The Finnish Institute will organise a panel discussion on libraries as civic spaces at the London Festival of Architecture. One of the panelists is Antti Nousjoki, the architect of Helsinki’s new central library Oodi.
Oodi is often referred to as a living room for all of Helsinki. Was that your original intention for the central library?
Absolutely. Architecture is slow, which you can see in the idea of a library as people’s living room. There had been a dream of a shared space for everyone in the city, long before it made its way into the public debate. The first phase began in 2011, and already the first call for proposals focused on a cosy shared space for people and activities.
What is the most difficult aspect about designing a modern library?
The mission of architecture. You have to solve contradictions and use them to your advantage. Oodi was meant to be an intimate and safe space that would provide a pleasant experience. It had to provide the opportunity for calm and concentration while also being shared by a large community. That is a contradiction of the private and the public, the relationship and interpretation of shared and private spaces. We had to take that into account in everything, from furniture to planning the different zones of the building.
Oodi has garnered global interest. How does that make you feel?
It is rewarding, because there is a lot of building going on in the world. Architecture is a global art form that combines the local society, culture and economy. It is also incredibly competitive. Oodi has taken its place well enough and gained international attention. Helsinki has bravely opposed current trends by not aiming for maximum profit, but by investing in a library instead. Citizens’ changing needs made it possible to focus on the library’s social function. In Britain such a project would be near impossible to execute, because libraries have been brought to bay, for example by shortening opening hours. Under those circumstances, the library exists as a building, but not as an institution.
What was your inspiration for Oodi?
The inspiration for Oodi came from the great ambitions for its function. Oodi was meant to be an ergonomic and functional library that gets its force from its environment and location. A central location in the heart of Helsinki makes Oodi a continuation of a dynamically developing city and urban culture. Functionality came first, not symbolism or mimetism. For a library, its functionality and things like acoustics are more relevant than the visuals.
How does Oodi update traditional library architecture?
We added the characteristics of a makerspace to the traditional light-bathed silence of a library. The spaces offer community and privacy, because the partition walls are movable and can also be removed. The building is a versatile, modern reinterpretation of a traditional library. Its three floors offer different moods and possibilities, while still remaining connected. The middle floor completes the whole in a way suitable to our era, offering the possibility for social interaction and spending time together.
What does the future hold for libraries?
The future of libraries is connected to the future of cities. Livable cities, urban life and spaces will decreasingly serve commercial interests. The infrastructure of buying and lending will lose some of its significance, and we must replace it with informal and better spaces where people can spend time. Libraries enable us to take part in a variety of activities and spend time in different ways. They participate in the debate about who counts as a full member of society. Do you have to pay a fee or belong to a club? Does everyone have the same opportunities?
Tuula Haavisto, director of culture in Helsinki told us that Oodi is the result of long and multidisciplinary discussions and collaboration. Does public discussion play an important role in designing public buildings?
No question about it. Helsinki residents have been genuinely involved in designing Oodi through public discussions and workshops, which means that the library has been democratically realised. Oodi’s starting point was innovative instead of commercial. The public discussion revealed what the public wanted to be built in Helsinki city centre and what the building would be used for. The city dwellers and their representatives collaborated, and every phase in the planning had been very transparent. For once, the completed building was as had been promised.