By Veronica Simpson
The Oodi library in Helsinki creates inhabitable landscapes, but conjuring an atmosphere where reading, learning, working and socialising are all simultaneously possible takes careful attention to acoustics and materials.
One of the most remarkable new buildings in Helsinki is the Oodi Central Library, its striking, wooden arching form creating a new public space on the edge of a square, right opposite the Finnish parliament. Conceived by Helsinki-based ALA architects as an ‘inhabited bridge’, within its three floors are three distinct, highly inhabitable, interior landscapes designed to unite the Helsinki community around learning, making and hanging out throughout the short summer months and the long, dark, winters.
Only a third of this library is dedicated to books: on the first floor, there are great banks of desks and chairs free for co-working, as well as smaller meeting rooms and private workspaces. There are work-stations where you can hire a wide range of making equipment, from sewing machines to 3D printers; and there are soundproofed music studios, gaming rooms and even a fully equipped kitchen.
With its curved black ceiling, propped up on large, angled pillars and regularly punctuated by circular white lights, this first floor has the feel of being up in the tree canopy. By contrast, the daylight-filled top floor feels more like a beach or oasis, with its sandy wooden floors tilting up at either end. These upturned edges, says ALA principal Samuli Woolston, were inspired by the idea that: ‘You grab a book and then climb onto the “hill” to be a bit out of the way, but you can still see the whole valley between. You can choose how far away you are from the main group of people. It also helps with the scale. This building is 150m long; if that was a straight floor with glass at each end it would feel infinite.’
The landscape is enriched by real trees, which flag up the sociable, soft seating clusters between the simple white bookshelves. The presence of living nature adds to the room’s relaxed, pastoral feel, as does the daylight beaming down from circular skylights and washing in from the glazed walls on either side.
This is not the kind of library that forbids chatter; the gentle hum of conversation drifts across from the top floor café, which also serves the generous decked terrace next to it. A larger café on the ground floor sits right next to an event room, where a book reading is taking place when I visit. With its glazed vistas onto the piazza, framed by the protective wing of the timber canopy, the ground floor feels very much as ALA principal Samuli Woolston describes it: ‘like a public square. That continuation of the outside – it’s more like a covered plaza.’
The choice of timber for this building’s exterior was driven by a desire to contrast with the more formal aspects of the surrounding structures. ‘There is a lot of stone and steel and glass around, and we wanted something soft and very welcoming to the public. That’s why we went for these curvilinear forms and wood,’ says Woolston.
On the inside, enormous attention has been paid to acoustics, especially on the first floor, where so many different – and often noisy - activities are hosted. The black ceiling that runs across the whole first floor is made up of acoustic material. On the top floor, the thinnest of plaster coatings has been applied to the ceiling, on top of a 100mm layer of acoustic wool. The billowing contours also help to soften the acoustics, says Woolston.
There are other subtle surface treatments that communicate quietly but effectively the intended uses: back on the first floor, the area where the music and gaming rooms begin is flagged up by a wall covered in faceted cork tiles. Says Woolston: ‘It references the materials you have inside the music studio that kills the sound. Architecturally, that’s very important to us with all our buildings: we want the materials to help people to understand how to use them, without having to find the signage.’ A quiet room is dominated by a large, curving, multi-seater pod upholstered in thick wool; you could imagine children wanting to spend long winter afternoons reading or being read to there.
A fascinating feature on the top floor – a printed raindrop pattern that is layered in strategic waves across both the interior and outer layer of the quadruple glazed windows – is another piece of subtle instruction, though I had thought it was more about conjuring up rain on the windowpane, and that impulse to hunker down indoors and read. It is both practical and strategic, says Woolston, partly to provide solar shading, but also frame only certain parts of the landscape. He says: ‘Some parts are completely clear and some closed and it guides your views, so we’re controlling which buildings you see and which you don’t see so much from the top floor. We’re hiding the office building on the other side, and allowing the Parliament to show well from the top of the escalators. It is kind of painting out the landscape from the inside.’ That’s a clever building indeed: it helps users to focus in, as well as focus out.