There's been nothing like it in the world of architecture. A record-breaking 1,715 architects from 77 countries have been absolutely desperate to win the competition to design the new £104m Guggenheim art museum in Helsinki. Yesterday, six of them made the final shortlist. They're all young, virtually unknown practices with less than seven years' experience – and one, Asif Khan, is British.
His small projects have included the Coca-Cola Beatbox at the 2012 Olympics. The other shortlistees are AGPS, based in Zurich and Los Angeles; Fake Industries Architectural Agonism from New York; Paris-based Moreau Kusunoki; SMAR from Madrid; and Haas Cook Zemmrichof Stuttgart.
The winner will be picked in June after the practices have submitted more detailed designs. Most of the proposals have a loose fit rather than a look-at-me vibe. The judging process was organised by the British design competition specialist Malcolm Reading, and led by Mark Wigley, professor of architecture at Columbia University.
The designs, which at this stage of the competition do not have names attached, are a very mixed bag. They range from a set of sculptural wooden towers to a fragmented slab. One of the schemes is essentially a barn, and another has a sword-toothed industrial roofline. It's a daring selection and a real test for the judges who are trying to pick a winner that is uniquely Finnish rather than international architectural bling.
Plans for the Guggenheim Helsinki
The allure of the competition was so powerful that one small British practice told me that it spent nearly £20,000 on preparing its submission. If every entrant in the competition spent even half that on their designs it means the participating architects collectively spent at least £1.7m for a shot at Guggenheim glory.
The previous architectural competition entry record was for the Giza Museum in Egypt – "but the Helsinki Guggenheim is in a different league," said Malcolm Reading. The tidal wave of submissions dwarfs the competition for even legendary buildings such as the Pompidou Centre in Paris, designed by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano, which attracted a mere 681 entries.
Helsinki has been unable to resist the world's most potent art museum brand, not least because the city needs the Guggenheim museum to kick start private investment in four massive waterside development schemes.
Not all of Guggenheim art projects have worked. Their museum franchises in Las Vegas, Berlin, Salzburg, Vilnius, Guadalajara, Rio de Janeiro, and Germany unravelled. But, on the whole, the organisation has achieved massive financial and artistic success ever since the Swiss-born Meyer Guggenheim stopped selling shoe polish and chicory coffee in Philadelphia in the mid-19th century, and formed Guggenheim Brothers to buy mining interests in Leadville, Colorado.
By 1910, the Guggenheims controlled half the world's supplies of silver, copper and lead, drawing this snide rhyme from the Washington Times: "The Guggenheims will get you if you don't watch out. They're gobbling up all the coal lands of the west and north and south. It simply is appalling when you think what they're about. They'll surely gobble up everything, inside the earth and out."
They failed to gobble up Helsinki. As the shortlist announcement was being made, in the 1930s Rex cinema in central Helsinki, a small group of protesters held up a long red banner outside. It said: "Not with our money".
The prospect of having a Guggenheim museum had already fuelled a row between the city's conservatives, many of whom want to be Guggenheimed, and left-wingers and Greens who don't. An alternative art museum design competition has been set up by two eminent architecture academics, New York's Michael Sorkin and Finland's Juhani Pallasmaa.
Richard Armstrong, director of the Guggenheim Foundation, has spoken of art museums as the "democratisation of beauty". The remark is hard to bat away: in America, more people visit galleries and museums than go to sports events.
The tourist-magnet potential of the Helsinki Guggenheim is undeniable. But there was considerable anger about the city having to pay to lease the Guggenheim brand. In the end – after Helsinki's original rejection of the museum project in 2012 – the Guggenheim Foundation agreed to collect its brand fees from private sources. Even so, Helsinki will have to pay two-thirds of the building costs of the new museum, a tough ask in a city that already has huge public welfare costs.
Six more art museums getting the starchitect treatment
The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
The Whitney, designed by Renzo Piano, is nearing completion on a new site. The design is cool, calm and collected, with highly finessed architectural details. The museum, sitting between the High Line and the Hudson River, will vastly increase the Whitney's exhibition and programming space.
The National Art Museum of China, Beijing
The French maestro Jean Nouvel has described the design with his usual intellectual panache. The building "is written in space as a fragment of an ideogram shaped by an artist over a long period of time, giving it both a sense of mastery and voluntary incompleteness."
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
This $650m project on the city's Museum Row will take the form of a serpentine glass and concrete slab raised off the ground to form a bridge across Wilshire Boulevard. A Los Angeles architecture critic has described Peter Zumthor's design as "misshapen, like a piece of taffy, by the decision to stretch it across Wilshire."
Guggenheim Museum, Abu Dhabi
This Frank Gehry-designed project is under way, but is controversial. Objectors, including more than 100 artists, claim construction workers are being poorly treated. Gehry says he's designed "a new invention". However, it features a familiarly wild array of curved and blocky elements.
Mumbai City Museum
This is one of India's key cultural institutions, and the project will extend its exhibition and amenity space by 10,000 square metres. The eight architects shortlisted for the scheme cannot be officially named until 6 December, but 'The Independent' has learned that three of the practices are in the superstar category.
The Broad Museum, Los Angeles
The building, which is under construction, is designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and features an outer shell made of 2,500 sculpted fibrecrete elements. The museum will showcase more than 2,000 works of post-war and contemporary art from the collection of philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad.