Editor’s Note: Laura Houseley is the editor-in-chief of Modern Design Review.

CNN  — 

Is there any other nation that loves its libraries as much as Finland? In 2016, the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture revealed that nearly 2 million of its 5.5 million citizens were book borrowers, making 49 million library visits and borrowing more than 68 million books a year.

At this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, the country has placed the best of its bookish architecture on display in its “Mind-Building” exhibition.

When “Freespace” was chosen as the the theme of this year’s Architecture Biennale, commissioner Hanna Harris, director of ArchInfo Finland, saw an opportunity. She had already been contemplating the role of the library in Finnish culture for several years, slowly developing the idea for an exhibition. Meanwhile, the library had become a hot topic in Finland after the building of several exciting public libraries.

“Education for all is a principle of Finnish culture and libraries have always played an important part in that thinking. Learning together and active citizenship are at the core of Finnish life,” Harris said in a phone interview.

An artist's impression of the Oodi Helsinki Central Library, which opens in 2018.

To Harris, Finnish libraries are democratic, communal places for social inclusion – “freespaces” in every sense. The official introduction to “Mind-Building” reminds us that libraries are protected in Finnish law as a noncommercial common ground for active citizenship, freedom of expression, intellectual and creative freedom.

“What is truly free public space?” Harris asked. “Spaces really owned and used by everyone?”

Such communal spaces are disappearing quickly, but Finns in particular hold them dear, and claim them as a representation of their wider social politics.

A long history

Anni Vartola, an architecture critic and curator of “Mind-Building,” has put together an exhibition that demonstrates a history of progressive library buildings. The projects begin with the first public library in Finland, the Neo-Renaissance Rikhardinkatu Public Library from 1881.

“The idea was to invest in architectural quality, decoration, artwork and uplifting spaces supported the objectives of the public library institution; to make the building architecturally so inviting that ordinary working-class people would want to come in, read newspapers, study books, learn about the world, and, thereby, enlighten themselves and thus become active, well-informed citizens. This basic principle still holds true,” she said in an email.

Rikhardinkatu Library, Helsinki 1881.

Finland was at the forefront of socially minded architecture for much of the 20th century, thanks to a generation of architects, designers and thinkers who followed the lead of Alvar Aalto, Finland’s foremost architect and the designer of the he Finnish Pavilion in Venice. It’s no surprise that Aalto’s celebrated 1935 Viipuri Library (located in what is now Vyborg, Russia) – a building that languished in near obscurity until its renovation in 2013 – is also represented.

“Mind-Building” includes examples of recent libraries that have continued to elevate and inspire through architectural design. Vartola points to the 1991 Vallila Library in Helsinki by Juha Leiviskä: “The way in which natural light falls down into the spaces, and how the flow of movement and vision coils so naturally around a focal point, is both graceful and soothing. And yet, we’re speaking of a very modernist, small and modest local library in the middle of a working-class neighborhood.”

JKMM Architects are behind two library projects chosen to be represented at Mind-Building in Turku and Seinäjoki. What kind of opportunities do library buildings give architects? Asmo Jaaksi of JKMM says; “As a design task a library is a good challenge: you must try to create architecture that attracts all kind of people and inspires a visitor to use the building in a variety of ways. A library is also a good context in which to create freely designed open spaces, with strong emotional aspects too. And empathizing the users’ role is quite easy because we are all library users here in Finland,” he said in an email interview.

Pride & dignity

Apila Library, Seinäjoki, 2012.

While “Mind-Building” focuses on how the architectural finesse of Finnish libraries, it also explores how the facilities serve communities emotionally. Both Harris and Vartola used the words “pride” and “dignity” when describing the Finns’ relationships to these buildings. That they remain used and loved by the communities for which they were originally built is the greatest proof of their architectural quality.

As well as pushing the envelope in regard to architectural skill and style, Finnish libraries have an impressive record of being at the forefront of cultural progress and new thinking. Some of the first maker libraries (spaces where the public can borrow equipment and tools), for example, were founded in Finland, and today, some facilities offer the use of high-tech equipment such as 3-D printers and musical equipment free of charge.

Inside the Harald Herlin Learning Centre in Espoo, Finland. It was designed by Alvar Aalto in 1970, and restorated by Architects NRT and JKMM Architects in 2016.

In 2016, Finland implemented an act that states that libraries should contribute to the promotion of active citizenship, democracy and freedom of expression. Libraries are required, by law, to promote equal opportunities in accessing information whatever physical form that information takes. The proximity between the library and Finland’s democratic society has never been closer.

An ode to libraries

Alvar Aalto, Viipuri Library, Vyborg, Russia 1935.

Harris points to Oodi, the ambitious new central library for Helsinki due to open in November, as a fitting symbol of the central role of the public library in Finland’s civic life.

Built opposite the city’s town hall, the new building’s large, wood-covered façade will act as a huge canopy, giving shelter to public events and gatherings. The public square will extend into the building, with people flowing seamlessly between the central square and the library itself.

The commission was won through open public competition, the most common method in Finnish architectural culture. The winners, ALA Architects, are young, just as Aalto was when he won the competition for the Viipuri Library at the age of 29.

“The architecture of Oodi is based on merging the library functions of present and future with the most urban context in all of Finland. By defining three unique stacked landscapes of public activity within the timber clad, strongly shaped volume, the library will be able to accommodate different programs and functions during the following centuries and act as a prototypical library and citizen forum for generations,” said Antti Nousjoki, a principal at ALA Architects, in an email.

Oodi Helsinki Central Library, 2018.

But it is the people, not the architecture, who are the heart of Finland’s library culture. As such, Harris has brought Finnish librarians to Venice to explain the national perspective to curious international visitors.

Vartola also gives credit to the public and professionals behind the Finnish library system: “Erudite librarians, civic torchbearers, progressive legislation and architectural culture that have spurred on the development of libraries and, thereby, fine library architecture throughout history, and despite any political or financial difficulties as a nation.”

“Besides,” she added, “as we have a terrible climate, libraries provide the ultimate public space indoors – for free.”

Mind-Building is on at the Finnish Pavilion of La Biennale di Venezia until Nov. 25, 2018.