Oodi by ALA Architects

An 'Ode' to the Educated Citizen

 Ulf Meyer
20. December 2018
Photo: Tuomas Uusheimo
Helsinki Central Library Oodi was inaugurated on December 5th, twenty years after it was first proposed. Oodi, as its known, was the subject of the Finnish Pavilion at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale and has been nominated for the 2019 EU Mies Award. Ulf Meyer visited the much-anticipated building days after its opening and filed this review.
A politician’s biography such as this one can only be found in Finland: Claes Andersson broke off his career as a doctor only to excel as a lyricist and jazz musician and then become Minister of Culture of Finland. It was his idea to build a huge new library on the best site in all of Finland, directly opposite the National Parliament and in the middle of the new cultural quarter of the capital city, Helsinki. Its design is a game-changer in terms of library architecture and content. The new library, called Oodi, has been inaugurated on the occasion of the one-hundred-and-first birthday of the Republic of Finland. Since its opening in early December, people have flocked to the new library. The bibliophile Nordic country is known as a master in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), and calls itself the most "alphabetized and digital nation in the world." But even in this society spoiled with beautiful libraries, Oodi has what it takes to become the new gold standard in the design of public libraries.
Photo: Tuomas Uusheimo
The Finnish architecture office ALA gave the building an elegant form with a wood-clad funnel as a giant entrance. The Oodi Library is located opposite the Parliament on Kansala Square and just minutes away from the new Amos Rex Museum. The most important concert hall (Musiikktalo) and the best museum of contemporary art (Kiasma) in Finland flank the side of this "citizen’s plaza."

​The building offers more than 17,000 square meters of space, but stores "only" 100,000 books. Long rows of bookshelves occupy just the top floor – with marvelous panoramic views over the city center, Finlandia Hall, and Tölöö Bay – of the library’s three floors. The building defines its role as an "urban living room," while sound studios, a kitchen, large and always populated play and reading areas for children, and a Maker Space make Oodi a "forum for thoughts and work."
Photo: Tuomas Uusheimo
ALA Architects have already used a double-curved façade in their first main work, the Kilden Theater in Kristiansand, Norway. There, the great gesture faces the Sea, while in Helsinki it faces the center of political power. Clad with Finnish spruce, the library’s covered entrance forms a large city balcony, from which citizens can look over to Parliament at eye level. This symbolic gesture intends to show the equal importance of education and politics in Finnish society. The city and state paid about 98 million euros for their new building, which satisfies a basic need: 5 million Finns borrowed 68 million books from city libraries last year. The Finnish state spends about 57 euros per capita on libraries. Despite omnipresent digital media and thriving streaming services, the number of books borrowed continues to grow.
Photo: Tuomas Uusheimo
Oodi is a refined bridge structure made of steel but, unfortunately, that fact is concealed both inside and out. Two massive steel girders stretch over a hundred meters to enable the column-free foyer. In this long thin space a cinema, auditorium and café are housed. On the floor above – a needlessly geometrically complex mezzanine in which the structure is only half-heartedly hidden – are music studios, offices, and seminar rooms. The bel étage, however, is the second upper floor, the actual library level, designed as a book landscape under a light, glistening ceiling. Wooden floors contrast with the white plaster, which bulges like cumulus clouds and admits daylight for readers through round skylights. The low shelves let views wander freely.
Photo: Tuomas Uusheimo
The most conventional part of the new library is its plan. Rem Koolhaas' library in Seattle or Sou Fujimoto's library for Musashino University near Tokyo are more successful in making something out of the program itself. Instead of reinventing the book part of their library, ALA enriched it with a variety of functions to keep it relevant for many generations. Free and low-threshold access to new technologies such as 3D printers and laser cutters, game consoles and sewing machines is at the center of Oodi; sports equipment, tools, and even dishes can be borrowed in this modern multimedia library. Anybody with a library card can use the tools – often without prior appointment. Oodi supports lifelong learning, active citizenship and thus "democracy and freedom of expression." The good old book also get a hi-tech touch at Oodi: All books are equipped with radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, which robots can use to move them around the building, taking them back, if necessary, to their shelf space.
Photo: Tuomas Uusheimo
The name "Oodi" (Ode) was suggested by a citizen in an open request for ideas. This "Ode" is a hymn to the educational zeal and the digital skills of this Nordic society. The unique shape of the building should quickly make it a new symbol of the Finnish capital. Oodi is already a beloved "urban space for all citizens," which should help them to – no small task – "find their way around the world" says Juho Grönholm, one of the three partners in ALA. This new type of "hybrid library" is halfway between a knowledge storage and a digital co-working space for creative activities. Maybe libraries need to be hi-tech multimedia studios to survive…
Photo: Tuomas Uusheimo
The charm of this new building, however, lies in the tasteful assemblage of books, shelves, and light across beautiful spaces. After all, a library still has to enable users to quickly find the titles they are looking for and, along the way, stumble upon titles they never knew existed. In the Google era, it is crucial for contemporary libraries to store knowledge but also re-link it. Only then will the existence of libraries not be questioned in view of the digitization of all areas of life. The generation of readers that grew up almost exclusively with place-less, digital information may appreciate the "hardware" of other libraries as well, which are nothing more than that – beautiful places for books.
Photo: Tuomas Uusheimo

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