ALA Architects wins
Helsinki library competition


News: Finnish studio ALA Architects has won the international competition to design a new public library in Helsinki with plans that involve a mass of twisted timber (+ slideshow).

Helsinki Central Library by ALA Architects

Launched in January 2012, the competition asked applicants to come up with a timeless, flexible and energy-efficient building to sit opposite the Finnish Parliament building in the Töölönlahti area of the city.

Helsinki Central Library by ALA Architects

ALA Architects' response is for a three-storey structure comprising a contorted timber volume. Public activities and group study areas will occupy an active ground floor beneath the curving wooden surfaces, while a traditionally quiet reading room will be located above and a contemporary media facility and public sauna will be housed in the middle.

Helsinki Central Library by ALA Architects

Two main entrances will provide access to the building. A public plaza in front of the western facade is to lead into a main lobby, where a staircase will spiral up to the floors above, while a second entrance will face the railway station to the south and offer an escalator that penetrates the wooden volume overhead.

Helsinki Central Library by ALA Architects

"The architecture of the proposal is of a very high quality, executed with relaxed, broad strokes, and memorable," commented the competition organisers.

Helsinki Central Library by ALA Architects

They added: "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."

Helsinki Central Library by ALA Architects

ALA Architects, who is also based in Helsinki, plans to use local materials such as Siberian larch to construct the Helsinki Central Library and it is scheduled to open in 2018.

Helsinki Central Library by ALA Architects

The studio previously worked on another building with an undulating timber structure for the Kilden performing arts centre in Kristiansand, Norway.

Helsinki Central Library by ALA Architects

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Here's some extra information from ALA Architects:

ALA Architects wins Helsinki Central Library competition

ALA Architects have won the design competition for the new Helsinki Central Library with their entry Käännös. The open international two-stage competition attracted 544 entries from all over the world. The 16,000 square metre library building in the heart of Helsinki will consist almost entirely of public spaces and will offer a wide selection of services. It will serve as the new central point for the city's impressive public library network. The Central Library is slated to open in 2018.

Helsinki Central Library by ALA Architects

The winning entry is based on the idea of dividing the functions of the library into three distinctive levels: an active ground floor, a calm upper floor, and an enclosed in-between volume containing the more specific functions. This concept has been developed into an arching form that invites people to utilise the spaces and services underneath, inside and on top of it. The resulting building will be an inspiring and highly functional addition to the urban life of Helsinki and the nationally significant Töölönlahti area.

ALA is one of the leading Nordic architecture firms. The office has previously completed the Kilden Performing Arts Centre in Kristiansand, Norway, and is currently working on a number of large public projects in Finland including two theaters, five subway stations, and a passenger ferry hub. Käännös has been designed by ALA partners Juho Grönholm, Antti Nousjoki, Janne Teräsvirta and Samuli Woolston together with the ALA project team, assisted by the engineering experts at Arup.

Helsinki Central Library by ALA Architects

Description of the winning entry Käännös

Käännös grows from the dynamic between the site and the goals of the library program. The interplay between the building's three individual floors is the key concept of the entry.

The public plaza in front of the building will continue inside, merging with a catalogue of meeting and experience features. The ground floor will be a robust, busy and frequently updated space suitable for quick visits and walkthroughs. The active, zero-threshold public spaces will be visible, attractive, understandable and welcoming to all visitors.

Helsinki Central Library by ALA Architects
Site plan - click for larger image

The traditional, serene library atmosphere can be found on the top floor. This will be a calm area for contemplation, floating above the busy central Helsinki. It will offer unobstructed, majestic views to the surrounding park and cityscape.These two contrasting spaces that perfectly complement each other are created by an arching wooden volume. The spaces inside the volume will be enclosed and more intimate. The wooden volume is stretched vertically to create connections to the open main floors below and above. Soft, curved shapes will be present all around the building.

Helsinki Central Library by ALA Architects
Basement plan - click for larger image

The curved ceiling covering the ground floor, the intensive flowing spaces on the middle level, as well as the curving floor surface of the top floor are all defined in the timber-clad mass, which is as functional as it is expressive.

There will be three public entrance points in the building: one in the south for the main pedestrian flow from the direction of the Central Railway Station, one next to the public plaza to the west of the building shielded by an overhanging canopy, as well as a secondary one in the northeastern corner. The top floor can be reached from the southern entrance by an escalator that penetrates the wooden volume, or from the main lobby via a spiraling double-helix stair.

