Helsinki’s Poetic New Central Library Is a Public Space for the Digital Age
The new library, dubbed Oodi and designed by ALA Architects, provides democratic and state-of-the-art facilities for learning, making, playing, and reading.
Public libraries have never just been about books. Pockets of local social and cultural life, libraries have been monuments to civic values and shared knowledge. More than that, they have been places to simply be, without calls to consume or even explain one’s presence. The public library is “a non-commercial public space which is open for everyone, free for everyone, belonging to everyone and used for everyone’s benefit,” writes curator Anni Vartola in the catalogue of Mind-Building, the exhibition for the Finnish pavilion at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale.
Yet changes in reading habits—the role of the book in everyday life—and our attitudes toward civic infrastructure have brought about some existential crises for the public library. “Is the public library obsolete?” asked the New York Times in September, citing library systems starved of funding in Atlanta and San Francisco. In the U.K., more than 400 libraries have closed since 2010. In Helsinki, capital of the most literate country in the world, book borrowing figures have also been declining. Yet rather than close libraries, that city’s government is recognizing the social role of the public library beyond words on a page and redefining the library for the 21st century.
Vartola’s Mind-Building at Venice anticipated the opening of Oodi, a new library for Helsinki designed by local firm ALA Architects. Viewed from the steps of the nearby Finnish parliament house, the library appears like an inverted boat, a great mass that is submerged beneath a wave of undulating glazing.
Inside, Oodi (roughly “ode” in Finnish) is best understood as three floors located within and around a bridge that spans over 300 feet of the ground floor, creating a column-free entry sequence: “We have one floor under the bridge, one open floor on top of the bridge, and then the third space is inside the bridge structure,” explains Antti Nousjoki, partner at ALA.
The ground floor is an extension of the city. Visitors can enter from one of three entrances, two at the north and south ends, and a main entrance beneath a 38-foot cantilever that extends onto a plaza. Tucked beneath this spruce-clad canopy, the building’s curtain walls provide a clear view of what’s going on inside: book return and information facilities, flexible theater seating for events, and a cinema. Now that the Venice Biennale is over, the ground floor will also soon host Mind-Building.
From the ground floor, visitors are drawn upwards via a corkscrewing helical staircase, elevators, or a prominent set of escalators at Oodi’s southeast corner, where the entrance point connects directly to Helsinki’s central station and “pretty much the most urban area in Finland,” says Nousjoki.
On the second floor, on top of the structural “bridge,” things get interesting. The lofty daylit atrium is replaced by a more confined “urban workshop” floor, characterized by open ceilings, structural trusses clad in plywood, and the bridge structure that curves through the space. There is nary a book to be seen—instead, there are sewing machines, 3D printers, a games console room, a set of studios for music or photography, CNC machines, a kitchen, a massive printer, and more. All of these facilities can be used for free by anyone with a library card. These spaces take on the same premise as the very first public libraries—to grant free access to culture and creativity in a safe space—but simply update the technology.
Architecturally, this “urban workshop” is a no-frills corridor lined by box rooms with large windows, but the social offer is breathtaking. One imagines future fashion designers making first designs on the sewing machines, or recording a first album on publicly-available equipment. And everyone is invited to take part: “homeless people, to CEOs with a couple of hours to spare, to asylum seekers, to small children,” according to Tommi Laitio, director of Culture and Leisure for the City of Helsinki.
On the top floor, the architecture reasserts itself. The undulating ceiling, clad in white acoustic panels lined with mineral wool, creates an uncanny quiet despite the expansive 48,000-square-foot floor area. This dreamlike sense is heightened by the room’s floor, whose ends slope up to meet the ceiling like a skate ramp, the prow of a ship, or an endless landscape.
Within this quiet, poetic space, would-be readers can at last find the books. Only 100,00 of them (the city’s main library is in Pasila, north of the city center), plus magazines, board games, DVDs, and plenty of seating. The floor’s sloped ends also create enclosures for services and emergency exits, plus a trick bookcase which opens up to reveal a hidden room for story-telling—a delightful touch. Across the rest of the floor light floods in via the curtain wall and porthole-like skylights—an idea borrowed from Alvar Aalto’s university library in Otaniemi. “Welcome to book heaven,” remarks Katri Vänttinen, director of libraries in the city government. She’s not far off.
So how is all this possible? And how did Finland get a world-class facility in the heart of its city center that will enrich the lives of its citizens and visitors alike? Firstly, it was entirely publicly funded, with $80 million from the city government and $34 million from the national government, a fact largely made possible by the country’s progressive taxation and small population.
On top of this, libraries have had a foundational role in Finland’s national identity. As Vartola explains at Oodi, at the time of Finland’s independence from Russia in 1917 libraries contributed to the strengthening of the Finnish language and culture, as well as the creation of communities around civic infrastructure. To this day, libraries across Helsinki are thriving as well-designed social hubs with facilities for social inclusion and progression. In Maunula, a suburb in northwest Helsinki, the library contains a room for girls only, to make the library accessible for the area’s young Muslim population; the Kallio Library, one of the oldest in the city, was the first library in Finland to feature a dedicated LGBT+ section in 2015.
Back at Oodi, Laitio, Helsinki’s cultural director, explains the importance of the library system in allowing him to explore his own sexual identity as a teenager, hiding the magazine of the Finnish LGBT association inside the Finnish equivalent of Newsweek, and later discovering the artwork of Tom of Finland, both at the library.
“The challenges cities are facing at the moment around social cohesion are massive. We need to make sure people believe we can live together, people see we can live together,” he says. “I don’t think €100 million for that feeling and that experience for the general public is a lot of money.”
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