Alumni Spotlight: Asmo Jaaksi

In the new Alumni Spotlight series we invite alumni from our residency program to discuss their current projects. We sat down with Asmo Jaaksi, our architect-in-residency alumnus, and head architect of the newly opened Amos Rex museum in Helsinki, Finland.

Amos Rex is the newcomer of Helsinki’s museum district, an area in which some of the capital’s most notable museums such as Ateneum, the Helsinki Art Museum HAM, and Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma are located within a half-mile radius from each other. With its elegant combination of 1930’s and modern building structures, as well as the playful dome-shapes that dot its courtyard, Amos Rex manages to bring something completely new into the mix.

“Every designing process is one of a kind, but Amos Rex definitely stands out from all of the projects that I have been involved in”, Asmo Jaaksi describes. “The location, for instance, couldn’t have been more central.”

 Amos Rex 20180708  Amos Anderson museo, Helsinki

A team from Helsinki-based architecture office JKMM, lead by Jaaksi, was commissioned to start the planning process of Amos Rex in 2012. The new museum continues the legacy of the now-defunct Amos Anderson Museum, that was founded in 1965 by the successful Finnish-Swede businessman Amos Anderson. It functioned in a turn-of-the-century apartment building just a stonecast away from the new museum site, for over half a century until it was shut down in 2017. The second installment of the museum found its home in and around the functionalist Lasipalatsi glass and concrete building, completed in 1936. Arguably one of the most iconic architectural landmarks in Helsinki, the layers of time are vividly present in the building as well as the courtyard outside, both of which are protected.

The strict protection of the Lasipalatsi building and the area around it presented the architects with a unique challenge. Early on it was also determined that the floorplan and structures of the old glass building would simply not be sufficient for the demands of a modern museum and exhibitions. Since placing a new building on the courtyard was out of the question, only one possible solution remained: the exhibition halls would have to be built underground, under the old courtyard. The Lasipalatsi building would be restored and host the museum’s entrance hall as well as a recreational area with cafes and shops.

 Amos Rex 20180912  Amos Anderson museo, Helsinki

“I never considered the challenges posed by the historic building site as restricting, quite the opposite: they forced me to come up with solutions that maybe weren’t so obvious”, Jaaksi remarks. “It’s often more rewarding to work within a certain set of limitations that challenge your imagination because a completely blank page makes it easier to fall for the easier, more conventional choices.”

The architect didn’t want to merely design a museum, but to contribute something even more to the city. To him, Amos Rex proposes an exciting opportunity to enrich and refresh the whole city culture of Helsinki. Jaaksi was inspired by the buzz of the art world that he experienced in New York during his residency period in 2013.

At that time, the Amos Rex project had only just begun, and Jaaksi spent his time sketching ideas and exploring the stimulating museum- and gallery architecture in New York – the Dia: Beacon museum and MoMA PS1, to name a few, especially made an impression. He sees residency programs as vital to architects since it gives them a chance to really immerse themselves in the architecture of a city, instead of just seeing it in passing.

One of the top priorities of the Amos Rex designing process was the careful restoration of the Lasipalatsi building, which also hosts the now-reopened movie theatre Bio Rex, that lent the new museum the second part of its name. The architectural team painstakingly analyzed the color choices and materials used in the old building and created a new color scheme around them.

“We tried to find and bring back to life that 1930’s atmosphere and feeling.”

Between the old and the new lies the museum’s entrance hall, which clean lines, minimalistic details and muted color palette of black and white are designed to act as a palate cleanser. It provides the visitors with a moment to calm their senses before they leave the historic Lasipalatsi building and descend underground into the museum’s exhibition halls.

“I wanted to create a strong contrast to mark the visitors’ transition between the old and the new parts of the building”, Jaaksi tells.

Despite its rich history, the Amos Rex museum first and foremost looks into the future.

This is clearly visible in every detail of the underground exhibition halls. The architects were commissioned to create a flexible space that would be easily malleable to accommodate a wide variety of different kinds of exhibitions. Asmo Jaaksi’s team’s answer to the request was to keep the underground space as open as possible, with three large exhibition rooms that can easily be divided into smaller spaces with the help of light, moving walls. The large width of the halls was made possible by dome-like structures. They allowed the construction of wide roofs without the aid of pillars, which would have constricted the view.

The flexibility of the Amos Rex museum has already been proven with the opening exhibition by Tokyo-based art collective teamLab (currently on display until January 2019), whose immersive digital installations “have completely transformed the space and made it their own”, Jaaksi describes.

The rounded, hollow roofs underground are mirrored on the outside by large spherical domes that rise from the Lasipalatsi square and create a curious lunar landscape in the middle of the city. The shapes are futuristic, yet organic-looking, and will without a doubt become the most instantly recognizable visual element of the new museum.

Here, too, the theme of duality is present: the domes feature skylights that allow the visitors in the exhibition halls to view the city above, or the passers-by on the street to catch a glimpse of the artworks displayed below. To Jaaksi, it was important to create a link between the underground museum space and the city around it. Still, even he didn’t anticipate quite how popular the domes would become among the children.

“At any given time, you’ll find five to ten kids climbing on top of the domes. It’s great to see that the domes seem to be inspiring them to experience the city in a totally new way.”

Photos 1, 3, 4 and 7: Mika Huisman; photos 2, 5 and 6: Tuomas Uusheimo

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