Helsinki’s new subterranean art museum opens its doors Domed skylights offer tantalizing glimpses into the Amos Rex museum’s sprawling underground galleries. (Mika Huisman/Tuomas Uusheimo)
Helsinki’s new subterranean art museum opens its doors
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Finland was set to host the 1940 Summer Olympics in Helsinki. Local authorities in Helsinki granted three young architects permission to design one of the many temporary structures. The structures would would welcome visitors to the Games. 

The result was a functionalist shopping center. It had offices and restaurants. It also had a movie theater. The building soon earned the title of Lasipalatsi, or the “Glass Palace.” It was encased in seemingly endless window panels. 

On September 1, 1939, German forces invaded Poland. This began World War II. It also rescued Lasipalatsi from being torn down. That's according to Michael Hunt writing for Artnet News. The Olympics’ took a wartime hiatus and Finland saw post-war financial difficulties. Both of these events stopped Finnish officials from tearing down the Glass Palace and replacing it with a new structure. One that would have been designed specifically for the rescheduled 1952 Helsinki Olympics. Lasipalatsi endured. It became a popular local landmark. By the 1980s, the structure had become an unwelcome strain on the city’s finances.

Today, Lasipalatsi is beloved. It is profitable once more. This is thanks in large part to Amos Anderson. He is an art patron and newspaper publisher. He created the $60 million Amos Rex Museum. It is a futuristic art bunker. It is nestled beneath the Glass Palace. It opened to the public in August.

The new museum was designed by JKMM. It is a Helsinki architecture firm. That's according to The Guardian’s Oliver Wainwright. Sprawling underground galleries stretch across 23,350 square feet. Domed skylights are covered in simple geometric patterns. They dot the landscape. They pour light down to the exhibition spaces below.

The bulk of the museum rests below a square beside Lasipalatsi. It once housed Helsinki’s main bus station. That's according to Giovanna Dunmall writing for Wallpaper*. Today, all traces of this bus station have vanished. It was replaced by the sweeping curvature of the Amos Rex’s mountainous skylights.

“The biggest challenge was how to make [the museum] visible in the cityscape,” Asmo Jaaksi. He is a founding partner at JKMM. This is what he told Architectural Digest’s Nadja Sayej. “We wanted to have the square open but still draw people from aboveground to underground. So we came up with these domed forms. They try to be unto the building but not obtrusive.”

Jaaksi adds that Lasipalatsi was “very well built.” This is despite the fact that is was meant to be a temporary structure. That's according to an interview with Wallpaper*’s Dunmall. 

The Glass Palace's eclectic charm remains. Inside there are salmon-colored columns next to glass light fixtures. These jut out from red and blue ceilings. Outside is Lasipalatsi’s one-time chimney. It stands tall amidst the clustered skylights. It looks more like a lighthouse than a rudimentary ventilation system.

One of Lasipalatsi’s most notable features is the Bio Rex movie theater. It closed a decade ago. But now it has been revived in splendid fashion. It has 590 seats that are covered in vivid red fabric. It has circular ceiling lights that hover above the auditorium. It’s as if they are UFOs. They emit a steady glow to guide viewers across the space. The theater serves as the Amos Rex’s entrance. It provides passage to the galleries below. That's according to Artnet News’ Hunt.

The museum draws on foundations left by Amos Anderson. He was an art lover. His collection of 19th- and 20th-century Finnish art forms the bulk of the institution’s permanent collection. The Amos Rex was once called the Amos Anderson Art Museum. It operated out of its patron’s former home. This was prior to construction of the new space. By the 2010s, the museum was beginning to outgrow the house. It acquired the Lasipalatsi and transformed its surrounding grounds. The innovative 21st-century structure offered the ideal solution for both institutions’ organizational woes.

Oddly, Amos Rex’s inaugural exhibition makes little use of the gaping skylights overlooking its galleries. Instead, curators have opted to highlight the subterranean nature of the museum. They blocked natural light to present an immersive digital experience. It was created by Japanese art collective teamLab. The show is entitled “Massless.” It rejects materiality in favor of “dissolving the notion of mass” and creating an otherworldly environment. That's according to teamLab’s website.

“Massless,” runs through January 6, 2019. It is accompanied by a selection of post-impressionist art collected by Sigurd Frosterus. He is a Finnish architect. He is also an essayist and art critic. Future exhibitions will feature works by Amsterdam collective Studio Drift and Belgian surrealist René Magritte.

Kai Kartio is head of Amos Rex. He tells Metropolis Magazine′s George Kafka that the new structure is equipped to handle large-scale installations like “Massless.” It can also handle more traditional exhibitions.

“It’s not about just hanging things on the wall any more, or putting a sculpture to stand in the middle of a beautiful space,” Kartio explains. “We have no idea what kind of visual work we are going to be surrounded by in 20 or 30 years’ time. So we wanted a space that would be as open as possible, a space that would put as few limits on what one is able to install there as possible.”

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