s iconic Lasipalatsi building. Carved under the old bus station, the irregular domes above add a sense of play to the cityscape. Below the galleries are dedicated for experimental arts. 

Asmo Jaaksi, founding partner of JKMM Architects in the entrance hall of Amos Rex ©Marianna Wahlsten
Asmo Jaaksi, head architect for the Amos Rex museum and founding partner of JKMM Architects in the entrance hall of Amos Rex, photo ©Marianna Wahlsten

How would you describe the new exhibition space, which is a bit lost now behind the hi-tech digital spectacle of the Team Lab collective, what was the key concept of the design?

The starting point is a space that would be open and adaptable. It looks very different when it’s empty. This exhibition by TeamLab takes over its boundaries, totally transforming the sense of space. It’s a vast open area with three connecting galleries, with the undulating roof structure resembling a flying carpet, which you can’t observe during the current exhibition. But perhaps in the future we’ll be able to see also exhibitions within the entire open space. And indeed, adaptability was one of the starting points for the exhibition space.

The fact of building underground, what kind of challenge was that from a design perspective?

Elsewhere there are many museums that are built underground. I didn’t see that as a challenge in itself. In fact exhibition spaces are well suited to be underground, because walls will mostly be used for displaying artworks and don’t need to have openings, and beneath the ground level it is also a protected environment. The challenge is of course to create a pleasant visitor experience. The main objective of the museum is to attract and welcome visitors so that they can enjoy whatever is exhibited. That’s probably the biggest architectural challenge, to make an underground space inviting. Of course structurally this has been a massive challenge. Not just the fact of building underground, but because it’s such a central and dense urban location with lots of traffic passing through. We had to dig deep into the terrain, which was then transformed into the underground galleries.

Installation by TeamLab, Amos Rex
Digital installation ‘Vortex of Light Particles’ (2018) by TeamLab collective, designed to respond to one of the galleries

You mentioned there are several museums build underground in other countries, did you have any specific building in mind as a reference or idea when you started working on this design?

It’s hard to point to any particular one as there are many good ones. But of course everyone knows the Louvre extension, a great example of an underground museum. That contemporary addition raised the level of attraction of a grand, historic environment in a spectacular way. Here it’s a very different situation and the entire museum concept is very different, but in wider terms there are similarities. Here also we are bringing a new era to a site, where it’s not possible to add anything on the ground level and you need to think how it can be done in an interesting way. The glass pyramid in the Louvre courtyard is of course iconic and already a classic. Here it’s all more recent, but in the same way we wanted to bring a contemporary twist to a historic site.

How do you see the underground urban development in Helsinki, where there are many routes going across the city below the ground?

It can be interesting if it helps in developing meaningful urban connections. In the design of the museum we had plans to integrate an underground train station as part of the Pisararata transport system, which would have offered direct access to the museum. In the same way as some stations in bigger cities, it could have been named after the museum. So if the underground connections help to improve and facilitate circulation, it can be very interesting. There is lots of ground below that could be developed, but of course these spaces need to be well designed in order to be attractive and functional.

Amos Rex by JKMM Architects
Stairway leading to entrance hall to the galleries, photo ©Marianna Wahlsten

Sometimes these underground routes can feel isolating and they seem a bit neglected. What’s your view on that?

Maintenance is very important, so that a sense of value remains in the new urban fabric. When we build environments of high quality, they should also inspire and generate a commitment to look after them better. So, everything starts with doing things with good intentions, that is the prerequisite for sustainable design. When environments are created in a haphazard way, they easily become neglected.

Were you concerned about the small cracks around the concrete surfaces on the mounds above?

It was expected that something like this might happen and we are keeping an eye on the issue. It’s not about climatic conditions. There is a lot of experimentation in this architectural project on many levels, where we didn’t just use previously tested models, and then there might always be something unexpected.

Amos Rex, JKMM Architects
The above domes taking over the old bus station echo with the rocky outcrops elsewhere in Helsinki, photo ©Marianna Wahlsren

The new university building Tiedekulma, also by JKMM Architects, has a very simple exterior that belies complexity inside. Is that something that you aim for?

In the long run, I’m drawn to a certain level of modesty, where the surrounding context is respected, instead of bulldozing the existing environment in order to make a big architectural gesture. At the Tiedekulma building the surrounding context is even more culturally significant than at Lasipalatsi. It’s surrounded by historic architectural layers: university buildings by Engel and then more recent by Ervi. So I felt we had to be very careful and discreet with the facades. Here around Lasipalatsi there have been more transformations, so there was also more freedom to experiment with new forms. However I feel it’s important to be considerate towards history and the environment in the long run. That’s how you can fit new architecture within temporal layers and create enduring spatial continuity in the urban fabric.

Amos Rex, ‘Massless’ by teamLab collective 30.8.2018 – 6.1.2018