Moreau Kusunoki

The shock winners of the Guggenheim Helsinki competition have deliberately kept a low profile until now. So who are they, what do they do and what was the thinking behind their winning design? Magali Robathan goes to Paris to find out

When Moreau Kusunoki were announced in the summer as the winner of the competition to design the Guggenheim Helsinki, it came as a surprise to everyone – including them.

The young and virtually unknown Paris-based practice – founded in 2011 by husband and wife team Hiroko Kusunoki and Nicolas Moreau – had little built work to their name, and had deliberately stayed out of the spotlight “in the belief that architecture is best conceived in reserve and introspection, which are favourable to the emergence of poetic visions,” according to their official biography.

Winning the Guggenheim Helsinki competition changed all of that, thrusting the softly spoken duo into the spotlight. The open competition was one of the biggest of all time – attracting 1,715 entries – and one of the most talked about of the past year. When I visit Moreau and Kusunoki at their attic studio in Paris, they still seem a little shocked.

“When we found out we’d been shortlisted we just couldn’t believe it – it was the most incredible, surprising news,” says Moreau. “The second stage was much more stressful, because all of a sudden there were all these expectations on us. When we found out we’d won our overwhelming feeling was one of relief. There was no more stress and we could finally sleep!”

The atmosphere in the pair’s Paris studio is calm and relaxed, with designers tapping their keyboards and teamworking around the office. The practice – which employs eight ‘collaborators’ – is currently working on a museum in Cayenne, French Guiana; the Plaza for the Paris Courthouse (designed by Renzo Piano); the University of Savoie’s engineering school in Bourget-du-Lac, France; and several restaurant projects.

Despite their elation at winning the Guggenheim competition – which they say has brought them “energy, joy and dreams” – Moreau and Kusunoki clearly have their feet firmly on the ground. “Yes, we might have been famous for summer 2015,” says Moreau wryly, “but then things go back to normal. This is a competition – we hope the museum will get built, but we don’t know yet. We really want to concentrate on the clients we already have; on delivering good buildings. Our main aim is to stay focused and to improve, little by little, the quality of our team and of our work.”

In a world of big egos and self promotion, this pair are a different breed. They are young and they embrace that fact; Moreau and Kusunoki truly seem in no rush to get to the top. “There’s a big advantage to being a young practice,” says Kusunoki. “When architects have a lot of history, they often apply the methods they’ve always used. We haven’t established our methods yet, so we start each project from zero. We’re always doubting and questioning; searching for the way to go. It’s not an efficient way to work, but sometimes it’s very nice to be lost.”

Japan-born Kusunoki and France-born Moreau met on an exchange between their two universities – the Shibaura Institute of Technology in Tokyo and the École Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Paris-Bellevillein, Paris respectively. Moreau visited Tokyo as part of the exchange and the pair found themselves working on a project together. A year later, Kusunoki visited Moreau’s university in Paris and they became a couple, then decided to move to Tokyo to start their careers.

Kusunoki started her career working for Shigeru Ban in Japan, while Moreau worked in the studios of SANAA – where he was involved with several museum projects, including the New Art Museum and Louvre Lens competition – and Kengo Kuma.

For Kusunoki, working with Shigeru Ban helped shape her approach to architecture. “I respect Shigeru Ban mostly for his socially conscious approach to architecture through his shelter projects for refugees,” she says. “I also admire the way he works with wood, and I’ve taken that from him.”

In 2008, Moreau and Kusunoki moved to France so that Moreau could set up Kengo Kuma’s European office in Paris. “I was chief executive of Kuma Europe, which was an amazing opportunity,” he says. “I learned not just about pure architecture, but also about the other skills necessary to be an architect. It was also a chance for me to learn from Kengo Kuma’s methods; particularly about contextualism and the sensuality of materials.”

Moreau worked on a number of projects with Kuma, including the FRAC contemporary art centre in Marseille (opened in 2013), while Kusunoki worked for Jean Nouvel, Habiter Autrement, before the pair launched Moreau Kusunoki in 2011.

Many of those who were keen for the Guggenheim to come to Helsinki were hoping for the ‘Bilbao effect’, in which Frank Gehry’s iconic design turned around the fortunes of the Spanish city. Compared to Gehry’s dramatic design, however, Moreau Kusunoki’s proposal is quite low key and discreet. Their design, entitled Art in the City, sees a series of nine linked pavilions anchored by a lighthouse-style tower. The wood and concrete structures are clad in charred timber, a traditional method of making wood fire and water resistant used in Japan and Finland.

The starting point for the design was a desire to create an open, transparent museum, say the pair, and to make the space in between the pavilions as important as the buildings themselves.

“We wanted to create a continuity between the indoor and outdoor spaces,” says Moreau. “The ‘in between space’ was designed to drive people from outside to inside at different points. You have the main entrance plaza, but you can also enter the building at different points along the sea side of the museum. The idea is also that this space could be used to host lots of different kinds of activities organised by the people of Helsinki.”

Creating a highly adaptable museum was also important to the architects. “From a curatorial point of view, thanks to the design of the pavilions and the in between space, it’s a very flexible design,” says Moreau. “You can combine different volumes, you can organise large or small exhibitions, you can use one or two floors and you can access the restaurant independently at night. It would be up to the museum director how to organise it.”

Having separate pavilions rather than one large building could also shape the behaviour of visitors, says Kusunoki. “The volume of each gallery is quite compact, so you’re not obliged to visit everything at the same time. Rather than setting aside a day for visiting the museum, the idea is that you can make it part of your daily life – you can go to the museum, see one exhibition, meet your friend for coffee. This kind of casual, a la carte approach to visiting a museum is very convenient, and seems to be the way contemporary art is going.”

