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Light and enlightenment: libraries in Finnish cultural identity

The openness conveyed by the light, form and texture of Finland’s libraries is pivotal to the country’s identity and social consolidation

In Finland, libraries are a serious matter. As the once-enviable networks of public libraries in the US and the UK wither away in the face of digital technologies and reduced funding, Finnish libraries and their architects relish the challenges of updating this building type to serve contemporary social needs. The relationship between their libraries, culture and national consciousness is long and deep; those built since the country emerged from its traumatic first 25 years of independence make an architectural analogue of Finland’s evolution into a rich, contented, egalitarian, healthy and well-educated society.

The Helsinki Central Library Oodi – designed by ALA Architects and opened on 5 December – is a gift from the city to the nation to mark a century of independence. Conceived as a multi-purpose public space, it has multiple means of accessing information in digital, print or spoken formats, in surroundings varying from open and undulating to intimate and contained. With the austere 1930s Neoclassical parliament building facing it across an urban highway (planned to be pedestrianised), the library’s part in the capital’s public realm and national discourse is evident.

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Finnish libraries

The third-floor reading room of Helsinki Central Library Oodi by ALA Architects continues in the tradition of Aalto but, with the advent of technology, the building embraces new public services, exhibitions and events. Photograph by Tuomas Uusheimo

Supporting Library Oodi is a network of public libraries across the city, some new, others refurbished, all underpinning Finland’s linked policies on education, leisure and participation in cultural activities – including health, food and exercise. As Helsinki’s mayor and former minister of economic affairs Jan Vapaavuori notes, ‘People are the country’s prime resource, which merits investing in them through education … Libraries play a big role in that’.

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Finnish libraries

Helsinki Central Library Oodi sits opposite the Finnish parliament, symbolising the relationship between the government and the populace. Photograph by Tuomas Uusheimo

Even more explicit are comments made earlier this year by one of his deputies, Nasima Razmyar, who ended up in Finland aged eight when her family fled the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. ‘The library was an important factor in my integration’, she remembers. ‘I was well behind others at school as I didn’t know the language, but the library was of great help to me when I was learning Finnish. It wasn’t only about reading but also learning about Finnish culture and society.’

So choosing libraries as the theme for this year’s Finnish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale had a sense of inevitability. Including fascinating examples from the last century or so, it showed that not all great Finnish libraries are by Aalto – though with those at Viipuri, Jyväskylä, Seinäjoki, Rovaniemi and Otaniemi, libraries were a major part of his oeuvre. Their lightness and openness were functionally successful and symbolised the aspiration of the sort of ‘open society’ that Karl Popper advocated. Architect JKMM’s reworking of Otaniemi Library is the most potent example of how libraries make an ongoing contribution to Finnish life, and can thrive in a digital age.

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Finnish libraries

Libraries, a mainstay of Finnish culture, formed the theme of the Finnish Pavilion at the 2018 Venice Biennale. Photograph by Italo Rondinella

Libraries might not have assumed such importance in national life but for the contingencies of how the Finnish language gained a literary dimension alongside its long-standing oral tradition, and the birth of national consciousness and civil rights, culminating in its independence (from the nascent Soviet Union) in 1917. All this took rather less than a century – a remarkably short period compared with other languages and nations. 

For millennia after Finland first entered the historical record, through the Roman author Tacitus in the first century AD, its language and the people who spoke it were both geographically and linguistically remote. Their position on the edge of Europe was made even more inaccessible by Teutonic knights, Hanseatic merchants, Swedish traders and (between 1809 and 1917) Tsarist apparatchiks, who controlled the coastal strip. Anyone who penetrated the hinterland had to contend with a Finno-Ugric language with different sound patterns, grammar and vocabulary to those of the far more common Indo-European family.

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Finnish libraries

Aalto’s Viipuri Library was brought back to life after bleak Soviet years

This only changed in the 1830s, when a recent medical graduate, Elias Lönnrot, was sent to an obscure corner of eastern Finland. Fascinated by the rich oral tradition of Finnish folklore that he encountered through his patients, he decided to write it down. Over the following decades he travelled through the territories that form a loose arc north, south and east of the Gulf of Finland, where Finnish and its near cognate Estonian are spoken, collecting the tales that he assembled, tweaked and edited into The Kalevala, Finland’s national epic.

Lönnrot turned Finnish into a form fit for libraries, but his personal experience adds another dimension. He started his studies at the University of Turku, then Finland’s only source of higher education. The city served as the country’s capital until 1812 (the year that Tsar Alexander I moved it further from the former overlord Sweden and closer to his capital at St Petersburg). However, in 1827, a year after Lönnrot matriculated, Turku was devastated by fire so Alexander I’s successor Nicholas I took the opportunity to move its university to the new capital, Helsinki. Among its buildings was a magnificent library designed by Carl Engel, a student friend of Schinkel. Combining the grandeur of a Neoclassical hall with the then-modern practicality of iron book stacks, it set the pace for a generation until Sydney Smirke’s and Henri Labrouste’s great libraries of the mid 19th century. 

