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Helsinki University Library in Finland by Anttinen Oiva Architects

Enticing both town and gown, Helsinki Universityʼs new central library marries scholarliness with commerce, reflecting the changing character of academic institutions and the nature of public space

Like most writers I consider myself something of a connoisseur of libraries, but perhaps that’s just making a virtue of a necessity. From Scharoun’s Berlin Staatsbibliothek to the dreaded British Library, I’ve sat in libraries of all shapes and sizes, all over the world, opened my laptop − and stared out of the window. The reason I say the dreaded BL is that the latter activity, so crucial to the process of writing, is impossible in Colin St John Wilson’s top-lit reading rooms. Helsinki University’s new library, on the other hand, is a daydreamer’s dream − a library to make a scopophile’s eyes gleam and mouth water. Daylight floods the building through curvaceous scoops in the facades and flows down through three ovoid atria into the structure’s heart. In this hibernatory and frequently frozen city, which spends more time beneath the blankets than a teenage boy, daylight is a scarce commodity to be cherished; this building wrings it from the sky to the very last drop and then splashes it all over its gleaming white interior.

Helsinki is no stranger to strange architectural visitations; the city has a long tradition of idiosyncrasy. The wonderful Aalto and the lamentable Holl have both built weirdly here, and the Finns may soon get what they really don’t want in the form of a Guggenheim-branded albatross. But while the library has an exuberant interior, this is not expressed with any violence on its facade. Instead it sits easily in its surroundings. The site − formerly occupied by a department store that went bust − occupies a liminal zone between the grand neo-classical university and government buildings to its east, and the modernistic brick commercial buildings to its west. It has two faces which subtly reflect this town-versus-gown split, speaking to both groups of its users; like all university libraries in Finland, it is open to members of the public, who may also borrow books.

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Site plan

Impressively, it achieves this duplicity while maintaining a unified formal language. The brick grid of its commercial neighbours is adopted on both sides of the building, stripped of any remnants of columns and other vestigial horizontal or vertical accents, and made into a pure abstraction. On the east facade the architects enliven this grid by punching through three apertures which could have been cut from a French curve. This is not just a formal flourish, it’s a way of responding to the split-level site: the facade seems to bounce down the abutting steps like a slinky, and the curve on the lower level is cut deep into the brick, forming an entrance to a ground-floor supermarket. In a very elegant move, another parabolic archway within this porch takes you, via an escalator running parallel to the facade, back up to the library’s shop and café on the upper level.

These busy commercial spaces form a transitional zone between the institutional space of the library and the public space of the street, with the aim of enticing passing trade into the building and thereby fulfilling the ideal of a university library integrated into the life of the city. (This theme continues in the basement, where the building directly links to the underground station beneath it.) So far this strategy seems to be working, certainly far better than in a building which is somewhat comparable in its ambitions, David Adjaye’s Whitechapel Idea Store. The two have very different aesthetics − New Labour Punk revival versus Nordic space-age sobriety − but they both adopt commercial language (more on that later) in an attempt to engage with public space. This aim has been frustrated in Adjaye’s case: the department store-style escalator on the facade of his Idea Store has been closed for years. But then Helsinki and Whitechapel are very different places − and it should be added that the Idea Store is usually full, even if it doesn’t meet the market below it quite as gregariously as intended. Perhaps Adjaye’s building would have been realised as successfully as this if his project hadn’t been subjected to violent cuts halfway through, another way in which our national architectural cultures differ profoundly. A further reminder of this gulf is that this €50 million commission was awarded to a practice, Anttinen Oiva Architects, straight out of architecture school in an open competition − the stuff of student wet dreams in England, but standard practice in Finland.

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Source: Mika Huisman

A giant light scoop channels scarce Nordic daylight into the library interior

The library’s outer skin of brick grid pierced by curved apertures is also carried through to the east facade, but it sobers up along the journey: here, where the building occupies just one level, there is only one large parabolic arch, ceremonial in its symmetry, which is flush with the building on the upper storeys and then recedes to form a porch on the ground floor. The huge steel-framed sheets of Pilkington glass reveal the stacked bands of the atrium within, giving a hint of the transparency of the space behind the facade − and on the top floor, a long balcony overlooks the city, allowing readers to take their books out for a breath of fresh air. Here the building faces the university zone, and there are no commercial units − instead students enter directly and can go straight to the issue desk and automated return and issue machines. The current trend of installing the latter in libraries certainly gives librarians time to do more interesting things than stamp books − or allows them to be fired, if automation is being used to cut labour costs − but it does tend to dehumanise the library as an institution if there is no personal contact at this crucial point. The architects counteract this by glazing the room behind the slot, revealing the journey books make along a conveyor belt to be deposited, according to their points of destination, in high-tech trolleys. Library staff can then be seen collecting these and take them in dedicated lifts to the appropriate floor.

Visitors, on the other hand, cross the wide-open space beneath the central atrium − the concentric rings of which hover overhead like something out of 2001 − to an elegant spiral stair at the opposite end of the ground floor. Columns ring the perimeter of this clearing, which is floored with pale wood, and the effect is spacious, light and impressive. Open stacks stretch off to one side, staff offices to the other, and behind the staircase another ovoid atrium greets the west window like an amphitheatre. Here readers lounge facing the sun in Panton-esque chairs (all of the furniture is very much designer, and tends towards 1960s grooviness). This is a pleasant idea, generously executed, and I am reminded that the most famous project of this nation’s most famous architect was a sanatorium.

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Sectition AA

The atria decline in circumference on the upper storeys, providing more floor area for bookstacks and readers. The latter can choose from armchairs (in a variety of amoebic shapes and bright colours − more shades of 2001), or desks, stools, private booths or working ‘clusters’. I use the latter word, painfully redolent of office jargon, advisedly: the study areas here are coded according to the degree of silence they dictate. This was done with the best intentions − of making room for both casual visitors and those engaged in more concentrated labour, while eliminating the violent ‘shhh’ of more old-fashioned librarians. These requirements were elicited via a lengthy period of consultation conducted by a specialist in the field, ‘service designer’ Mikko Koivisto.

However, these design decisions simultaneously usher market ideology through the door of a space − the library − that had seemed blessedly free of it until now. Of course, the impression that academia and its spaces are in any way autonomous of power structures is, generally speaking, an illusory one. As Nietzsche pointed out in his inaugural lecture, the university is like a machine composed of ‘One speaking mouth with many ears, and half as many writing hands … The one may speak what he likes and the other may hear what he likes; only, behind both groups stands the state, at a modest distance and with the slightly strained expression of a supervisor, in order to remind them from time to time that it is the aim, the goal, and the embodiment, of this curious speaking and hearing procedure.’ (I wonder how that went down with his employer.)

Libraries of a more crumbling, forgotten venerability do still seem to offer some haven − through their very anachronicity − from the relentless march of neoliberalism through the institutions. But today, ‘agile working’ − as hot-desking and zero-hour contracts are now emetically known − takes command everywhere. (You have to be agile to avoid the brickbats of post-Fordist labour markets.) The problem is that, in order to make an institutional space seem more public, the designers have adopted the language of commerce. While the results are certainly pleasing from a purely aesthetic and functional point of view, what this says about the meaning of public space in the 21st century is somewhat less so.

Helsinki University Library

Architect: Anttinen Oiva Architects

Photographs: Mika Huisman

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