New York/Paris - The Guggenheim has become something of a brand over the years, with satellite locations in Venice, Italy, and Bilbao, Spain, and one planned in Abu Dhabi. Now, the museum's proposed branch in Helsinki is a step closer to reality, with the selection of a design which features charred timber and glass punctuated by a lighthouse-like tower overlooking South Harbor.
It is still uncertain whether the design - by the husband-and-wife firm Moreau Kusunoki Architectes - founded four years ago in Paris, will be accepted by its surrounding city, which has been bitterly divided over the project, largely because of concerns over its price of about US$147 million (S$197.3 million).
The winning design, titled Art In The City and announced at the Palace Hotel in Helsinki on Tuesday, was chosen from 1,715 anonymous submissions in a year-long competition which the jury's chairman said had been improved by the controversy.
"Architecture should always be incubated within debate," said chairman Mark Wigley, a professor and dean emeritus of the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University. "Public money especially should never be taken for granted."
The design features a series of connected pavilions and plazas organised around an interior street. The tower is connected to the nearby Observatory Park by a pedestrian footbridge and served by a harbour promenade.
"It kind of undoes the monumentality of most museums," Prof Wigley said, adding that the main concern of the 11-member jury "was to find a design that was open to an evolution - that wasn't frozen in its own beauty - because for sure this project will change".
The architects said they had tried to integrate the design of the building into the existing landscape of forest and sea and to use indigenous materials.
"Our approach was to try to make a building that is closely linked with the city, with the way people use it," said Mr Nicolas Moreau, who founded the firm with his wife Hiroko Kusunoki .
Public support for the project has been modest and some claimed that the winning design would draw criticism because of the height of the main tower and its dark colouring.
"The slogan for our city is 'Daughter of the Baltic' or 'The White City of the North'," said
Mr Eric Adlercreutz, a Helsinki architect who did not participate in the competition. "This winning entry has black wood as its major material. What they build in the South Harbor should not disturb our main landmarks of the Lutheran church and the Russian church."
Newspaper polls in 2011 showed that most residents opposed the project and local artists objected to the idea that the new Guggenheim would absorb the existing Helsinki City Art Museum. However, the mayor of Helsinki and pro-business advocates have supported the museum as an engine of economic development.
A Helsinki-funded report by the Boston Consulting Group estimated that it could generate US$56 million a year and create jobs. However, opponents have questioned whether its construction cost is too great to be borne by the state and federal governments. The Bilbao construction cost US$98 million.
Efforts to build the museum have been plagued with funding problems and political opposition since a 2011 proposal was dropped due to financial concerns. The city board will review the project again now that the final design has been selected.
So far, a local Helsinki fund-raising foundation has collected only about US$11 million for the project, according to Mr Osku Pajamaki,
vice-chairman of the city's executive board, which will decide whether to proceed with the project, and several political parties are pressing for more private investment.
Mr Pajamaki said it appeared that the winning design would dominate the harbour despite pledges to fit it into the environment of Helsinki's neo-Classical architecture facing the area.
"The symbol of the lighthouse is arrogant in the middle of the historical centre," he said. "It's like you would put a Guggenheim museum next to Notre Dame in Paris. People are approaching from the sea and the first thing that they will see is that the citizens of Helsinki bought their identity from the Guggenheim."
As the winner, Moreau Kusunoki will receive a cash award of about US$113,000. Submission materials from all entrants are available on the competition's website, which has more than four million page views.
New York Times