The tower is a key part of the design, providing a focal point for the museum and offering views over the city.

“With the tower, we wanted to operate a dialogue with different objects already visible in the landscape, especially the church steeples, the cathedral, chimneys and the ferries,” says Moreau.

“The idea is how to redefine the identity of Helsinki harbour in a positive way, creating a dialogue with all of these elements. It’s also a chance to create a public sky view, which doesn’t currently exist in the city.”

Moreau and Kusunoki had visited Helsinki in 2009, staying in the famed modernist Palace Hotel, which overlooks the Guggenheim Helsinki site. “Our trip to Helsinki influenced our designs a lot,” says Kusunoki. “We visited the buildings and observed the local people. It nourished our understanding of the behaviour and attitudes of the Finnish people. They are well educated when it comes to design and architecture, and clearly care a lot about these details. There’s also a real culture of sharing; Finnish people respect the social space.”

Moreau and Kusunoki chose to clad the buildings in dark, charred wood, which acts as a contrast to the white buildings nearby. “We really liked the idea of using simple materials and simple methods, where the methods used are still visible when it’s finished,” says Kusunoki. The idea is that wood could be transported from north Finland to the site by ferry. Moreau and Kusunoki admit that the charred wood suppliers are not yet ready for a project on the scale of the Guggenheim Helsinki, but are hopeful that if it goes ahead it could act as the start of a resurgence in the use of the material on an industrial scale. “We’re really excited about the challenge,” says Moreau.

While those in favour of bringing the Guggenheim to Helsinki hoped it would give the Finnish capital a boost, there were others who were strongly opposed to it. For many the concerns centred on the fact that the museum would be partly funded by the public purse at a time when the Finnish economy is struggling. Last year, a group of architects and artists including urbanist Michael Sorkin organised an ‘anti Guggenheim competition’ calling for alternative proposals for the site, with Sorkin saying they were motivated by “outrage at the march of the homogenising multi-national brand culture emblematised by the imperial Guggenheim franchise.”

“With big projects like this one, there’s always going to be controversy,” says Moreau. “It’s a project that affects every single resident of Helsinki – it’s in the centre of their classic, historic, valuable city, so of course they’re going to be concerned. We were actually happy to see how much they cared.”

Moreau and Kusunoki took the objections seriously. After being shortlisted for the competition, they went to Helsinki to meet its inhabitants, including the organisers of the anti Guggenheim competition. “Helsinki is home to many artists, and they weren’t happy to accept a top down attitude towards this museum,” says Kusunoki. “We listened, and introduced the idea of a more informal gallery to allow emerging artists to show their work, to have meetings with curators and buyers and eventually to work in studio space there. This is something that the Guggenheim New York doesn’t have.”

The tower was moved from its original position close to existing hotels and housing to the opposite end of the site in response to feedback from locals. “People were concerned about the position of the tower and we thought it polite to consider the fact that some people weren’t comfortable with such a heavy presence at that end of the site,” says Moreau. “That was quite a radical change.”

Moreau and Kusunoki’s approach to designing buildings is a labour intensive one, involving exploring as many different potential designs as they can. “We make an incredible amount of models,” says Kusunoki. “We come up with all of the options we can imagine, and use models to share our ideas with the team. Until we’ve explored all of the options, we find it difficult to be sure of our solution.”

Their dual heritage means they approach their work from different perspectives. “The Japanese approach is to start from the tiniest detail – the very first joint or tile – whereas the Western way is to start looking at the big picture,” says Kusunoki.

“When we see the finished product, it all comes together, but at the start it’s hard. We’re coming from opposite sides and the meeting point always seems to be moving.”

They are currently working on the Musee des Cultures et des Memoires de la Guyane in Cayenne, French Guiana, which is on the site of a 19th century military base. The centre will encompass galleries, a museum of culture, a cinema, café and garden. “Our idea was to reinterpret the tradition of the carbet, which is a basic form of shelter – like a hut without walls,” says Moreau. “The climate there is very hot and humid, so we’ve designed a series of pavilions and have extended the roofs, so you can walk across the site under the shelter of the different buildings.” The museum is due to open in 2017.

The Plaza for Renzo Piano’s Paris Courthouse is another big project for the practice. They’ve designed a 9,000sq m plaza featuring 24m high-lighting columns. “Renzo Piano’s Courthouse features a 160m-high tower, which is very rare for Paris,” says Moreau. “We came up with the idea for the columns because we wanted to do something on the same scale. We’ve also tried to really harmonise with Piano’s building: the columns follow the dimension of the High Court and the grid of the pavements follows the grid of the building’s facade.”

Only time will tell whether the Guggenheim Helsinki will get built, and if so, whether Moreau Kusunoki’s design will prove to be a success for the Finnish capital. For now, the architects are enjoying the win, focusing on their current portfolio and not looking too far ahead. “It was just great to share this with our friends, family, partners and clients,” says Moreau.

“It will hopefully bring positive energy, both for us and the people we work with.”

Other Moreau Kusunoki projects

The practice is working on a museum in Cayenne
The practice is working on a museum in Cayenne
Concept for the Beauvais Theatre project which didn’t proceed / this IMAGE & above: ©MOREAU KUSUNOKI
Concept for the Beauvais Theatre project which didn’t proceed this IMAGE & above: ©MOREAU KUSUNOKI
Moreau worked on Kengo Kuma’s FRAC in Marseille / IMAGE: ©MARIS MEZULIS
Moreau worked on Kengo Kuma’s FRAC in Marseille IMAGE: ©MARIS MEZULIS
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Culture: Moreau Kusunoki
They won the Guggenheim Helsinki competition, but just who are Moreau Kusunoki? The publicity shy duo give a rare interview