Light for the Literary: Helsinki Central Library Oodi

The northern city of Helsinki, one of Europe’s youngest capitals, is known around the world for its impressive and varied architecture. From Neoclassical and Jugendstil (a German evolution of Art Nouveau) to National Romanticism, a peppering of various architectural styles can be found throughout the city. Given its relative youth, Helsinki has also been able to embrace modern and postmodern architecture in a way that other antiquity-steeped European hubs have not. Lovers of sculptural, deconstructivist structures in particular will be especially delighted by one building a short stroll from the waterfront park of Kaisaniemi or the central railway station. Rippling over the city skyline here is the Helsinki Central Library Oodi, a building that seems to flutter with movement — not unlike the pages of a book.

The library was designed by ALA Architects, a local firm with a portfolio of projects from Scandinavia to New Delhi. Officially inaugurated in December of 2018, Oodi had racked up a total of one million visitors by just March of the following year. At its busiest, up to 20,000 people have walked through the library’s doors in a single day. It serves as a community gathering place as well as a centre for book browsing.

The spatial concept executed by ALA is that of an inhabited bridge, one that spans over 100 metres above the open and cavernous ground floor. The firm’s design vision for the structure involved creating a division between three distinct levels: a ground floor, an upper floor, and an enclosed volume in between.

The ground floor transitions smoothly from the exterior Kansalaistori Square, with a main entrance situated beneath a dramatic canopy. A wooden façade at the front of the building creates an arching, bridge-like structure that gives the library so much of its defining character. It’s also a design choice that makes for a column-free lobby space, suitable for public events; if needed, the adjacent multipurpose hall can be utilized as an extension of this grand space. This feat of engineering was achieved by creating the bridge from steel trusses and beams, supported by two massive steel arches and tensioned together with a reinforced concrete slab. The cantilevered balcony and roof canopy are supported by secondary, asymmetrical steel trusses.

That entrance canopy also serves an exterior function, creating a covered outdoor space and blurring the line between interior and exterior boundaries. This organization intentionally leaves room for future development possibilities — specifically, a road tunnel that could cross beneath the building.

The enclosed volume of the middle floor houses plenty of nooks and crannies between the trusses of the bridge structure. Here, flexible rooms and spaces function as group working areas, recording studios, editing suites, and a bustling Urban Worksop, where equipment such as 3D printers, laser cutters, soldering irons, and sewing machines are all available for visitor use.

The top floor of the building is where a library in the traditional sense can be found — traditional, yes, but with plenty of modern technological bells and whistles. It’s an open, airy space that gives way to a “cloud-like” undulating ceiling, making this a peaceful place to read and learn. The serenity of this upper environment is further enhanced by unobstructed panoramic views of the city centre from its floor-to-ceiling windows and, at the very top of the outer canopy, a large terrace.

Having local architects at the helm of this massive project also meant a proximity-based familiarity with the building’s environment and the realities of the local climate. It has been built from local materials — notably, the beautiful wood of the façade has been made from pre-fabricated spruce modules — and the façade underwent detailed performance analysis to minimize the need for mechanical environmental control systems. The complex, curving silhouette of the structure was achieved using algorithm-aided parametric 3D-design methods. It was also, of course, designed with the environment in mind; the low energy consumption of this library makes it very nearly a Zero Energy Building. Its lifespan has been estimated at 150 years.

Oodi is truly a communal, community-driven space. Not only can visitors make use of its book circulation e-service called HelMet, which provides access to roughly 3.4 million works (all of which can be reserved online and collected or returned at any of the 63 libraries or 6 “bookmobiles” throughout the city), or make use of its impressive facilities and equipment. Visitors can also find information here at Helsinki Info (the city’s information centre), Europa Experience (the centre for European Union-related information), attend the Kino Regina (the National Audiovisual Institute’s cinema), kick back at Playground Loru, or grab a bite at the café or restaurant.

This remarkable building has received plenty of recognition around the world. Accolades have included the 2018 Steel Structure of the Year award; a 2019 AZ Award in the “Buildings Over 1,000 SqM” category (winning both the jury and the people’s choice); a place on the shortlist for the WAF Awards, Architizer A+ Awards, and EU Mies Award; and a long list spot for the Dezeen Awards.

Perhaps our favourite feature of the building? While Helsinki is not quite situated in the land of the midnight sun, owing to the fact that it’s actually located some 750 km south of the Arctic Circle, it does boast extraordinarily long days between May and September — and, luckily for visitors and residents alike, Central Library Oodi boasts one of the best terraces in the city from which to enjoy that sun. And thanks to the fact that the library is open until 10pm each night (with the exception of Sundays), there’s no excuse for missing those especially long magic hours.

Curious to see more untraditional, ultra-contemporary libraries around the world? Check out this geometric structure in Calgary and this swooping futuristic building in Tianjin.