Helsinki library is a work of art with a touch of fun

A side view of the Helsinki Central Library in Finland.

A side view of the Helsinki Central Library in Finland.

Photo credit: Pool

When our tour guide said that we were visiting one of her favourite spots in Helsinki, Finland, I marvelled that another person found libraries as exciting as I did. I think when I was created, libraries, museums, art, books and artefacts were etched in my soul.

And truly, the three-storey Helsinki Central Library Oodi, an architectural marvel completed in 2018, proved to be my favourite part of the tour.

When I think of libraries, what comes to mind are books, historical literature, fun fiction, educational materials, more books… and most importantly, ‘quiet’, with some libraries going as far as putting up ‘silence please’ posters to ensure silence in the space. But not Oodi.

Art, culture and socialisation

Sitting at the heart of Helsinki, near the main theatre and opposite the Finnish Parliament and the cultural civic space where residents hold meetings on civic matters, the Oodi is more than just a library — it is a social place; a place brimming with art and culture; a library built with the people of Helsinki in mind. Before it was built, the city called for views from the public on what they would like in their library, then implemented it.

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The front view of the Helsinki Central Library Oodi.

Photo credit: Pool

As I was approaching the library, from one side it looked like it was modelled like a ship, but from another angle it looked like a curved bridge, and the tinted gold windows gave a sense of grandeur. On the outside, the green fields, basketball court and children’s play area give a feeling of relaxation and fun where residents can enjoy nature in between library and other activities in the city.

Walking into the library using the main entrance (there are two other side entrances), one gets the feeling of walking into an arts centre or a social hall with various activities at hand. There are art installations all through the library. From the main entrance, to the right, are several sitting areas with board games — checkers, chess, and others — an information desk, a computer station for public use, and a general open sitting area. To the left, there is a movie theatre that mainly showcases Finnish films, and a beautiful spiral staircase – two staircases parallel to each other and leading up to the top floor.

We took the stairs to the first floor, all the while intrigued by how unique this local library is. Here, there were stations where you could do your ironing and sewing projects, special rooms for printing 3-D items, audio recording rooms, and a gaming room equipped with Virtual Reality equipment.

Helsinki Central Library Oodi

The children's section at the Helsinki Central Library Oodi.

Photo credit: Pool

There was also an enclosed reading area, a workshop and several workstations, printing and copying stations, as well as a kitchen with a learning space. Most of the workspaces are open but the enclosed recording and gaming rooms and the enclosed reading area are glass-walled allowing for natural light in most of the building.

Some services are available to everyone, some free and some to be paid for, but there were select services that were limited to only library card holders, such as borrowing books, guitars and other musical instruments or booking sessions to record music and other audio. 

The space, honestly, did not feel like a library but more of a social area. And when it comes to space, the project implementers did not compromise on making the whole building airy yet functional.

The top floor was also equally fascinating, having rows of bookshelves arranged playfully, with large open spaces with comfortable chairs for reading, and the large roof-to-floor windows made the whole room well-lit. There was also a cafeteria for coffee, drinks and snacks, as well as a children’s reading and play section. The top floor also had an event space and story room, and a large balcony overlooking the playground below where people could sit and eat, read or chat.

Gender-neutral toilet

When I thought I had seen it all, a new surprise awaited. I needed to use the bathroom and was told there are unisex bathrooms in the building’s basement. I didn’t quite understand this until I went down the stairs that opened to a common wash area with the sinks strategically located like one would arrange tables at a cocktail party, and I saw male and female, young and old, either washing and drying hands or waiting to use the toilet cubicles that were on the wall all around the room. 

I stood at the stairway wondering whether I would be able to use the toilet but nature had a different plan and since I couldn’t hold it, I gave in and entered a cubicle. When the toilet is occupied, a light goes on, reflected on the frosted glass door, and it switches off when it is unoccupied. It was at first strange using the gender-neutral toilet, but it didn’t seem that weird after I actually used it.