Architect Vesa Honkonen has been involved in the Kiasma project all the way through the difficult start to polishing the details. The first architectural drawings were brought to light in New York, at Steven Holl's office in 1993. Early winter in 1996, a zinc arch emerged in the heart of Helsinki and a few years later, in February 1998, the arch metamorphosed into the Museum of Contemporary Art. Honkonen has been Steven Holl's right hand man in Finland; the one who oversaw and made certain that the building evolved according to the drawings.
Does Kiasma match the original plan?
Kiasma corresponds with the original plan remarkably well. The whole idea emerged from Steven Holl's water colour and that atmosphere remains. The greatest achievement is that spiritually, Kiasma is still the same building as it was at the beginning. Steven has noticed that, practically speaking, no major compromises were made. I used to wonder whether it was even possible to start from a rather idealistic, spiritual level. Kiasma now has me convinced that it is indeed possible to practice high-quality, exciting architecture in this country, once the bits fall into place. This gives me the confidence to stand up for my beliefs.
Did you ever feel that certain aspects in the projects were impossible to implement?
Didn't you say that the heated debate on the subject had no influence on the planning at all. The planning was determined by the ultimate result: a good building. This was yet another front involving disagreements. If we had received a notice announcing the discontinuation of the building project, that would have been it. But one cannot go on planning something good while thinking "this may never be built at all". Optimism must be the starting point for design. I may be called a hypocrite for saying this now, but right from the beginning I had faith that this building was going to be built. The forces behind the project were just so powerful.
One starting point - and a challenge of course - was that the building was meant to be a forum for art.
In this sense, planning an "art institution" is very fruitful: the customer's attitude is congenial and they understand the aspirations of the architect. The work then becomes a real challenge; the building must also be of high quality in the terms of art. Thus we take a different approach when designing an 'ordinary' building. It is a real challenge to create an impressive building which can be described both a good space in itself and yet does not overwhelm art.
In your opinion, was there any need to artificially lower the profile?
Architecture is alive and well in Kiasma. During the 1970s and 1980s, the architectural tendency was to evade responsibility by leaping gleefully into black boxes and malleable spaces. In my opinion, this is simply turning one's back on the problem, not solving it. Presently, this is not a reality any more: first we returned to the traditional gallery types and Kiasma is something even newer. The planner must have the courage to solve problems.
This has been an Ostrobothnian (contractor) and American (planning) joint project. How was this evident in the process?
There were 12 people, representing eight nationalities, on our New York team. We had a group of Finnish architects in Finland who had little opportunity to be in New York. And yet we were involved with a building which was exceptional in the terms of many decisions, things were being done in a different way intellectually. It always took a couple of months for each newcomer to catch on. We questioned the traditional order of doing things, i.e., thinking that they might not be connected at all. Many planners and builders are used to certain routines until they realise these routines are unnecessary. Teaching this to every project member was one of the challenges. For example, the materials may be the same but the attitude is completely different: shiny aluminium surfaces are rubbed down with sand paper to enliven the surface, even though the surface itself is no longer significant but represents something else. In other words, the basic aesthetic starting point is out of ordinary.
Has the fact that the contractor was an Ostrobothnian - people often described as serious and stubborn - contributed to the final result?
Yes (laughter). There were quite a few disagreements and disputes, but then again the desire to cooperate has been a major force in this project. And when an Ostrobothnian decides to do something, he'll get the job done right. This has been definitely an advantage.
What is the corner stone of Kiasma architecture?
Steven has often said that the building has to be experienced through senses, that one must walk through it: Kiasma could be described as a movement in space. The proportions of spaces and series of spaces become materialised through sounds, smells and materials, while one walks through the space. Organising space invites movement into space. A good example of this is the appeal of the lobby, which arches beyond one's vision. Another important factor is light. Light has been described as the most important building material in Kiasma. One must always start from scratch, a meaning is given by defining the limits through which the space is born. After this one turns to details and materials. Even these remain insignificant if the space is a failure. It is emblematic of Steven's architecture that it does not suffocate the building with too much detail, but rather adds details in meaningful places; such as when rough or uneven encounter razor-sharpness.
