Category: Blog

Oodi Library – reclaiming civic space

photos by Danica Kus

Queues forming outside libraries is not such a common phenomenon. But when Oodi Library opened to the public in the centre of Helsinki in the beginning of December, there was a massive interest towards the building and locals were impatient to see the space. Designed by Helsinki based firm ALA Architects, the library was conceived to reinvent the traditional library concept, and had been in the news for some time. 

The imposing building has a floor space of 17200m2, photo: Danica Kus ©

The ship-like structure with an undulating roof sits next to some of the most iconic buildings in Helsinki, forming a dialogue with key cultural and civic institutions, including the Parliament House. From the top floor balcony there is a symbolic visual connection to the space where the state’s policy and decision making takes place. Next to it the Kiasma Museum of contemporary art by Steven Holl has finally got a neighbouring building that articulates similar formal ideas. But in contrast to the Kiasma’s curving metallic surfaces, Oodi has been built with glass and wood.

Across the large square outside, the Parliament building, photo: Danica Kus ©

“We wanted to create a welcoming, soft building in the midst of the relatively hard and alienating built environment. Using wood creates warmth which feels very natural to most Finns” , explains Samuli Woolston, one of the founding partners at ALA. “The symbolic meaning of building this extremely open piece of social infrastructure opposite the imposing stone columns of the parliament created a challenge for its architectural expression. We decided a soft contrast would work here.”

The building is home to a wide range of cultural and creative activities, including studio spaces for making music, crafts ateliers and a cineclub, photo: Danica Kus ©

ALA is one of the leading young offices in Helsinki with two other partners Antti Nousjoki and Juho Grönholm. Their first big commission was the Kilden concert hall in Norway which opened in 2012 and shares similar qualities with the library. The use of wood and undulating forms could be seen as a nod to Alvar Aalto’s architecture, such as the famous Finnish Pavilion from 1939 in New York. However, with the help of technical innovations ALA have uniquely interpreted their references into a distinctive architectural landmark for this central urban site. “Our generation feels comfortable with using a variety of architectural gestures in creating dramatic effects” Woolston says. The architects were also able to innovate with the building’s programme, as they were commissioned to develop the concept in response to a present day understanding of the function of a public library. The building was designed to provide a variety of new possibilities for local citizens, not just for picking up books, but to interact with each other and to find all kinds of new learning platforms and creative tools. 

Views of the surrounding city and lots of space left around and above the bookshelves, photo: Danica Kus ©

The central site also adds to the attraction of this imposing building, where it seems to fill a gap of existential connection between buildings and people. While providing a much needed public space for creative opportunities, it also transforms the cityscape by its programmatic innovation. Branded the ‘new collective living room’, it breaks the barriers between inside and outside space. “Helsinki is becoming more multicultural and socially open than ever before. This is actively supported by the city through city planning and by loosening norms to allow a variety of events and organisation to find new public lives,” Woolston explains.   

Artful staircase, photo: Danica Kus ©

Glass and timber are key materials of the building, creating a dialogue between natural and high tech, photo: Danica Kus ©

Libraries were the central theme of the Finnish Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale, responding to the idea of ‘freespace’ and displaying the development of the library in the national heritage. As a typology the library has certainly seen its apogee in Oodi, which now stands for new values and urban transformation, making a powerful visual and social impact. “I would like to see us as a part of the tradition of the strong and expressive, often nature inspired architecture of Reima and Raili Pietilä and the Suomalainen brothers. The rational and the irrational exist simultaneously in our architecture,” Woolston says. Incidentally, ALA have recently completed an award-winning renovation of the Pietiläs’ iconic Dipoli building in Espoo. Their own legacy, however, seems firmly set in the heart of Helsinki.

A strong presence on three floors, where the entrance level connects with the square in front, photo: Danica Kus ©

Ultimate museum experience in Dundee by Kengo Kuma

V&A outpost by Kengo Kuma – high cultural ambitions for the east coast town in Scotland

V&A Dundee, photo Danica Kus
An arched gateway through the building, allows the flow of people in and around the museum, photo: Danica Kus

Since the Guggenheim effect in Bilbao, big museum brands have become recognised as great initiators for urban regeneration. Dundee in Scotland, on the edge of Europe, is the latest to adopt the strategy by opening an outpost of the prestigious Victoria and Albert Museum and hiring Japanese architect Kengo Kuma to deliver an architectural experience that will transform the cityscape. The new museum sits on the waterfront – its angular form has been compared to a futuristic shipwreck.

