The National Library of Finland is the oldest library facility in Finland, built in 1840 according to the design of Carl Ludvig Engel as an integral part of his Empire style town plan around the Senate Square, adjacent to the University of Helsinki.
The University library was one of Engel’s last designs in Helsinki and he did not get to see it quite ready. It is composed of three almost identical halls, forming a sequence of festive, yet intimate and inviting spaces. Each hall has rows of gypsum marble (scagliola) covered columns supporting galleries in two stories for easy access to the book shelves surrounding the halls. Despite their similar form, the three halls have distinct atmospheres due to the varying colours and light conditions. The exterior of the building is compact and almost cubic. Corinthian pilasters and half columns line the facades on all sides, like soldiers on guard, protecting the most valuable of a civilization.
The library’s collection dates back all the way to the age of the Royal Academy of Åbo, situated in Turku, Finland. After the Great Fire of Turku in 1827, the library was relocated to Helsinki, the Grand Duchy’s new capital. This collection formed the basis for the main library of the University of Helsinki, which, in 2006, was re-titled the National Library of Finland. A later extension to Engel’s design was designed by Gustaf Nyström and inaugurated in 1903.
This semi-circular annex designed as a book depository takes the place of the original avant-corps facing the inner courtyard of the block and remains invisible to the street view. The curved facade is a singular example of lively white Wiener-jugend architecture in Finland with sculptures by the renowned Walter Runeberg. The annex is an early example of the so called Koenen structure, combining concrete and steel with the traditional masonry walls.
The original library together with the annex ‘Rotunda’ is an iconic monument, ranking among Finland’s most cherished cultural heritage sites.
The National Library underwent a massive operation of repair and restoration under LPR Architects between 2013 and 2015. The restoration project was based on a detailed survey of the building’s history by expert consultants from Okulus, complete with microscopic analysis of the building’s surface layers. UV analysis revealed previously unknown details about the building’s repair history and the materials that had been used. Finland’s top experts were called in to carry out the conservation, and the entire restoration process was documented thoroughly.
The restoration of the National Library was selected in the Finnish Architecture Biennial Review 2018. Extract from the jury report:
“At a moment in history where we are seeing the gradual extinction of bookshelves in private homes, it is all the more important that the National Library offers a place for the public to feel uplifted in a dignified setting that celebrates books. The restoration of the library has been executed with exemplary skill. Best of all, the visitor immediately notices the difference, and not only in the fully new subterranean facilities.”