And opposites like colours, materials...
At the moment I am studying opposites. Such as silence and sound. Two sounds give meaning and duration to silence, they make it significant. This holds true also in lightning design; the darkness is the starting point, light gives darkness a rhythm, life and meaning. And in the same space, these elements create meaning to emptiness. Besides these, the texture of materials is important to him. The materials are carefully considered, well-studied and applicable.
Does Kiasma symbolise something eternal, something to attain?
Maybe it is not only a question of architecture alone but life in general? If we go in a roundabout way, I have come closest to the notion of eternity while viewing artist Richard Serra's work made of large iron ellipses. I was impressed by his architecture. His work connected me to a faraway place...somewhere at the beginnings. It was the best church I have ever visited. Somehow the connection with the archetypes had succeeded. Serra amply described this in the exhibition catalogue by saying that through his work, he wants to simply represent what we are. I think that Kiasma has - like all good architecture - something that defies explanation, which is somehow connected to the 'eternal truths'. For example, the golden mean is something that cannot be undermined. The proportional world of Kiasma space is loosely based on that principle. Although I speak with a certain bias, I would still like to say that the basic details are good, but they do not interfere with the most important thing: space and the expression of space concepts.
What about the external appearance?
In my opinion it is a remarkably fine interpretation of the rendezvous of different city coordinates and other forces. Kiasma is a hinge which does not restrict future planning. For example, if Kiasma were a right-angled building, that would be a clear statement. Building based on corners would determine the continuation. Kiasma defines the place without restricting the future.
What would be the general significance of Kiasma in a wider sphere of architecture?
Considering all building projects around the world over the past few years, whether complete or incomplete, I must say that Kiasma has received a wide media coverage just about everywhere. Whether this is significant or not, time will tell. Unfortunately, imitators probably build quasi-Kiasmas but those buildings will be of no importance. Kiasma has hardly initiated a style trend, but one could use it as a thinking model. Ultimately, the most important thing is that the relationship between art and people and the awareness of art becomes more pronounced. It is essential to remember why Kiasma was built in the first place: as a museum. Kiasma has succeeded if it functions convincingly, in other words, the ball is in the court of the museum staff.
Turning now to your personal feelings, could you describe your greatest joys and deepest sorrows?
I have experienced them both, many times. The best moment was to see that here it is, at last. In retrospect, it is hard to believe that it was actually built. I cannot point out any specifically bad moments, but there have been many difficult situations during the project. Then again, when one has a problem, one has to solve it and we just cannot wallow in misery. Finns occasionally find this a bit of a problem.
Isn't that rather an American way of thinking, being positive?
It might be, but it certainly helps.
I read somewhere that you have trained Steven to understand melancholy?
The translation was wrong. The term I used was 'medium misery'. I have written an article about the Finnish tango which is based on the supposition - I tried to explain this to Steven - that the highest state of Finnish happiness is actually medium misery. One could even say your basic state is misery, the moment when you feel miserable - and this is mostly based on my study on the tango lyrics. If you encounter happiness it is the worst thing that can happen since there is no other alternative than to lose that happiness, and to lose it fast. So, the best thing is to dream about happiness and to go on with your medium misery. This can be very fortunate for Finns since when you feel like this, your fall can never be too steep. The time in New York gave a good perspective for studying Finnish culture. Listening to Finnish tangos in + 40 C heat .... a very interesting experience indeed.
This leads us neatly to the opening exhibition of Kiasma which is called, according to a well-known Finnish tango, This side of the Ocean. What is your favourite tango?
I like many tangos and I do appreciate tango music: I regard them as a good manifestation of culture. A favourite? One of them is the song 'Stars above the Sea' by Unto Mononen, it is a more traditional type of tango dealing with longing. In this tango the object of longing is, however, within reach: "My white boat hurries / towards the distant island of yours..."
Does the architecture in Kiasma kindle a feeling or a way of thinking?
Kiasma provides frames for mental states and thinking. Kiasma does not encourage to experience feelings of misery, but one is free to roam around even when feeling medium misery.