Serlachius Museum Gösta, Mänttä, Finland, OBRA Architects, Beijing, Korea and New York
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Serlachius Museum Gösta

Serlachius Museum Gösta, Mänttä, Finland

The Gösta Serlachius Museum in Mantää-Vilppula on Lake Melasjärvi is part of a network of institutions dedicated to the arts that, for its range and reach constitutes one of the great cultural assets any country could wish to posses. Evenly distributed over much of the Finnish territory these organizations provide the opportunity to enjoy the pleasures of the spirit to thousands of local residents and visitors every year. The expansion of The Gösta Serlachius Museum facilities shall certainly reinforce the Museum as an institution of distinction amongst this elite group of houses of culture while providing perhaps the chance for a transformation into a destination of international attraction.

This exciting moment for the Serlachius Museum implies also the challenge of maximizing the potential for the future while staying true to itself. The project contemplates the passage from the intimate domestic setting of a personal collection, to the rather different environment of an institution with state of the art professionally designed spaces equipped mechanically for the preservation of fragile objects.

Our proposal considers chronologically correct that, when accessing the Joenniemi peninsula, the visitors will encounter the Joenniemi Manor before the addition. The current sequence of arrival north of the Manor and away from the lake views, has been adequate for the original residential purpose of the architecture but, the radical transformation on the public significance of the place, demands a more articulated and considered sequence of arrival.

The proposed main public access contemplates that visitors, after parking, will be taken on a short walk through the trees of a new “chiaroscuro landscape”, a field of trees with diminishing planting density towards the south and east. This brief ceremonial ritual, a short walk amongst rustling of leaves, aims at subliminally cleansing consciousness before exposing it to art, and it will end on the new entry terrace at the top of the 1935 Paul Olsson garden, becoming this way, a first impression woven out of the old and the new. The visitors then can enter the new foyer to the west of the terrace.

The separation of public and service access traffic into Joenniemi will be achieved by moving the current service access route slightly to the north. The original entry courtyard will be transformed into a new sculpture court defined with thick vegetation and a continuous stone bench inviting contemplation. The courtyard forms a compositional whole together with the Manor’s beautifully crafted entry door, giving the door, no longer the main entry to the Museum, a new important ceremonial role. The courtyard would logically be silently patrolled by Jussi Mäntynen’s large animals but it could also be marked by the mysterious ice lexicon of Timo Jokel or Lea Turto’s colorfully severed tree trunks.

A reconnection between Joenniemi and Taventisaari through the reconstruction of the lost bridge at the end of the tree-lined path to the southeast of the Manor seems also a worthwhile inclusion amongst the possible improvements to the site. This might be something that could be part of a future phase of planning and construction when new paths through Taventisaari could be considered along with a beach café and a sauna with a small swimmers' pier.

The Museum’s existence is owed to one man’s personal decision to begin collecting art. The intimate immediacy of that beginning, embodied somehow in the atmosphere of the Manor’s domestic interiors, allows the Museum the capacity to project the comfort of the quotidian with empathetic humanity. We believe these are qualities worth preserving even in the midst of ambitious and exciting expansion plans. This sense of domesticity has a presence at the site that can be almost palpably felt when being there and must definitively be taken into account when proposing a project that would do justice to the institution’s cultural importance and potential.

To develop a dependency of inception between Jarl Eklund’s Joenniemi Manor and the addition, the form of the new building is derived from one of the Manor’s rear windows which is conceptually projected, like a congealed gaze telescoped onto the surrounding park to the southwest, the general direction of the sun in the afternoons during the predominant hours of Museum operation.

The new building is 15 meters high at its tallest point near the lakeshore but, sitting on lower ground, it remains well below the height of the Manor. The net area for the addition is 3,320m2 with a total gross area of 5,467m2. Its exterior is clad in glass and brushed chromium steel panels, a chameleon-like material with the capacity to reflect the atmospheric qualities around it, fusing with its background to harmonize with the existing architecture without forgery or imitation. As in Cezanne’s memorable canvas La Maison du Pendu, an optical co-dependency between architecture and surrounding trees will be established in this way to fix the new building on the site.

Closely following the topography of the site, the upper part of the building is continuously suspended over the ground, containing in its interior three column-free galleries in a continuous spatial sequence connected through ramps and defined in simple clean planes bathed in flexibly controlled zenithal light. The walls are white plaster and the spaces are closed to any views of the exterior to avoid distractions from the art. This idealized environment is ruled by a strongly foreshortened geometry gently punctuated by an array of circular skylights which, gradually diminishing in size, bore holes in the thickness of the frosted glass ceiling that contains lighting, structural elements and air supply ducts. Joints between the glass are left open to allow the supply and return of air through them, at intervals outfitted with structural suspension tracks connected to the structure above to allow the hanging of heavy objects from the glass ceiling for exhibition purposes. The ceiling is designed for the perfect diffusion, propagation and control of light levels in the galleries at all times.

Movement through the galleries starts with visitors ascending from the Foyer below through ramp, elevator or stair. The curated visitor experience can begin either with the Manor exhibits and proceed to the new galleries or the other way around. The circulation is organized as to ensure perfect accessibility even at times when some spaces are partially unavailable due to exhibit installation. Within the walls of this upper level, structural steel trusses span the distance between five reinforced concrete structural supports that hold the steel box in levitation-like suspension above the terrain.