Helsinki Central Library by ALA Architects
Ground floor plan - click for larger image

Each floor will be a destination in its own right and a new exciting civic space in the heart of Helsinki. While being a traditional library space, the top floor will also act as a modern, open, flexible platform for a multitude of functions. The middle floor will offer opportunities for learning-by-doing in an environment optimised for contemporary media and latest tools. It will contain workshop spaces for music and multimedia, as well as a public sauna. A multipurpose hall, a restaurant and a cinema will be located on ground floor. The library's facilities will offer services, as well as places to meet, to discuss, and to present ideas.

Helsinki Central Library by ALA Architects
First floor plan - click for larger image

The library building will be extremely energy efficient. It will be constructed using local materials and with local climate conditions in mind. Some of the main load-bearing components will be made of timber. The wooden façade will be built from pre-assembled elements finished on-site. 30 millimetre thick Finnish first grade Siberian Larch wood, shaped with a parametric 3D design and manufacturing process in order to achieve a perfect execution of the desired geometry, will be used for the cladding. The appearance of the façade will develop over the years towards a deeper, richer version of its initial hue. The design of the façade is intrinsic to the passive design approach adopted by the project team. Detailed analysis of the façade performance informs the environmental solutions and has allowed the team to minimise any systems required, which in turn facilitates the highly flexible architectural solution.

Helsinki Central Library by ALA Architects
Second floor plan - click for larger image

About the competition and the Helsinki City Library

Helsinki Central Library will serve as the new center point for Helsinki's impressive public library network. It will be located in the very heart of Helsinki, in the Töölönlahti area, opposite the Finnish Parliament building. As its neighbors it will have some of the city's most important public buildings; the Helsinki Music Centre, the Sanoma House, the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art designed by Steven Holl, Alvar Aalto's Finlandia Hall, and the Central Railway Station by Eliel Saarinen, as well as several new office and residential buildings still partially under construction on the site of a former railway yard.

The open international two-stage architectural competition was launched in January 2012, and attracted 544 entries from all over the world. The six entries selected for further development for the second phase of the competition were announced in November 2012. The Central Library is slated to open in 2018.

Helsinki Central Library by ALA Architects
Long section - click for larger image

The goal of the competition has been to find a timeless and energy-efficient design solution that responds to the challenges set by the location. The library building should complement and adjust to the urban fabric of the Töölönlahti area. The building is to express the operational concepts of a library in a way that offers a technically and spatially flexible framework for cutting-edge, adaptable library operations, now and in the future. It will reflect the technical and cultural changes taking place in the society, particularly evident in the media world.

Library operations are statutory in Finland. Basic library services are free of charge and freely available to everyone. The new 16,000 square metre (approx. 172,000 square foot) library building will consist almost entirely of public spaces. The administrative and storage functions of Helsinki Public Library will remain at the main library in Pasila. In terms of services offered, the new library will be the largest public library in the Helsinki metropolitan area, and will most certainly become the metropolitan area's most popular spot for returns and reservations. It has been estimated that the library will attract 5,000 visitors per day and 1.5 million visitors per year.

Helsinki Central Library by ALA Architects
Cross section - click for larger image

The new library will be at the forefront of the renewal of the city's library services. In addition to the basic operations, there will be a wide range of services available inside the building, as well as an abundance of lounge spaces and auxiliary services that support the operations. The library will enliven and diversify the new urban environment created in the Töölönlahti area. It will offer activities and experiences for all ages. There will be plenty of spaces that enable people to spend time together, free of charge. The role of the clients will evolve from passive media users to active agents, participants and content producers. As a non-commercial open public space, the new Helsinki Central Library will act as a common living room and work space.

  • I love the design of this, especially sympathetic to the plaza around the building. Interesting use of what looks like timber? But the sheer scale of the building is possibly overtly excessive?

  • vellist

    Yes, it is timber. And they have done it before:

  • alex

    At last! A library where I can play my bass guitar!

  • Colonel Pancake

    That's impressive.

  • Bernhard

    The success of the design aside, what are the chances that a team from Helsinki wins an international competition to design a new library in Helsinki? Obviously quite high. Not unlike the circumstances surrounding Jan Kaplicky's and Future Systems' winning proposal for the international competition to design the new library in Prague some years ago.

    I thought these were supposed to be open competitions….

