Now we know what it looks like! Many people were smiling to themselves when the winner of the Central Library architectural competition was announced. Establishing the winning entry, ‘Käännös’ by ALA Architects, was another concrete step on the way to a new, splendid library on the shore of Töölönlahti Bay. The library is due to be completed in five years’ time.
What will this library be like? Janne Teräsvirta and Antti Nousjoki, two of the four founding architect members of ALA Architects (besides Juho Grönholm and Samuli Woolston) introduce Käännös, which may look like this on a beautiful winter day.
ALA wasted no time
The Central Library architectural competition panel’s decision was unanimous and the winning entry has also pleased other Helsinki residents. Not to mention the creators of the idea.
“We had great faith in our idea and its potential to complete the visual landscape of Töölönlahti Bay,” says Janne Teräsvirta. “This was a competition of suitability rather than superiority or beauty. The package that won was the most functional in terms of further planning. I feel Käännös was chosen because it follows the rules and matches the style of the rest of the area while offering dramatic appeal,” says Antti Nousjoki.
Janne describes the design outcome as a result of intense conversation. “Bold arguments and fighting, if necessary, usually produce good results.”According to Antti, the design process was a lengthy one. “Our processes tend to be heavy. A huge number of sketches were discarded this time, too. I am glad that each hour, no matter how slow the progress, was purely useful. The outcome should show our sweat but not the smell of it!”
Antti Nousjoki produced designs for a library as his thesis and it was evident from an early point that ALA would participate in the Central Library competition. ALA’s strengths include designing impressive, centrally located public buildings.
All owner members and a team of approximately ten other architects and visualisation experts took part in designing Käännös.“Our original idea for the outward appearance of the library was connected with Töölönlahti Bay. We want to integrate the library into a visual continuum while opening new connections in different directions. The library has several entrances, which benefit Kansalaistori Square, the nearby park and the liveliness of Mannerheimintie,” says Janne Teräsvirta.
He stresses the inviting, activating and functional nature of the library. “We examined the library building idea in terms of the functionality of other buildings in the vicinity. We divided the idea content into three sections: a traditional library, a functional library and a continuation of public space. A traditional library means books; preserving them, borrowing them and reading them. Functionality entails workshops and facilities for activities. As a part of the public space, the library includes cafés, a restaurant, a large hall, a cinema and sauna facilities.
The actual building is also divided into three sections with distinct atmospheres. “Our idea was to build three storeys, one on top of the other. The first floor is an open, spacious public space, including a lobby, a hall, exhibition space, a restaurant, and other leisurely spaces. The second floor could be described as ‘a closed mass’. It combines small, functional facilities that can be shared or closed for joint activities, learning through practice and different hobbies, such as music practice or handicrafts. The third floor, the top of the box, is another extensive, light, breathing and tranquil library space.”
“These three main levels are the clear, strong and permanent foundation of our plan. This foundation easily inspired further ideas for functionality,” says Antti Nousjoki.
Käännös entails interesting architectural solutions and materials. Undulation and a floating quality lay at the heart of its visual aspect. Wood and glass are effectively combined into a mix of the traditional and the modern.
“The top floor rises uphill, offering a good view of the entire space. Simultaneously, the top floor is a place to admire a scenic view of the main attractions by Töölönlahti Bay. We have sought to create intimacy in a large space through variations in floor and ceiling height,” says Janne. “The scale of the top floor is going to come as a surprise to everyone. The space is extremely long and startlingly open, not the kind of a public interior space people are used to seeing in Finland,” says Antti.
The middle floor is intimate by default. “The second floor gets a limited supply of light and includes many structures, only with small areas and single nooks and crannies in between. Colours can be used to decorate. The other floors are primarily light‑ and wood‑coloured,” says Janne.
The first floor, including the entrances, will be a continuum of Töölönlahti. According to Antti, the space outside of the main entrance, including stages and meeting spots, was designed as the most active part of the building, as a space that “immediately displays what is going on around the world”. “The space has a wonderfully hectic and comprehensive pulse. Rather like a big, well‑tended store.”
The Central Library has also been designed as an ecologically functional building. “Using wood as a material does not necessarily mean an ecological building, but the Töölönlahti environment encourages the use of wood. While the area includes a lot of cold materials, such as glass and metal, the milieu retains a park‑like atmosphere. I would like to see wood construction develop more rapidly in Finland. I guess people are often worried that wood is not a sufficiently urban material. We want to showcase wood,” says Teräsvirta and mentions the Kilden Performing Arts Centre in Norway as an example of ALA’s design work. Many have claimed that the concert hall is a predecessor of the library and Janne Teräsniska is willing to admit to a certain stylistic similarity, including complex geometry and wooden architecture.
A balcony over Töölönlahti Bay
The library balcony is the most striking architectural element of the building. It connects the library to the Kansalaistori Square and the other buildings and park environment in Töölönlahti. The balcony is place just to be, read, chat and have coffee. “Below the balcony, there is a spacious covered area designed with acoustic properties and the surrounding weather conditions in mind. It would be possible to organise outdoor concerts there, for example,” says Teräsvirta.
The children’s facilities also seem interesting. “They comprise a few smaller spaces, most of which will be constructed in a scale suitable for children.”
And what about the infamous plans for a sauna? “First, we thought about putting a sauna in the old warehouse building, then in the library basement. In the current designs, the sauna is located on the second floor. However, it is still a mobile component. As an object of international interest, it needs to be of sufficiently good quality and viable too – and hopefully include a chance to cool off. One possible scenario is a spa‑like basement sauna with an independent street‑level entrance. However, we must bear in mind that the costs are limited,” says Antti Nousjoki.
The name ‘Käännös’ (‘turn, translation’) has an explanation. “It refers to both the architectural shape of the building and a literary translation. I might add that it is a slight reference to our desire to introduce something new into Finnish architecture; a turn towards a direction or a style that has not been seen in a while,” says Janne.
Antti feels that changes are taking place in terms of content as well. “I believe that the Central Library will become a more profitable space compared with previous libraries. People will come to the library to work, for example on remote working days, and to meet with colleagues and customers. The atmosphere and technology of the library must allow for such usage.”
Right now, the ALA crew is waiting. After New Year, the design work will once more be kick‑started as structural engineers and a large team of other experts start converting images into reality.
“We have set our goals and are ready to begin the actual design process. The floor is free and any guesswork needs to be converted into functional characteristics. A lot modification will be needed, but the basic idea is clear. For example, the exact heights of the roof have not been decided, which gives us a lot of flexibility,” says Janne.
“Our team has toured different library buildings for years. We all agree that a library is a strong representation of the prevailing state of mind in a country. This is the first library building we have designed together and we are excited to be involved in such significant public design work, particularly to build a library,” say the architects.
“One of our basic ideas is for the library to offer a natural setting for thousands of people to gather together, as well as a facility for a more intimate experience. A geometrically complex construction can be functional, simple and inviting. We hope that, in Käännös, we have succeeded in designing a building people will feel attracted to visit.”