July 8, 2016

Helsinki Central Library emerges from the needs of city residents

Virve Miettinen works as a participation planner at the Helsinki City Library. Her job is to engage citizens and partners to design the library of the future.
Virve Miettinen works as a participation planner at the Helsinki City Library. Her job is to engage citizens and partners to design the library of the future.
Aleksi Poutanen

Already dubbed the new cradle of citizen engagement, the new Helsinki Central Library will rise in the city centre with the power of its citizens’ ideas.

The new Helsinki Central Library, due to open in 2018, was designed for the urban dwellers of Helsinki by the residents themselves. That’s the reason why the new library will have, among other things, a movie theatre, music studio, restaurant, open workspaces and a “citizen balcony” – not to forget the traditional library space, of course.

Residents put their heads together

“If you think of a library as a space, it’s one of the few places people can meet and interact openly and across all the levels of society,” says Virve Miettinen, participation planner of Helsinki City Library.

“If you think of a library as a space, it’s one of the few places people can meet and interact openly and across all the levels of society,” says Virve Miettinen, participation planner of Helsinki City Library.

Aleksi Poutanen

The participatory planning of the Central Library began with a “megaphone invitation” to all citizens: opinion leaders and celebrities encouraged people to come up with fresh and groundbreaking ideas that the new library could adopt. Once the open and cooperative planning had gotten off to an impressive start, it continued in different ways, such as with participatory budgeting, an architecture competition, and policymaker networking activities and workshops directed at partners.

In autumn 2014, a developer community called the Central Library’s Friends was founded, and the library was envisioned as a place for experimenting, learning, 21st century civics and peer learning, along with the enrichment of ideas and thoughts, and acting as a service provider for immigrants and tourists.

Taking service design to another level

For the Central Library, service design means designing the premises and services together with the library users while taking advantage of user-centric methods. In recent years there has been a shift in thinking; user-centredness used to mean examining users as focus groups and targets of design but nowadays users themselves participate in planning by brainstorming.

The new Helsinki central library, designed by Finnish Ala Architects, is a masterpiece of timber construction, eco-efficient almost zero-energy building.

The new Helsinki central library, designed by Finnish Ala Architects, is a masterpiece of timber construction, eco-efficiency and almost zero-energy building.

Ala Architects

“We noticed that visitors feel a stronger ownership of the library and visit it more when they have been included in the planning,” notes Tuula Haavisto, director of Helsinki City Library.

The participation of residents in generating ideas for the Central Library will not be a one-time thing, but instead the doctrine is to be applied to the whole of Helsinki’s library network.

One of greatest challenges in participatory design is finding the right balance in the plurality of participants’ voices.

“You cannot lose the spectrum of voices,” Miettinen says. “Even though participation is open, it mustn’t lead to uniformity.”

One participant, for example, wants a quiet, traditional library, while another would like plenty of open space for activities and the newest technology. Thanks to its design, it is possible to incorporate almost everything.

“For too long, organisations have been looking inwards at their own functions”, says Marja-Liisa Komulainen, head of development at Helsinki City Library.

“The users come to an organisation from the outside, and see things which the organisation does not. The organisation would do well to listen to these fresh new thoughts.”

The new library will have, among other things, a movie theatre, music studio, restaurant, open workspaces, and a wide sun terrace.

The new library will have, among other things, a movie theatre, music studio, restaurant, open workspaces, and a wide sun terrace.

Ala Architects

Text: Annaliina Niitamo

This article was originally published at Design Stories from Helsinki.

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