V&A Dundee, photo Danica Kus
The vast ship-like structure on the waterfront lies next to the historic RSS Discovery built for exploring Antarctica, photo: Danica Kus

V&A Dundee, photo Danica Kus
Kengo Kuma, also the architect for the new Tokyo Olympics Stadium and the Grand Paris Express train station, photo: Danica Kus

Kuma is known for architectural designs that are inspired by the irregularity of nature. At the new V&A building in Dundee there are no straight lines, which creates an illusion of spatial movement in and around the building. Kuma is also inspired by old traditional building techniques of his native Japan, the use of wood and beautiful local materials. The façade of the new edifice is constructed with prefabricated concrete panels and the interior – with its use of wooden slabs in different sizes in the soaring entrance atrium – echoes the same irregularity in rhythms. The floor is covered with a dark stone, where white marks from fossilised seashells play as reference to the waterfront location. Beautiful materials and the effort of rejecting all structural monotony has come at a cost however. The budget famously doubled halfway through the project, with the final bill coming in at £80 million.

V&A Dundee, photo Danica Kus
With an angular façade the building aims to reconnect the city with nature and the river, photo: Danica Kus

V&A Dundee, photo Danica Kus
Oak panels cover the interior walls, echoing the concrete façade, photo: Danica Kus

The concrete was a functional choice to protect from harsh climatic conditions, but it also fits aesthetically with the urban identity and resonates with the dark stone found in the cityscape extending beyond. The museum has been praised for the way in which it relates with the setting, despite its spectacular form, but nevertheless some criticism has been raised too. While Gehry’s design for Guggenheim was one of the very first architectural experiments with the help of digital programming, here the play with form relies equally on complex mathematical formulations.

V&A Dundee, photo Danica Kus
The soaring atrium which houses a café and bookshop, photo: Danica Kus

V&A Dundee, photo Danica Kus
A long staircase along the side provides an architectural promenade, photo: Danica Kus

Inside the sloping walls provide irregular openings and the atmosphere is warm. Kuma, who is the chosen architect of Tokyo’s new Olympic Stadium, aims to bring intimacy to the largest of developments. The exhibitions are drawn from the V&A collections, but in the Dundee outpost the focus is on Scotland’s design heritage, including 300 objects made in Scotland. One of the highlights is the reconstruction of the Oak Room designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, which was saved and stored after the original building was demolished and is now displayed in the museum. Aiming to restore civic pride and inspire creativity, the museum will no doubt become an enduring magnet for locals and tourists alike.

V&A Dundee, photo Danica Kus
The Oak Room interior, designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh now part of the permanent collection at V&A Dundee, photo: Danica Kus


Amos Rex, Helsinki by JKMM Architects

Helsinki goes underground: Amos Rex is shortlisted for the Finlandia Architecture Award

Asmo Jaaksi, founding partner of JKMM Architects, spoke to us about the new museum designed as an extension of the 1930s iconic Lasipalatsi building. Carved under the old bus station, the irregular domes above add a sense of play to the cityscape. Below the galleries are dedicated for experimental arts. 

Asmo Jaaksi, founding partner of JKMM Architects in the entrance hall of Amos Rex ©Marianna Wahlsten
Asmo Jaaksi, head architect for the Amos Rex museum and founding partner of JKMM Architects in the entrance hall of Amos Rex, photo ©Marianna Wahlsten

How would you describe the new exhibition space, which is a bit lost now behind the hi-tech digital spectacle of the Team Lab collective, what was the key concept of the design?

The starting point is a space that would be open and adaptable. It looks very different when it’s empty. This exhibition by TeamLab takes over its boundaries, totally transforming the sense of space. It’s a vast open area with three connecting galleries, with the undulating roof structure resembling a flying carpet, which you can’t observe during the current exhibition. But perhaps in the future we’ll be able to see also exhibitions within the entire open space. And indeed, adaptability was one of the starting points for the exhibition space.

The fact of building underground, what kind of challenge was that from a design perspective?

Elsewhere there are many museums that are built underground. I didn’t see that as a challenge in itself. In fact exhibition spaces are well suited to be underground, because walls will mostly be used for displaying artworks and don’t need to have openings, and beneath the ground level it is also a protected environment. The challenge is of course to create a pleasant visitor experience. The main objective of the museum is to attract and welcome visitors so that they can enjoy whatever is exhibited. That’s probably the biggest architectural challenge, to make an underground space inviting. Of course structurally this has been a massive challenge. Not just the fact of building underground, but because it’s such a central and dense urban location with lots of traffic passing through. We had to dig deep into the terrain, which was then transformed into the underground galleries.

