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Kiasma Museum

of Contemporary
Steven Holl

ARCH 461 Prof Emad Afifi Jesus Pineda

Helsinki, Finland
Demand for a contemporary art museum in Helsinki arose as early as
the 1960s, although debates on just how to create one delayed
decisive action for three decades. It wasn’t until 1990 that the Museum
of Contemporary Art opened to the public, and even then it was in a
temporary setting. A design competition for a new, permanent
museum launched in the autumn of 1992; the following year, Steven
Holl’s entry, entitled “Chiasma,” was selected from over 515 other
“An anatomical intersection”
Light as a Material
Art and People Light and Shade
The curved roof of the building is made of solid zinc with just a few tenths of a per
cent of titanium and copper. As the metal ages, it acquires a slightly darker patina.
The vertical windowless elevations are made of aluminium, which is resistant to the
maritime climate in Helsinki. They were sandpapered by hand with horizontal strokes,
giving the aluminium a surface that refracts light.
There are reddish surfaces on the south and north elevations of the building. These
are made from acid-reddened textured brass, treated with heat and chemicals.
The building’s big curved glass wall is made from Reglit glass u-blocks, which are
mainly used in industrial buildings. The greenish element has been removed from the
building’s glass walls and gallery windows in order to ensure that the light entering the
building is natural daylight. Most of the glass surfaces are sandblasted, using
aluminium oxide or silicon dioxide instead of sand. This creates a prismatic surface
that refracts the light beautifully. The other glazed walls are steel curtain walls.
The walls and ceilings are of white plaster, with the aim of creating tranquillity and
The floor is dark grey, almost black, concrete. The high curved concrete wall of the
foyer is concrete cast in a horizontal board mould and painted white.
The walls of Kiasma Theatre are reddish plywood. The control booth is upholstered in
fabric that gives the impression of dark blue velvet.
Holl conceived a building where light plays an
emotional, along with a functional, role. Nordic
countries light differs from that of any other place:
it changes substantially through the seasons and in
Finland can frequently be an horizontal beam
entering the buildings from directions that are
uncommon at southern latitudes. Thus the core of
the building, a narrow internal space dominated a
the long curved ramp connecting the lobby with
the exhibition galleries, that would otherwise be
very dark, is illuminated through a glass ceiling.
This provides a vertical illumination that, also due
to the curved wall enclosing the space,
dramatically evolves during the times of day.

Visitors enter the museum through a spacious

lobby with a glazed ceiling. This lobby serves as the
starting point for stairways, ramp, and corridors
that curve off to lead into the rest of the building.
The gallery spaces are characterized by the
architect as “almost rectangular,” each containing
one curved wall. This irregularity differentiates
each successive space, creating a complex visual
and spatial experience as visitors pass through the
museum galleries. The initial impression is that of
the typical closed-in, placeless museum interior;
however, it is only by moving through each space
that one discovers various unexpected views to the
outside. This choreographed outward focus,
combined with the irregular forms of the interior,
creates what Holl called “a variety of spatial
Holl worked with more than pure massing and windows to give each space its own unique
character. Natural light was an important consideration – Holl was fascinated by the
constantly changing character of Finland’s daylight.[9] Many of the windows in Kiasma are
composed of translucent glazing, which diffuses the Scandinavian sunlight as it enters the
interior. The staccato rhythm of city views is achieved by the occasional inclusion of fully
transparent glass – both as a narrow crescent that allows a view to Helsinki Station and as full
curtain-wall facades at the north and south ends of the building’s volumes.[10]

Light also permeates Kiasma through an abundance of skylights. More than simple punctures
in the ceiling, the skylights work with the curving, irregular lines of the building to turn light
into a sculptural element in itself. Horizontal ‘light-catching’ sections along the ceilings and
upper walls deflect and diffuse light from skylights and clerestory windows down into the
museum spaces; this system allows natural light from a single roof opening to penetrate
through and illuminate multiple levels