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Concrete kaleidoscope: New Seinäjoki City Library by JKMM

JKMM’s digital-age extension to Alvar Aalto’s 1965 city library at Seinäjoki in Finland startles with its edgy angularity and tricks of perspective, writes Felix Mara

In the Finnish town of Seinäjoki, barely a city, a plaza of riven granite setts sweeps past the 1965 central library and city hall towards the heroic, seemingly proto-modern ‘Cross of the Plains’ church, built for a congregation of 1,200, and forges its way across six lanes of traffic on the way, unassisted by traffic signals. It’s as if someone had unrolled a carpet across London’s Park Lane.

Traffic lanes aside, all this was designed by Alvar Aalto as part of Seinäjoki civic centre. Despite the gumptious functionalism of the church and the grim steel bars of the library’s window grilles, this is the human, anti-monumental face of Modernism, whose features we recognise in so much mid-20th century Nordic architecture. And, with a subtly different nuance, this is with every volume the quintessentially humanist model of a library, a secluded place for scholarship and quiet reflection under daylight which discreetly seeps in from hidden apertures.

JKMM

But this library now has a new companion. In August 2012, JKMM Architects’ new city library opened its glass doors. Too large to be described as a satellite, this is a comprehensive expansion, with an underground link to the library Aalto designed for a newly designated town in a recently industrialised land. Social commentators, librarians, politicians and JKMM themselves argue this is about more than demographics, that today’s libraries must be community hubs, places to meet and interact, perhaps on the edge of a token scholarly background silence, as if their original purpose had been fully eclipsed by online technology relieved of any restrictions imposed by copyrights. ‘To attract visitors, a well-functioning library must provide experiences,’ argues JKMM partner Asmo Jaaksi. Citing a 100 per cent national literacy rate, Finland’s ranking among the best readers in the world and the EU’s highest newspaper readership, JKMM’s press release reminds us that Finnish libraries are topical.

JKMM’s abstracted clover-leaf concept, a fragmented cluster of volumes and planes, with three skewed and lopsided angular, dark, copper-clad blocks, deliberately contrasts with Aalto’s softer, more organic, relaxed and easy geometry, not just as the expression of a brief which was perceived as fundamentally different and belonging to another era, but also as the deliberate avoidance of pastiche, stepping back and admiring its neighbour as well as longing to flee its shadow. You might argue that, by overemphasising the divorce, JKMM has drawn attention to this famous brother, rather than quietly, cringingly, skirting round it.

After all, though secretly linked, the new library belongs to a darker, grassy hinterland of silver birches and evergreens, which surrounds and frames Aalto’s hard-landscaped, axial, bleached civic centre. Its acute angles and expanses of frameless glass are the perfect foil to the original library’s marriage of a linear block and a sprouted butterfly wing reading room with graphic bands of louvering on its south flank. Surprisingly, JKMM’s press release refers to the bulk of Aalto’s library, an architecture of sculptural volumes rather than planes, composed elevations and transparent envelopes, despite the new addition’s larger scale, which dwarfs surrounding buildings.

JKMM

The north leaf of the clover, with a mitred white facade framing a glass wall like a core gorged out of the copper skin resembles Spreckelsen’s Grand Arche de Défense, sinking into the earth under its own weight, a heavyweight Henry Moore or Dalí figure astride the landscape. The grain of its beaten copper scales provides scant relief. Nevertheless, apart from an awkward clover leaf apex which is bluntly squared off rather than acute, it’s rigorous enough as a built diagram, geometrical exercise and assemblage of elevational compositions.

It gets better inside, some might even say better than Aalto’s library, because technically and socially so much more is possible today: a BMS which helps to integrate services and free up the ceilings; frameless glass walls which help you feel you’re walking through the civic centre and landscape; card indexes and similar encumbrances dispensed with. Superficially, this environment reflects a more democratic, informal world. Drop your buggy off in the parking area by the entrance, score a cappuccino, skip down the wide reading steps to the basement and flick through the mangas, play hide and seek with your grandchild in the carpet-lined grottos or climb the steps of the periscope which pops up from the lawn to spy on Aalto’s library before heading for the check-out. One day you’ll be able to walk through a door where there’s now a mural at the end of the link passage into the original library, renovated - but not as a museum, Jaaksi emphasises.

It is the fate of outstanding architectural talents to have their work eclipsed by progress, with the inevitability of being beaten by a computer at chess. But, despite having time on its side, JKMM is no match for Aalto’s judicious dexterity in the control of spaces and volumes: the new library’s interior is a cluster of three large, intersecting sheds. There is, however, a sequential quality. When you enter, you feel close to the ceiling, surfaced with a clever pattern of warm grey textured and smooth sky blue painted concrete, like the hide of a psychedelic Friesian. Deliberately echoing Aalto’s libraries, there is a view down across the spaces below and a beckoning terrain of bookcases. JKMM has also made good use of thick walls, with all kinds of pockets and resources burrowed into them.

JKMM

But there’s something else about JKMM’s library which is rather special: the acute corner leitmotif of its exterior resurfaces internally in the geometry of its plans and sections. The high-level corner window in the book hall on the intermediate level has splayed reveals which taper to form acute angles where they meet the glass, as if the irregularly board-marked, dirty-looking concrete walls were paper-thin. Most surprising of all, viewed from certain angles these acute arrises read as borders in a kaleidoscopic photomontage. This pictorial effect is at its most unsettling where acute angles in the soffit and walls align with the top edge of the amphitheatre steps, as an Utzon-esque serrated soffit crashes into a bulkhead.

This is what is at once best, worst, and certainly most distinctive about JKMM’s library: best, because it’s so startling when these creases line up; and worst because it embodies an almost Baroque preoccupation with perspective trickery. As intended, it is an architecture of events and one which departs from Aalto’s gentle, humane Modernism after abandoning his model of the humanist library. It’s an architecture of incidental, transient image-hits, symptomatic of a digital age but lacking the subtlety and fine craftsmanship which pervades Aalto’s library, from its intricate, curlicued entrance door handle to its fan-shaped reading room.

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