Installation by TeamLab, Amos Rex
Digital installation ‘Vortex of Light Particles’ (2018) by TeamLab collective, designed to respond to one of the galleries

You mentioned there are several museums build underground in other countries, did you have any specific building in mind as a reference or idea when you started working on this design?

It’s hard to point to any particular one as there are many good ones. But of course everyone knows the Louvre extension, a great example of an underground museum. That contemporary addition raised the level of attraction of a grand, historic environment in a spectacular way. Here it’s a very different situation and the entire museum concept is very different, but in wider terms there are similarities. Here also we are bringing a new era to a site, where it’s not possible to add anything on the ground level and you need to think how it can be done in an interesting way. The glass pyramid in the Louvre courtyard is of course iconic and already a classic. Here it’s all more recent, but in the same way we wanted to bring a contemporary twist to a historic site.

How do you see the underground urban development in Helsinki, where there are many routes going across the city below the ground?

It can be interesting if it helps in developing meaningful urban connections. In the design of the museum we had plans to integrate an underground train station as part of the Pisararata transport system, which would have offered direct access to the museum. In the same way as some stations in bigger cities, it could have been named after the museum. So if the underground connections help to improve and facilitate circulation, it can be very interesting. There is lots of ground below that could be developed, but of course these spaces need to be well designed in order to be attractive and functional.

Amos Rex by JKMM Architects
Stairway leading to entrance hall to the galleries, photo ©Marianna Wahlsten

Sometimes these underground routes can feel isolating and they seem a bit neglected. What’s your view on that?

Maintenance is very important, so that a sense of value remains in the new urban fabric. When we build environments of high quality, they should also inspire and generate a commitment to look after them better. So, everything starts with doing things with good intentions, that is the prerequisite for sustainable design. When environments are created in a haphazard way, they easily become neglected.

Were you concerned about the small cracks around the concrete surfaces on the mounds above?

It was expected that something like this might happen and we are keeping an eye on the issue. It’s not about climatic conditions. There is a lot of experimentation in this architectural project on many levels, where we didn’t just use previously tested models, and then there might always be something unexpected.

Amos Rex, JKMM Architects
The above domes taking over the old bus station echo with the rocky outcrops elsewhere in Helsinki, photo ©Marianna Wahlsren

The new university building Tiedekulma, also by JKMM Architects, has a very simple exterior that belies complexity inside. Is that something that you aim for?

In the long run, I’m drawn to a certain level of modesty, where the surrounding context is respected, instead of bulldozing the existing environment in order to make a big architectural gesture. At the Tiedekulma building the surrounding context is even more culturally significant than at Lasipalatsi. It’s surrounded by historic architectural layers: university buildings by Engel and then more recent by Ervi. So I felt we had to be very careful and discreet with the facades. Here around Lasipalatsi there have been more transformations, so there was also more freedom to experiment with new forms. However I feel it’s important to be considerate towards history and the environment in the long run. That’s how you can fit new architecture within temporal layers and create enduring spatial continuity in the urban fabric.

Amos Rex, ‘Massless’ by teamLab collective 30.8.2018 – 6.1.2018 

Fondazione Prada, Heidegger's hut

Obsession with huts showcased in Venice

The exhibition Machines à Penser explores the idea of isolation close to nature as an important part in the creative thinking process.

Mapping the links between philosophers’ obsession with huts in the beautifully restored interiors of Fondazione Prada, here the piano nobile galleries.

When Dieter Roelstraete was invited to curate the Fondazione Prada exhibition to coincide with the Architecture Biennale in Venice, he knew immediately what he wanted to do. ”I have been thinking about this topic for years: the idea of the huts” he explained, referring to some very specific huts associated to three leading thinkers of the twentieth century: Martin Heidegger, Theodor Adorno and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Belgian curator Dieter Roelstraete in front of Wittgenstein’s cabin reconstructed inside the first floor gallery

The idea of philosophers working in isolation, surrounded by wild nature had intrigued Roelstraete, who studied philosophy himself and understood the attraction of being able to focus your thoughts in a profound way. ”The dream of the hut is a very powerful vision of being away from the global 24/7 connected society”. Although this need was very much evident already way before the internet, as Roelstraete has observed through his interest towards huts: ”Many artists, writers and composers felt the need to isolate themselves to be more productive: Strindberg had a hut, Edward Grieg had a hut”.

