WAF Newsletter Books do furnish a city

Books do furnish a city

Paul Finch, 24 April 2019

ALA Architect’s Helsinki library is a true civic landmark.

The Oodi Library in Helsinki is not in fact Finland’s central library, but the latest public face of a national library network which is part and parcel of that country’s history and cultural tradition. As a recent article in the Architectural Review (December 2018) noted, the transition from an oral to a literary culture only occurred in the 19th century, explaining the enthusiasm for the written word which then informed Finnish independence in 1917.


Oodi (pronounced Ordee) was commissioned to mark the country’s centenary, and indeed had a soft opening in 2017, before being inaugurated at the end of last year. A labour of love for all concerned, the tripartite landmark is located on the Kansalaistori square, opposite the Finnish Parliament, with spectacular views across the city, not least to Aalto’s Finlandia Hall.

A significant public consultation programme took place as part of the design process rather than as a reaction to a set of designs; these ‘invited dreams’ have helped to shape an outcome which is anything but a conventional museum of books. The context is the Finnish Library Act, which gives libraries responsibilities to promote active citizenship, democracy and freedom of expression – as well as promoting life-long learning.


The three levels of the building, reflecting that mandate, have entirely different functions. In the case of the ground floor, there is a double programme related to internal and external use. Inside, citizens can get advice about housing and other social issues; there is a temporary exhibition area, a cinema, and space for pop-up events. In the summer months, external events can take place in a 1,000sq m public plaza which sits under the cantilevered middle level of the building.

The first floor, the mid-level, is the most important element of the building architecturally. A hive of different activities take place in rooms arranged round what the architects describe as the ‘nooks and corners’ that inhabit the spaces between the trusses of the building’s bridge structure. Here you find music rooms, recording studios, places for making stuff with or without production kit, a quiet reading room, stepped seating, and a buzz (even on the Tuesday morning of our visit) not usually associated with buildings for books.

The structure (engineer Ramboll) comprises two steel arches spanning 145m; in effect Oodi is an inhabited bridge, its enclosed entrance space column-free, the upper ‘Book Heaven’ level entirely open-plan.

Books themselves are on Oodi’s upper level, a pavilion sitting above the mid-level bridge structure , sweeping upward at either end to accommodate prosaic facilities like lavatories and fire stairs, and providing a dramatic promenade architecturale for users interested in views through the sophisticated fritted glazing. Books are in low-level stacks allowing users to look across a sort of interior savannah, landscaped with multiple trees in tubs.

A curved roof and external balcony for summer use add to the sense of fluidity which informs the project as a whole, and while the third-floor ceiling, dotted with circular rooflights, is less seamless than one might have wished, the overall use of the building (currently 10,000 visitors a day) is impressive, as is the variety of activity taking place in the building, where you can source any book which is part of the national collection (totalling 3.2 million) for subsequent delivery. There are 100,000 on site available for borrowing, but of the building’s total area, only one-third is given over to books,




While the significant structure is steel, the exterior and much of the interior is a hymn to the world of timber. It is in fact the biggest timber-enclosed building in Finland, possibly Europe, designed for human occupation; meeting fire standards was a huge issue for the designers despite the low burn-time of the material (spruce). There is no evidence of difficulties with regulations,  the result being an impressive set piece, sitting on a former railway site which is now an extension of the city’s central park.

The geometry of the architecture partly derives from strict boundaries set out in Helsinki’s local plan, but the use of the cantilever and the useable space created underneath it has cleverly responded to constraint. This is a memorable new piece in the city’s urban jigsaw, and a worthy marker of Finnish independence; it is also a spirited response to the evolution of the library in a digital age.




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