Helsinki’s Poetic New Central Library Is a Public Space for the Digital Age

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The new library, dubbed Oodi and designed by ALA Architects, provides democratic and state-of-the-art facilities for learning, making, playing, and reading.

Public libraries have never just been about books. Pockets of local social and cultural life, libraries have been monuments to civic values and shared knowledge. More than that, they have been places to simply be, without calls to consume or even explain one’s presence. The public library is “a non-commercial public space which is open for everyone, free for everyone, belonging to everyone and used for everyone’s benefit,” writes curator Anni Vartola in the catalogue of Mind-Building, the exhibition for the Finnish pavilion at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale.

Yet changes in reading habits—the role of the book in everyday life—and our attitudes toward civic infrastructure have brought about some existential crises for the public library. “Is the public library obsolete?” asked the New York Times in September, citing library systems starved of funding in Atlanta and San Francisco. In the U.K., more than 400 libraries have closed since 2010. In Helsinki, capital of the most literate country in the world, book borrowing figures have also been declining. Yet rather than close libraries, that city’s government is recognizing the social role of the public library beyond words on a page and redefining the library for the 21st century.

Vartola’s Mind-Building at Venice anticipated the opening of Oodi, a new library for Helsinki designed by local firm ALA Architects. Viewed from the steps of the nearby Finnish parliament house, the library appears like an inverted boat, a great mass that is submerged beneath a wave of undulating glazing.

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