Completing his studies amid these technically advanced and Russian-imbued surroundings, Lönnrot had an invitation and an incentive to see new potential in libraries, and to take a fresh look at Finland’s indigenous culture as an antidote to foreign domination. Ironically the attempted Russification was midwife to Finnish national consciousness, whose parents were advanced library design and the newly written – and printed – condition of the Finnish language.

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Finnish libraries

Helsinki University of Technology Library, designed by Alvar Aalto and reworked by JKMM, is now home to the Harald Herlin Learning Centre at Aalto University Library, Otaniemi – click here to download drawings

With The Kalevala as its seed, Finnish culture flourished in the later 19th century. The composer Jean Sibelius and painter Akseli Gallen-Kallela (who changed his name from the suspiciously Swedish-sounding Axel Gallén), both born in 1865, gave it musical and visual dimensions. Meanwhile Finland became the Russian Empire’s testing ground for liberal reforms, which resulted in women having political rights earlier than anywhere else in Europe. All that, though, changed after the 1905 Russian Revolution. The Tsarist clampdown, the First World War and the post-independence civil war put paid to significant further liberalisation in architecture, culture and society. As the country began to find its feet from the mid 1920s, Sibelius was about to enter his silent, last 30 years and Gallen-Kallela was close to the end of his life.

But Alvar Aalto, born in 1898, was about to enter his prime. His first great library was in what was then Finland’s second largest city, Viipuri (now Vyborg in Russia). Its first design dates from 1927, but political and economic uncertainty delayed completion until 1934. Meanwhile it underwent two design revisions that show Aalto sloughing off the influence of Asplund and his great Stadsbibliothek in Stockholm, which cast a mighty Neoclassical shadow over most Scandinavian libraries of the time (and coincidentally much of James Stirling’s later work). In the final design, Aalto found his own architectural voice, using light, form and texture to suggest openness, taking advantage of its deliberately prominent position in the city’s central park and its multiple role as library and cultural centre. It was a beacon then and remained so – despite its decaying condition – throughout the bleak Soviet years until it was faithfully restored, initially under Elissa Aalto and, after her death in 1994, under a committee chaired by former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari.

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Reworked by JKMM, areas that formerly housed books now encourage solitary reading and collaborative working

Aalto had to wait until after the Second World War for another major library commission. First came that for Jyväskylä University (1953-55), followed by city libraries in Seinäjoki (1960-65) and Rovaniemi (1961-68), and finally another academic library, this time for Otaniemi Technical University (1960-70) outside Helsinki. With these, he produced a series of designs demonstrating an extraordinary ability to play with form, texture, detail and, above all, trapping the precious and magical light of the north, which makes visiting and reading in them such a thrilling experience. In this sense he showed how architecture could reinforce social policy, here 7 per cent of GDP was invested in educating the population (the comparable figure in Britain and France is about 5.5 per cent), resulting in a 100 per cent literacy rate – a figure matched only in a few other, mainly Northern European, countries.

The recent conversion of Otaniemi Library shows the inherent strength of Aalto’s concept and an intelligent approach to adapting the building to new circumstances. It was designated the main library for Aalto University, a merger of three institutions. This increased the number of users and as it also assumed the role of a library for the local community, the range of activities was expanded from pure study to meetings, small lectures and IT services, including digital printing. But it could not expand beyond existing limits. 

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Finnish libraries

Reworked by JKMM, areas that formerly housed books now encourage solitary reading and collaborative working

In the 1960s, the prevailing assumption was that the number of books and periodicals was potentially infinite, and no library could ever have too many bookshelves. But in the last decade, new books and most periodicals have transferred to digital formats. So the original 19km of book stacks that Aalto provided could be crunched down to 5km – even allowing for the other two institutions. The dark, dense, low-ceilinged stacks, positioned at the centre of the building to facilitate the retrieval of material, could be taken out to give the structure a new, open heart. Here JKMM have placed a series of informal meeting, group working and refreshment areas. Above, virtually untouched, is the original Aalto reading area, with his familiar undulating ceiling, splayed forms, intriguing textures, variety of intimate and open spaces and, above all, a sense of light – and enlightenment. 

One reason why libraries are so important in Finland is because they are explicitly multi-functional, a characteristic that is exploited so they become the nexus of various social policies. Libraries can support literacy, education, leisure and social consolidation – all of which, as Nasima Razmyar experienced, can occur within – along with diet, exercise and health. Truly, libraries are at the heart of Finland’s success – for which Lönnrot’s editorial and Aalto’s design brilliance are seed, support and structure.

This piece is featured in the AR December 2018/January 2019 Book issue – click here to purchase your copy today