Helsinki Library
ALA Architects

On June 14, a unanimous jury named ALA Architects the winner of the city of Helsinki’s open, international competition for the design of the new Helsinki Central Library. The announcement was made at a well-attended ceremony at the Helsinki Music Center, adjacent to the library building site in the Helsinki Töölö Bay cultural district. With the award of first prize and 50,000 Euros to ALA Architects, the jury also recommended that the building commission proceed with the Finnish partnership, known for the dramatic forms of their recently opened Kilden Performing Arts Center in Kristiansand, Norway. ("Käännös," the name of ALA's winning scheme, is a characteristically multi-layered Finnish noun, meaning “translation,” “turn,” “prose,” or “swerve,” depending on the context.)

“It is difficult to imagine a project which would be a better trial for the current potentials of architecture. Our initial question has been: can we create a public space which is relevant and rewarding in the digital age?” said ALA’s Antti Nousjoki upon receiving the award. ALA’s proposed design responds to the site and the goals of the library program. The interplay between the arched, curving, exterior wooden shell and the public and private spaces of the building’s three floors produces a strong urban form, and a set of purposeful interior spaces. The jury characterized the winning entry as: “… of a very high quality, executed with relaxed, broad strokes, and memorable. The proposal provides excellent premises for the development of a completely new functional concept for the library. The building has a unique appeal and the prerequisites to become the new symbolic building which Helsinki residents, library users, as well as the staff, will readily adopt as their own.”

Befitting Helsinki’s status as a leading city in sustainable urban design, “the demands on ecological efficiency were especially high in this architectural competition,” said Helsinki Deputy Mayor Ritva Viljanen, chairperson of the jury. The new building will be sited in the Töölö Bay architectural district, between Eliel Saarinen’s Central Railway Station, SARC’s Sanoma Media House, Steven Holl’s Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, and J.S. Siren’s Finnish Parliament House, along with the Helsinki Music Center, completed last year by LPR Architects. The expectations for the library are high, according to Viljanen and the jury: “The Central Library will complete the Töölönlahti area with its cultural buildings and bring to it an art form that is now missing - literary art and literature.”

Peter MacKeith is an associate professor of architecture at Washington University in St. Louis. He curated the Nordic Pavilion at the 13th Biennale of Architecture in Venice (2012).