by Keziah VikranthJul 18, 2023
The undulating urban landscape of the carefully renovated Lasipalatsi Square purposefully belies what lies beneath. Situated in the heart of Helsinki, Amos Rex museum continues the dream of Amos Anderson (1878-1961), a highly regarded Finnish philanthropist, art collector and entrepreneur. The art and architecture of Amos Rex aims to establish a synergy between old and new.
The entrance to Amos Rex, formerly Amos Anderson Art Museum (1965-2017), is through the Lasipalatsi or “glass palace”, an illustrious 1930s Functionalist pavilion comprising restaurants, shops, the Bio Rex cinema and an open square behind it. The new art galleries of Amos Rex are underground – the skylight-covered domed subterranean galleries bubble up to create a connection between the different eras.
“Integrating one of Finland’s architecturally pioneering 1930s buildings as part of the Amos Rex project has been a moving experience. By adding a bold new layer to Lasipalatsi, we feel we are connecting the past with present,” explains architect Freja Ståhlberg-Aalto, project architect of the Amos Rex Art Museum. “This radical approach to designing a museum underneath the Lasipalatsi Square was driven by the historically sensitive context of the neighbouring 19th century neo-classical barracks as well as the protected Lasipalatsi building.”
The Amos Anderson Art Museum was opened to the public as a museum exhibiting Anderson’s private collection comprising mostly 20th and 21st century Finnish art. Over the years, the temporary exhibition programme became highly regarded in Scandinavia. However, the building itself became obsolete for the diverse needs of contemporary art. Moving the new museum to Lasipalatsi Square, JKMM Architects had to keep the rich history and culture of the site at the forefront.
“The Lasipalatsi building, recognised as one of the masterpieces of Finnish Modernism, was originally built in 1936 as a temporary structure to host delegates of the 1940 Helsinki Olympics, which were postponed but eventually came to Helsinki in 1952. Three Finnish architects – Viljo Revell, Heimo Riihimäki and Niilo Kokko – designed the pavilion. The avant-garde complex housing restaurants, shops and a cinema became a cherished Helsinki landmark,” she continues.
When Lasipalatsi fell into disrepair, Helsinki residents campaigned to save the building from demolition. Their efforts led to the building being listed and renovated in the 1990s. A further period of conservation works by JKMM followed in 2016 in the run up to the Amos Rex Museum opening. “Original 1930s features restored by JKMM range from the treatment of the building’s facades, including doors and windows, to the fitted furniture and internal surfaces. External neon lighting - the first of its kind in Finland - and original interior light fixtures have been preserved,” she tells us.
As above-ground extensions were forbidden, JKMM proposed a series of underground spaces, creating an urban landscape, topped with funnel-like roofs. The underground galleries are topped with structural domes that extend into the square above. The five tile-covered hillocks with circular, angled skylights draw people towards the museum and allow them to peek into the galleries below, visually connecting the different spaces.
From below, each of the skylights is oriented towards a particular view, such as the historic chimney in the middle of Lasipalatsi Square or the exterior staircase leading to the historical Bio Rex cinema projector room. Says Ståhlberg-Aalto, “We wanted to connect the interior art world of the museum with the exterior urban space. Visitors are able to walk on or have a picnic atop the mounds, which can also be used as grandstands or stages for events.”
The Underground Hall
From a museum design point of view, the structure of the large domed galleries has enabled JKMM to shape a column-free, 2,200 square metre exhibition space. “The scale of the galleries aims at giving the visitor a breath-taking spatial experience; the ceiling domes and their historical associations create a spatial series growing in size and span in a dramatic manner as you proceed along the exhibition route. The subtle quality of light entering through the skylights of the halls is similar to that achieved through clerestory lighting,” she explains.
The roofs were cast on site using steel-reinforced concrete to create vaults that allow for wide, column-free exhibition spaces below ground. The floor of the exhibition hall is covered with tens of thousands of wooden blocks. The wooden flooring makes a reference to traditional block floors used in workshops. The ceilings are composed of thousands of aluminium discs, covered with a tactile textile hood to create a soft acoustic environment.
Stairs lead up from the exhibition hall to Lasipalatsi’s foyer where visitors enter the building through the 1930s doors of the restored Bio Rex cinema. The meticulous refurbishment of the 550-seat cinema included the original light fixtures and velvet covered seats. Together with the Lasipalatsi Pavilion, the museum complex extends to just over 13,000 square metres. “From an architectural and a cultural perspective, Helsinki’s evolving urban identity has been enriched by the Amos Rex project, a truly exciting new centre for the visual arts,” she concludes.