“Now it’s time for some culture,” declares Deputy Mayor Ritva Viljanen exuberantly when speaking of the Central Library. The voice of the new “mother” of the Central Library project rings with such enthusiasm and joy that it is easy to see the endeavour reaching new heights in these hands. “The Töölönlahti area will become a highly-valued part of the city and the number one place for a variety of demographic groups,” Mrs. Viljanen says, contemplating the visitor numbers of the Central Library and the Olympic Stadium, which is to be renovated. “After the wars, we built schools, then banks in the best locations in town and then shopping centres. Now it’s time to focus on non-commercial buildings and facilities – centres of culture and knowledge for everyone to enjoy. I would describe the Central Library as a house of Finnish knowledge.
Viljanen’s message to those who oppose the construction of new buildings is that Helsinki city centre is still a work in progress. “Public space is being constructed layer by layer in different eras. We are still in the middle of building a new Helsinki. The planned site for the library has been allocated for public use. Do we want a new shopping centre in that location? We are building history and setting our sights on the future. The Töölönlahti area will not feel complete as an open public space unless we supplement it with a space that is available to all, like the Central Library.”
Ritva Viljanen, what would you like to see and hear upon stepping into the Central Library? “Lots of people, voices and a bustle of activity. I’d also like to immediately feel like I’ve entered a house of books and literature. It would ideally be a welcoming place to which it would be easy to return. The library could have daily discussion panels, since there’s no shortage of interesting topics and speakers. I’d definitely go to the library to hear experts and enthusiasts from various fields.”
I have faith in the book
Ritva Viljanen describes herself as a voracious consumer of culture. “I simply can’t commute without music. My iPod contains about 2,000 songs. I attend cultural events on a weekly basis, and theatre is very dear to me.” For Mrs. Viljanen, literature provides respite from day-to-day life, inspiring journeys into the imagination and important information. “My own book collection is quite chaotic. I have lots of books and bookshelves. Yet, I’m in need of a new book shelf! I’m ashamed to say that, even though I have a vast collection of cookbooks, it’s such a mess that I normally download recipes off the internet!”
Mrs. Viljanen reads at least a few pages every night and admits to reading several books at a time. “If I think about libraries a hundred years from now, the environment is sure to be heavily digital, with robots and such. Still, I have faith in the book as a physical object. After all, it has survived for centuries so why wouldn’t it in the future, too?”
The new library must stand the test of time, and Ritva Viljanen knows this. “In two decades, the Central Library must still look like an architecturally valuable building. This kind of forethought is challenging. I hope this goal will be achieved in the same way as the Finlandia Hall.” Ritva Viljanen took up her duties as the chairperson of the jury of the architectural design competition for the Central Library with great interest and enthusiasm. “All six of the submissions that advanced further were astonishing, particularly considering the challenges of the small site. The level of competition is extremely high. I’ve already found my favourite,” Mrs. Viljanen reveals but refuses to divulge anything more.
The financing is still partially in the air, but Ritva Viljanen is not too concerned about the budget. “I’m very confident that everything, including budget-related matters, will proceed in the appropriate way. In terms of the budget, I’m in my own comfort zone, so there’s no reason to worry. Everything will sort itself out eventually.” Mrs. Viljanen has been most excited by the open nature of the project. “The openness of the Central Library project is exceptional. The participatory budgeting, the UnelMoi campaign and the social media efforts have been great examples of this. The city doesn’t have a template for a project as engaging as this. The ideas provided by city residents have also been wonderful. We will absolutely implement some of the best ones.”
Courage to make big decisions
In Ritva Viljanen’s opinion, the Central Library has two purposes above all others: creating a place for people that provides the tools and means to do interesting things, and establishing an environment where the strong presence of knowledge will enable the birth of new ideas. “The atmosphere should be so inspiring that you will practically trip over new ideas! The virtual environment will also be something completely new. In the architectural design competition, a sauna has also been included in the building. At first, I was quite perplexed, but there are many fascinating aspects to this idea. Finnish history, a sauna of learning, the bathing tradition from Roman times, the only library sauna in the world… We need to work on this idea.”
What about the much-discussed position of the district libraries and the situation of the library network? “The Central Library project doesn’t go against the local libraries in any way. If this had been the case, the project would have been dead and buried in five minutes. The suburbs need services, so we aim to develop them continuously. However, the city centre needs historically significant developments, too. Sometimes you need to have the courage to make big decisions!” Mrs. Viljanen also peers into the future of the library network. “Structural changes are bound to happen. Self-services libraries will become more commonplace, along with small pop-up libraries and downloadable libraries based on mutual trust. They can appear anywhere from restaurants to metro tunnels, as in Shanghai.”
Ritva Viljanen describes her role in the Central Library project as extremely significant for her. “This is absolutely one of the most important projects of my period of office, and its effects will be visible for centuries. The library as a national institution carries vast importance for Helsinki and the entire country, as a force that renews cityscapes. These kinds of projects don’t come along often, so this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Ritva Viljanen, what comes to your mind about the Central Library when you think about…
…COLOUR? “A striking colour, and one that lets light through.”
…SCENT? “The smell of books and ink. And the aroma of coffee wafting through the air!”
…FEELINGS? “Joy, excitement and warmth.”
…A PLANT? “A green, sprouting leaf. An impressive and large plant.
…MASCOT? “A character from Finnish folk lore… It has to be a library gnome!”
Text: Siru Valleala
Photos: Helsinki City Library, City of Helsinki, Pertti Nisonen