Reconstruction of Heidegger’s hut in the Black Forest in Germany, where he wrote Being and Time, published in 1927

Of the three philosophers Heidegger is probably the most quoted in the theory of architecture. His ideas on phenomenology have been very influential for architects and academics, and his hut in the Black Forest in Germany has become a sort of pilgrimage site. The iconic hut dating from the 1920s has attracted phenomenology enthusiasts and philosophical tourists from all over the world. ”When I went there with my friends we all thought we’d like to live there. Of course it’s a bit a of a joke, because we can’t have it”, Roelstraete says, ”But there is something very seductive about it”.

Wittgenstein’s walking stick on loan from the von Wright collection at Helsinki University

Wittgenstein’s cabin was built on an even more remote location in Norway, where it could only be reached over the water across the Sognefjord. Although the hut has been removed from its original location, the empty site is now a tourist destination. Adorno’s hut is even more mysterious as an appropriated construction by the Scottish poet and sculptor Ian Hamilton Finlay.

Adorno’s Hut (1986-87), by poet and sculptor Ian Hamilton Finlay

The lure of rural seclusion has influenced architects as well. ”Many architects build huge structures that define the cityscape, but they would actually like to live on a farm in Switzerland”, Roelstraete observes with a hint of irony. And indeed that was also very much the case with Le Corbusier, who loved staying in Le Cabanon, a small timber cabin on the Côte d’Azur. It wasn’t as isolated as the philosophers’ huts, but anyhow there is a contradiction in the futuristic schemes he envisioned and the simple cabin life he seemed to prefer. 

Inside Heidegger’s hut, black and white photographs of the philosopher’s 1960s cottage life by Digne Meller Marcovicz

  Machines à Penser at Fondazione Prada, Venice, 26.May – 25. November 2018

Chapel by Francesco Magnani and Traudy Pelzel, MAP Studio, Vatican Pavilions, Venice Biennale, photo ©Marianna Wahlsten

Vatican Pavilions on the Island of San Giorgio, Venice Biennale

Scattered across the lagoon-facing parkland behind the great Santa Maria Maggiore church, you will find eleven temporary pavilions commissioned by the Vatican. The pavilions have been designed by renown international architects, including Norman Foster, Smiljan Radic, Edouardo Souto de Mora and Terunobu Fujimori. It is a rare collection of contemporary sacred architecture and the first time Vatican takes part in the Venice Biennale.

Chapel by Flores Prats, Venice Biennale 2018, Vatican Pavilions, photo © Marianna Wahlsten
Details from chapel by Spanish architects Ricardo Flores and Eva Prats, photo © Marianna Wahlsten


Chapel by Flores Prats, Venice Biennale 2018, Vatican Pavilions, photo © Marianna Wahlsten
Open space inspired by constructivism, chapel by Ricardo Flores and Eva Prats, photo © Marianna Wahlsten

The Skogskapellet by Gunnar Asplund was the guiding reference, that architectural historian Francesco Dal Co gave to the eleven invited architects. They have all imagined a small, spiritual space within a forest-like environment, the structure connecting to the site. Away from the tourist crowds of Venice, the whole area indeed is a beautiful place for quiet contemplation, as well as an opportunity to witness some exquisite designs. The concept of the pavilions follows the Serpentine Summer Pavilions format.

Chapel by Smiljan Radic, Vatican pavilions, Venice Biennale, photo ©Marianna Wahlsten
Tapering cylindrical form with reinforced concrete, chapel by Chilean architect Smiljan Radic. photo ©Marianna Wahlsten

Vatican chapel by Norman Foster, photo ©Marianna Wahlsten
A complex tensile structure of struts and cables, chapel by Norman Foster, Venice Biennale 2018, photo ©Marianna Wahlsten

Apart from the size of the plot (seven by ten meters) given to each pavilion, the architects responded to the brief with a range of interpretations of religious iconography. Norman Foster used wooden struts engineered for an airy tent like space where three crosses form the central supporting system for the pavilion. Shrubs planted on the sides of the building will grow over the summer months to slowly transform the atmosphere of the space. Spanish architects Flores Prats and Chilean architect Smiljan Radic (who did the Serpentine Pavilion in 2014) provided spaces with more abstract religious symbolism.