    • Paul

      I think it makes a lot of sense that competition wins go for local firms. In most great buildings the surroundings of the building are the point of departure for the design. Local architects are most familiar with the area and also the sense of trends in architecture that are going on there.

      Also the climate in Finland is very different compared to many other countries and architects who are used to working in a cold climate propably do a better job designing a green building to a cold environment. One of the aims of the competition was to design a green building.

      • _FA

        In this particular case it means copying the trends of other countries. I totally agree with Bernhard. They should give foreign architects a better chance! The whole new area around the central train station is an architectural disaster and the library doesn’t do any better. It is so sad to see Steven Holl’s museum surrounded by these wanna-be H&deM and Sauerbruch & Hutton-like buildings.

        Contemporary Finnish architecture should find its own identity, it has such a nice history and background.

        • Paul

          Of course, I agree also with giving a fair chance to everyone but I feel they did that in this case. I went to see all the +500 entries a year ago and this one stood out of the competition already then. Also the jury wrote a short feedback on every entry. My favourite one didn’t get to the second round but after reading the feedback it was given I could understand why. What do you think should be done in competitions in order to ensure that everyone gets treated equally and what makes you think that in this case they weren’t?

          I can see that the “crown” of the winning library is reminiscent of H&deM’s Elbphilharmonie but mostly they are just copying themselves (Kilden). And what comes to the other buildings in the area, I don’t see any H&deM vibes.

          I agree that not all the buildings in the Töölönlahti area are the most interesting ones but as a public space it is already working really well. People are really using the square in front of the library lot even though it’s still very much under construction.

          • _FA

            First of all I didn’t say that there was something wrong with this particular competition procedure. It was an anonymous competition so I assume all entries have been treated equally. Hopefully!

            What I meant is that foreign architects in general should get a better chance in Finland, especially Helsinki. As you might know there was a plan to build a hotel by H&deM in Helsinki.Unfortunately it was criticised so much that it finally never happened. Now why is a H&deM-like building so striking that it stands out all the +500 entries? Why didn’t you buy the real thing in the first place? Please don’t tell me that H&deM could not cope with the climate issues etc.

            Of course every architectural scene in each country is trying to support their local heroes, but in my opinion a really strong architectural scene benefits from foreign projects. Take countries like Switzerland, France and Japan etc which have developed a very distinct architectural language in the recent years – they all let foreign projects in. Such an attitude shows real strength and confidence.

            Regarding the stylistic elements, it not only reminds me of the Elbphilharmonie but also Cottbus, the Schaulager etc. I didn’t say that all the other buildings look like H&deM as well – I gave another example Sauerbruch & Hutton (the building behind the library). What I want is to emphasise that all these buildings lack identity, which is really sad because it is such a huge planning at such prime spot.

            I totally agree, public space beside the music hall and in front of the library is already working, but why does it then still need that particular building? I have also seen other entries from the first stage, I personally preferred those ones which had treated all sides of the volume carefully instead of having only one right side.

          • Paul

            Ok, I’m sorry, I must have misunderstood you. I thought that Bernhard was saying that he thought there was something suspicious about this competition’s result and that you were agreeing with him.

            I also think that there should be more foreign architects’ projects in Finland. I really hoped that they would have gotten permission for the H&deM hotel. I quite liked it and I have no doubt that they would’ve done a great job with it. Many people were against the hotel though (some of them architects but mostly “regular” people) and that’s why it got rejected. Btw, a second hotel the same investor wanted to build just got rejected as well a month or two ago. This time he had a Finnish architect.

            My comment about the climate issues was just trying to explain why I think it’s logical that local companies (in any country) have a higher chance on winning competitions. I do realize it’s not the only reason and that good architects can do a great job in any climate.

            What I like about the winning proposal is that in my eyes it reminds me of the parliament house. The large wooden surface will also soften the look of the area that at the moment is dominated by glass and steel. Also, the color of the wood ties in with the parliament house and the postoffice building almost next door.

            Why the area needs the new library is simple: to offer free, non-commercial services for people. Summer here is so short that you have to create free indoor places for people in order to have any life in the city during most of the year.

            I think we actually agree on most things :) Or at least I agree with most things you are saying.

  • Roland

    Seems like ALA architects have recently visited the Rotterdam train station.

  • Vacartu

    Only in Finland, the plans of a public library have a public sauna. Of all the things I usually do at the library, that’s not one I’ve thought of before.