Depending on which direction one moves, the exaggerated depth or flatness suggested by the foreshortened geometry may suggest in these rooms the slight impression of time accelerated or slowed down, creating in the reciprocal canceling out of these two illusions a momentary sense of temporal stasis for the contemplation of beauty.

Below the belly of the galleries and enclosed in a continuous glass perimeter, all the public areas of the Museum are arranged. These spaces are designed for flexible functionality to become a new place of social interaction for the people of the Mantää-Vilppula community as well as for visitors. Here environmental standards a bit less demanding than the high performance necessary at the galleries will be allowable, making it possible for the Museum to remain open to the public for a variety of functions during off hours when galleries are closed.

Because we believe the public spaces will become a crucial asset to the success of the institution, they are being proposed as a generously sized emotional heart of the building. Their configuration proposes a smooth connectivity throughout with a number of sloped floors and ramps to give them an open and indistinct flexibility similar to what enriches social life on an urban street. This will attract visitors that could be enticed by the possibility of unexpectedly running into a friend and lingering together in the Museum’s lakeside cafe.

Descending the hill from the Manor towards the lake, the public spaces are visible and accessible from everywhere, enjoying abundant natural light and views of the surroundings. They are all defined with curving forms that grab the ground, completely finished in wood. Adjacent to the public areas are necessary service spaces such as storage and restrooms, but the slope of the site is used to conceal them from view. The resulting semi-underground arrangement is somewhat akin to an archeological excavation cut into the ground and protected by a continuous glass enclosure, resting in the shade of the metal hollow roof above containing the galleries.

The large assembly hall together with the restaurant and the pedagogical area forms a flexible functional cluster that can be used for conferences, celebrations and banquets with all three in close proximity to the lake and adjacent to the formal garden. Both the restaurant and the assembly hall have direct access to the exterior for dining and meeting al-fresco during the summer months. The large assembly hall can be darkened through the use of curtains and mechanized shades when required and is outfitted with audio-visual booth to endow it with state-of-the-art projection and sound capabilities.

The addition touches the existing Manor with the utmost delicacy at the window that is the projecting source of the form. This provides both functional connection and negligible alteration to the Manor’s exterior. Both structures are functionally assembled to develop a comprehensive circuit of movement through the different exhibits. The link between the buildings is articulated into a bridge and a stepped ramp that allows feedback into the gallery circuit for accessibility to all exhibits even when some of the galleries are closed for installation. The link also allows convenient access to the Manor from the administrative and conservation spaces in the new building.

Service accessibility to the galleries from freight entrance and artwork storage to exhibition spaces is done through corridors and elevators, all measuring 3m wide by 4m high minimum. Additionally, for the delivery of exceptionally large pieces of sculpture using a small crane, a large exterior door could be considered on the west facade of the Travelling Exhibitions 1 gallery. A similar method was used in 2007 to bring in large heavy sculpture into the Museum of Modern Art in New York on the occasion of the Richard Serra retrospective exhibition. This door could be easily concealed within the cladding system of steel panels.

In the public areas, the design encourages visitors to use the sloped floors and ramps to reach the exhibits while also providing full accessibility through large capacity elevators and stairs.

The support facilities of administration, conservation and storage are located for easy access to both the addition and the Manor. The freight entrance is located to the west of the site away from the visitor areas and near the existing garage building and staff parking. Artwork storage and handling are located immediately below the freight entrance in the basement while the conservation workshop is above it on the first floor. This arrangement minimizes unnecessary movement of artwork through the building to maximize the safety of the collection items and works on loan. Because of the important work to be conducted there, the conservation workshop is conceived as a spacious space bathed in north light and softened by reflection on slightly curved walls and ceiling.

The administration offices all enjoy an abundance of natural light and have views to the south, north and west as do the staff facilities including kitchen, library and break room, which can also be used as common lunch space, and library. The kitchen and related storage spaces are located in the basement under the restaurant, the assembly hall and the pedagogical spaces and is able to feed any of those spaces directly and simultaneously through dumbwaiter service. Although the kitchen is located in the basement, it has access to both natural light and ventilation.

The project proposes an environmentally efficient design for the climatic conditioning of the Museum spaces using water from Lake Melasjärvi to run a radiant floor system. The sustainable design also includes a rooftop system with energy recovery wheel. For the purposes of central location and ease of maintenance all of the equipment is located either in the basement or in a specially designed concealed pit on the roof of the administrative wing.

The desires animating the design of the building are both utopian and pragmatic: utopian because it aspires to maximizing quality of life for all, but also pragmatic because this aspiration hinges on the need to preserve resources both during construction and maintenance of the building. This demands a logical reliance on passive means of illumination, ventilation, cooling and heating and also a simplicity of form, expression and construction that niggardly of exhibitionistic intentions, reserves formal resources for the channeling of existential meaning.

We feel this attitude towards the project fits the ethos of the Serlachius Museum, a home-grown phenomenon, a heady cultural institution that, not withstanding its roots in the rich soil of Finnish artistic traditions, has no propensity to linger in the past, but instead, a confident attitude motivated by a healthy dose of nostalgia for the future.