Oodi Helsinki Central Library, ALA Architects
Helsinki Central Library Oodi, exterior view from Kansalaistori Square. Photo: Kuvio
Oodi Helsinki Central Library, ALA Architects
Opened on December 5, 2018, the Helsinki Central Library, also known as Oodi (meaning ode in Finnish), is widely regarded as one of the most exciting new public venues built in Finland in the last years.
Designed by Helsinki-based ALA Architects (led by Samuli Woolston, Juho Grönholm, and Antti Nousjoki), Oodi is a typical example of a new generation of public buildings that combine a “traditional” library and a community center into an information access facility, as Aaron Betsky calls it.
To create a multipurpose building open to all, “a place of freedom and equity for the users”, was a key requirement of the 2012 architectural competition to design the new library that ALA eventually won, with a proposal entitled Käännös (Translation), against 543 rivals.
Photo: Tuomas Uusheimo.
The 17,250-square-meter / 185,600-square-foot building designed by ALA consists of three levels (a fourth, underground level contains technical facilities), each accommodating a different set of functions.
Together with a large public lobby, the ground floor contains several spaces for “fast-paced, ever-changing” activities, including special event facilities, a multi-purpose hall, the Kino Regina movie theater, and a cafe-restaurant.
The second floor is dedicated to creative and social activities for individuals, groups, and families and accommodates meeting spaces, a 180-seat conference space, and an “urban workshop” – namely, a public space open to everyone with music studios, design and manufacturing labs, and game rooms, all available for free.
Finally, the third floor houses the library facility, designed as a large and light-filled open space when people can read books in a relaxed way while sipping a coffee and watching the Helsinki urban landscape outside. The upper floor also includes a kids’ area, a terraced forum space named The Peak, a cafeteria, nine living olive trees, and an outdoor balcony.
To further reinforce the concept of a library open to the city, the architects shaped the main facade of the building as a long Finnish spruce-clad twisted surface which seems to embrace the visitors and “extend” the large Kansalaistori Square the Oodi Library, the Kiasma Museum, the Helsinki Music Center and the Finnish Parliament House open onto.
The glazed volume of the reading room tops the wooden facade like ice crust on driftwood.
A bird’s eye view of Kansalaistori Square in Helsinki with the Oodi Library on the left; the Kiasma Museum and the Helsinki Music Center are on the right. Photo: Kuvio.
Oodi, west facade. Photo: Tuomas Uusheimo, courtesy of ALA Architects.
Wood is a ubiquitous material in ALA’s library and, together with glass, is almost everywhere. While the ground level has a spruce wood ceiling and white-concrete floors; the upper floor is in reverse, with oak wood pavements and a wavy white-colored ceiling punctuated by several circular skylights.
In comparison, the intermediate level is a more intimate, and a bit gloomy, place with relatively small rooms and a rather “industrial” look featuring black-painted steel beams and floating floors covered with HPL laminate and gray carpet, only the structural trusses are clad with wood panels.
(From top to bottom) Helsinki Central Library, the atrium on the ground floor, a meeting space on the intermediate floor, and a view of the reading room on the third floor. Photos: Tuomas Uusheimo.
Despite its considerable size, the Helsinki Central Library is pretty “domestic” when compared to other recently-built libraries, such as those designed by MRDV in Tianjin and by Snøhetta in Calgary. Differently from them, ALA’s building doesn’t have a large floor-to-ceiling atrium or a monumental staircase that help to visually and conceptually unify its many different functional spaces; yet, the Finnish architecture firm was able to give this building a “controlled diversity” that makes the Oodi Library at the same time articulated and coherent, impressing and cozy, imposing and intimate.
Though, to speak plainly, Oodi isn’t really a library – since it contains only 100,000 books continuously replaced by others brought from a 3.5-million-volume repository located in another part of the city -, it’s a huge reading room and a civic center instead.
Is this bad, per se? I don’t think so, at least as long as you call the Helsinki Central Library by its name; not a library, but an information access facility, whether we like it or not.
And yet, at the risk of sounding elitist, a question pops up in my mind.
To transmit information (or even culture, at a higher level), is it really mandatory for the government to provide everybody free access to a PlayStation?
A visitor playing on a PlayStation console in one of the Urban Workshop gaming rooms. Photo Jonna Pennanen.
Helsinki Central Library Oodi, bird’s eye view. Photo: Tuomas Uusheimo.
West elevation and longitudinal section. Drawings courtesy of ALA Architects.
The library building, view from the west, and the main entrance on Kansalaistori Square. Photos: Tuomas Uusheimo and Kuvio.
The east facade on Töölönlahdenkatu street; the multiple entrances of the library reflect the polycentric nature of Helsinki’s urban fabric. Photo Tuomas Uusheimo.
Schematic drawings of the ground, second and third floors. Images courtesy of ALA Architects.
Interior views of the entrance lobby and the Kino Regina movie theater on the ground floor. Photos: Tuomas Uusheimo.
The spiral stairway that connects the three levels of the library building. Photo Tuomas Uusheimo.
The Urban Workshop on the second floor, a group workspace, the living lab, and the 3D-printing facility in the maker space. Photos Tuomas Uusheimo, Iwan Baan, and Jonna Pennanen.
Called “Book Heaven”, the main reading room on the third floor of the Helsinki Central Library is equipped with bookshelves, sofas, chairs, reading tables, and nine black olive trees (Bucida buceras). Photos Tuomas Uusheimo.
Two views of “The Peak”, a stepped meeting and relaxing space at the southern end of the upper floor. Photos Tuomas Uusheimo.
On the third floor, the library also houses reading rooms for children and a kid’s area. Photos Tuomas Uusheimo and Iwan Baan.
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