Chapel by Terunobu Fujimori, photo © Marianna Wahlsten
Wooden chapel built with an old Japanese charring technique for improving the durability of cedar tree planks, by Terunobu Fujimori, photo © Marianna Wahlsten

Perhaps the most direct response to Asplund’s forest chapel is Terunobu Fujimori’s pavilion, which from the outside looks like a summer cabin of unusual, childlike proportions. Constructed directly on the ground, its sturdy structural beams form a cross inside in the same way as in Foster’s more open space.

These pavilions provide a great opportunity for observing details, materials and structures, as well as the larger historical and artistic dialogues in which they so clearly take part. The choice of architects presented in the Vatican’s exhibition area demonstrate a will to take part in contemporary cultural and artistic debates. The Vatican’s introductory participation is one of the highlights of this year’s Biennale. It also makes you think how sacred spaces must be hugely inspiring commissions for architects, perhaps anticipating also a new kind of spirituality needed for the planet.

La Biennale, Vatican Chapels

Serpentine Pavilion 2018, photo: ©Danica O. Kus

New Serpentine Summer Pavilion by Frida Escobedo

Danica O. Kus has photographed Serpentine Summer Pavilions since 2009. The latest by Mexican architect Frida Escobedo is the tenth that she has documented. The architectural quality of each temporal Pavilion and their unique characteristics has been an enduring inspiration for her photographic work.

Serpentine Pavilion 2018, photo: ©Danica O. Kus
photo: ©Danica O. Kus

An exhibition showcasing her photographs of the ten Pavilions will be open during the London Festival of Architecture at the Slovenian Embassy in London. For architectural photographers the opening of the Serpentine Summer Pavilion in June is one of the highlights of the year. I asked Danica about the very special nature of the Serpentine series and its meaning for her.


Serpentine Pavilion 2018, photo: ©Danica O. Kus
photo: ©Danica O. Kus

How would you describe the new pavilion by Frida Escobedo in relation to previous ones? 

The new pavilion seems quite modest at the first sight. But when you enter the space and you feel the atmosphere everything changes…the reflecting light from the roof, the play of light and shadows, the breeze which comes through the rough tiles, the reflection of the trees and tiles in the pool…it is very poetic pavilion and delightful to photograph. I like the idea that this pavilion is made of inexpensive materials and beautifully designed to each detail. Also it combines a Mexican tradition of making breeze walls and English mass-produced tiles.

It is very poetic pavilion and delightful to photograph – I like the idea that this pavilion is made of inexpensive materials

Serpentine Pavilion 2018, photo: ©Danica O. Kus
photo: ©Danica O. Kus

Serpentine Pavilion 2018, photo: ©Danica O. Kus
photo: ©Danica O. Kus

What are the elements you observe first in buildings?

When I come to a new space I first observe the atmosphere, the light and shadows, the sky, the structure, reflections…. Inside I try to feel the atmosphere, the smell, the temperature, the sound, the light…if the space is comfortable it’s easy to start with photography …if not I have to find a way and be creative…which is also good…

Can you describe the first summer pavilion that you shot and how did it go? 

I shot the first summer pavilion in 2009. It was designed by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, the Japanese architectural practice SANAA. It was an absolute pleasure to photograph: the reflective metal structure standing on tiny columns and reflecting the park surroundings. I remember that it was difficult to stop photographing and leaving the space, because the aluminum structure was changing in relation to the time of the day and weather conditions…

Has there been any pavilion that was more difficult to photograph and why?

Each pavilion is so unique and inspiring…I think it’s a wonderful experience for each photographer. I can’t say which one I prefer or which one was more difficult to photograph. Each time I’m surprised by their uniqueness and high aesthetics so I’m always very motivated and drowned to the subject in order to present it in its best form. The creative aspect of each pavilion gives also additional pleasure. It’s also a pleasure for visitors to take photos and be creative…

Whose work has been an inspiration for you in your career as photographer?

I have been inspired by the great photographers like Andre Kertesz, Edward Steichen, Ezra Stoller, Julius Shulman and many contemporary photographers. I like their work because of their originality, new vision, composition, timelessness…

Serpentine Pavilion 2018, photo: ©Danica O. Kus
Photo: ©Danica O. Kus

Serpentine Pavilion 2018, photo: ©Danica O. Kus
photo: ©Danica O. Kus

Serpentine Pavilions 2009 – 2017

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