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 ©