Last year I fulfilled a long-held ambition: to visit Finland to see the work of whom, for me, is one of the key modern architects, Alvar Aalto. I travelled north from Helsinki to Seinajoki which holds a sort of Acropolis of Aalto’s architecture since he designed the entire civic centre.
Old library undergoing renovation on left with
new library on right.
new library on right.
Although I managed to see inside the church, theatre and town hall, I could not get inside the library which was closed for renovations. It is, in fact, in the process of being connected, via a tunnel, with a new, already built library extension by JKMM architects, an extension much bigger than the original building. The demand for library use in Finland seems to have gone up not down in the current digital age. Libraries and books seem to hold an important place in Finnish culture. The Finns consume enormous amounts of books, newspapers and coffee incidentally.
The architects strategy seems to have been to provide a contrast to Aalto, eschewing organic geometry, preferring a preference for a geometry based on perspective. Low ceilings emphasise the sense of a horizon, so although the space you are in is three-dimensional, your attention is directed neither up nor down but forwards. This is perhaps part of the architect’s philosophy, that the most important part of a libraries function is that of a social space.
The low, enclosed ceilings are broken by sudden eruptions of space, suggesting a conceptual vision of space rather than an organic.
The contemporary notion that the library need to be re-invented as a social space, a strategy well –attested by other architects, is here evinced by a myriad of strategies. The open plan library contains an auditoria/ stepped-seating area for events. Special rooms are set aside for more private events. Newspapers and periodical are displayed under openable glass cases. There is a small café. Stands display grab bags containing random contents intended to offer mind-expanding experiences.
As well as providing multiple viewing boxes, certain alcove/reading spaces have been provided throughout the library, mostly for children.
The new library, as well as being partially underground, affords excellent views of the original Aalto civic centre, at both ground and basement levels.
The library contains windows seemingly based on an Indiana Jones logic , where the entrance of sun-beams, at certain times of the day and year allows sunlight to fall on certain precisely calculated locations .
A local artist, Aino Ristimäki, mounted an exhibition when I was there entitled “Sairauskertomukseni” (My case history).
Architectural culture, both in terms of creative talent and the political will which recognizes its worth and is willing to pay for it, seems alive and well in Finland.