Vesa Laitinen for The New York Times.Visitors outside Amos Rex, an underground museum topped by conical domes that bubble up from the surface.
HELSINKI, Finland — The novelist Meg Wolitzer once wrote that Helsinki is “a place no one ever thinks about unless they’re listening to Sibelius, or lying on the hot, wet slats of a sauna, or eating a bowl of reindeer.” The city leadership wants to add something new to that list: fine art.
Amos Rex, a new contemporary art museum, goes a long way toward that goal. A museum that appears to physically resist its placement in a vast underground space, it is topped by five conical domes that bubble up from the surface of the Lasipalatsi Square in downtown Helsinki like inverted craters of an alien moonscape. Children clamber up the mounds, teenagers skateboard down its slopes, and passers-by snap selfies.
“That was one of the intentions, to make it like a playground, and also to make a kind of new city space and city culture,” said Asmo Jaaski, lead architect of JKMM, the museum’s designer.
The $58 million privately funded museum officially opened in August, drawing 10,000 people. It arrives less than two years after Helsinki’s City Council rejected a plan to build a $138 million Guggenheim museum along the city’s harbor.
City officials as well as residents were deeply divided about the proposal, with supporters asserting that the Guggenheim would raise the city’s international profile, while opponents said local resources were better spent on cultural institutions that showcased Finnish talent. Finland has a proud tradition of design exemplified by the architect Alvar Aalto, the designers Timo Sarpaneva and Tapio Wirkkala and, yes, Marimekko.
After the controversy dissipated, Mayor Jan Vapaavuori of Helsinki said, everyone took a step back to reconsider the city’s cultural priorities.
“The positive side of the discussion is that we have a more comprehensive understanding of what culture and art does for the city,” Mayor Vapaavuori said. “It could be that without the Guggenheim discussion we would not be that far along.”
The money to build the new museum came from a foundation established by the museum’s Finnish founder, Amos Anderson, a newspaper publisher and a patron of the arts, who died in 1961 and earmarked his fortune for the building of the Amos Anderson Art Museum. Four years after he died, the museum opened in his own home.
Seeking a new, larger home, Amos Anderson museum chose the Lasipalatsi, or glass palace, a landmark of Finnish functionalist architecture that houses an entertainment and shopping center with an Art Deco cinema called Bio Rex.
Designed by architecture students in 1936 as a temporary site for the Olympics, the Lasipalatsi was supposed to be torn down but became a national landmark.
The private Amos Rex Foundation formed a real estate company with the city to jointly own the complex, and to build a new museum. To preserve the old building, the museum’s architects excavated the central plaza and created 2,200 square meters of exhibition space.
For its first exhibition, Kai Kartio, the museum’s director, highlighted the international curatorial ambitions of the museum by choosing the Japan-based art collective teamLab. “Massless,” a digitally based interactive installation, runs until January 6.
Amos Rex, which derives its name from the museum’s founder and the cinema, has helped create a kind of “museum row” that joins up with three of the city’s nearby art institutions — Kiasma Contemporary Art Museum, the Helsinki Art Museum and Kunsthalle Helsinki. “We bind it together in a way, and we all support each other,” Mr. Kartio said.
Turning to local talent instead of the Guggenheim.