Comments by Esa Saarinen

Ylivieska Chruch, K2S Architects. Photo: Tuomas Uusheimo

Ylivieska Church

As I approach Ylivieska’s new church, passing the new bell tower, the old cemetery with its war graves and the fire ravaged foundations of its predecessor, the river flowing behind them on my left, the building looks comforting, unfussy. To the front, there is a calm open space, a sacral square of sorts, its impact enhanced by the large cross, visible in the cemetery, that has been created using charred timbers from the old church. 

Through the glass doors I see evidence of everyday life inside the church. This is a church that positively wants you to enter. That impression is further strengthened when I step inside the church, landing in a space appropriately referred to as the “living room”, and spot a group of people enjoying lunch in the church hall. Tea and coffee is served in the vestibule which has a quietly elevated air. The nave itself is accessed via a transitional space that allows you to leave the “living room” behind and prepares you for you’re about to witness. Once in the nave, I feel strongly uplifted by the kind of energy that the human heart can experience in these sacred spaces, as our senses are confronted with the light, and we are convinced of our insignificance. 

The nave makes a powerful impression on me. I sense the silent majesty in the service of which all the exertions here have been made.  The design invites the eyes to gaze upwards, where the gratitude and wonder the experience evokes meet with the radiant light that appears to rush into the space from an infinite source. That infinite light is complemented by an altogether more prosaic form of illumination built into the backs of the pews where one would traditionally expect to see rows of hymnals. The holiness of this space reminds us of the light that shines within all of us, I find myself thinking.  Suddenly moved, I realise that my eyes are again gazing upwards. This is a space that calms and quietens the mind. It conveys spirituality without doctrine, and the magnificence and presence of a higher power is very much felt here. 

As I make my way across the space, I spot the pulpit, placed at floor level. I am delighted to imagine the pastor speaking to their congregation almost from among them. The altar’s simple and restrained beauty draws attention the cross suspended above. Even the cross is not here to preach or sermonize. Its purpose, instead, is to focus our minds on the message that the light flooding in through the skylight carries. 

When my eyes land on a door handle to my left, I feel strangely unsettled. On the other side of the door, between the sacristy and the altar, is a technical area. The touch of the divine I felt earlier vanishes at this exposure to a dose of everyday reality, in the very spot where the resident faithful emerge, ready to perform their holy work.  Although I’m pleased that the church building is set up to broadcast to external audiences, I wonder whether this has been the most appropriate solution given the sacred nature of this setting.  I reflect on the dilemma faced by Martha and Mary. The sacristy, another sacred space, looks out over the old cemetery and nearby river. Present in this view is the role of the church as a spiritual institution serving us across the generations, and the beauty that the church represents.

As we make our way around the church, I realise how closely linked it is to the ebb and flow of town life, and yet how protected it is by a wall featuring the bells from the old church and decorated with a hugely powerful but restrained cross motif. I’m told that the cross, comprising a series of small openings, actually forms part of the building’s ventilation system. Later, as we explore the areas underneath the church floor and climb up to view the roof structure, I begin to appreciate the technical skill involved in allowing Ylivieska to move past the arson attack on their much-loved old church, past those fateful moments, as a community, focused on what really matters.

The Urban Environment House in Helsinki, Lahdelma & Mahlamäki Architects. Photo: Kuvatoimisto Kuvio

The Urban Environment House

The new headquarters for Helsinki city council’s Urban Enviroment Division brings together the city’s built environment specialists and related customer services under one roof. The building is located in the Verkkosaari district which is undergoing rapid development. My first impressions are of a substantial presence, the visually striking arches at street level and the generous height of the interior spaces. There is no monotony to be found in this building; it is distinctive and interesting. It is an urban design, with a strong sense of self. 

As we walk towards the main entrance, I find myself grappling with the human dimension.  I don’t consider myself to be approaching a bulbous lump of a building. This feels like a site of real power. I try to remind myself that local government buildings don’t need to be appealing, inviting or friendly. The priority here is for the building to serve its function well. It is not imperative that a public building convey to residents, through its appearance, the message that our collective interests are being attended to here. A public building needn’t be a joy or a delight, I tell myself. 

And yet, I think, it would be desirable for it to exceed the requirements determined by its essential functions, for it to invite, to delight, to elevate. It is technically possible for a visitor, upon entering a building, to connect with that sense of shared endeavour, be it in the area of urban environment services or otherwise, and to feel that this is something joyful, inspiring, something that brings us all together. That it is not just a to-do list, packed with a series of tasks that must be completed in line with the relevant regulatory requirements. Surely, the idealist voice in my head says, the design for a public building could take its cue from the notion of a collective process, that’s oriented towards the future and sustained by the best that we as human beings have to offer; our capacity for mutual respect, our ability to take each other seriously, our knack for enthusiasm. 

Could the customer flows here be managed in a way that serves as a reminder that this, urban development, is something that we have always done well but that we want to do even better in the future?  Would it be possible for the citizen/client to be made to feel like a valued part of a rational, humane and continually evolving system that doesn’t, through its messaging, seek to reduce to a passive subject and allows them to assert themselves as a fully-fledged human. Because we are cooperatively minded, mutually dependent and socially oriented rational beings. I would be inclined to require all new public buildings to sustain and elevate people in the context of the function the building serves. 

As we move through the City of Helsinki Urban Enviroment Division headquarters and into the restricted areas on floors three to seven, I come across a handful of staff. They are all enthusiastic about their new place of work. That is excellent. The Covid-19 pandemic means that only a limited number of employees are present here at any one time. Under normal circumstances, the building would be teeming with more than a thousand employees. As a result, it is not possible to experience this “state-of-the-art office” in action, to discover how the acoustics really work in these vast spaces, which can be glimpsed from the many high windows and which create a magnificent aesthetic effect as you move between floors. The balconies also seem carefully thought through. As this is home to more than 1,000 staff, the merits of the building boil down to the question of to what extent these new facilities succeed in supporting those people in the course of their day-to-day working lives.

In my role as judge, I draw on my own knowledge and understanding. In the past, I have seen genuinely groundbreaking office spaces, based on the open plan approach. They elevate the people that work in them. My general understanding is that open-plan offices are not always the most suitable alternative. Having worked in professional roles throughout my career, my own lived experience is that in order for the work to be done well, the office must a) offer opportunities for concentration and focus without additional arrangements being needed b) facilitate effortless and informal interaction with colleagues throughout the day c) allow staff to feel like a valuable member of a valued workplace community and engage in work they consider to be meaningful d) be configured in such as way to allow staff to speak without disturbing others e) allow access to all relevant tools and equipment f) offer opportunities for creative thinking, i.e. activities that may not appear productive at first glance. 

I do not know how these criteria could be met in an open plan office where individual staff members and teams are not provided with a “homebase” or set work station. Please forgive my critical take on this, but the office cubicles and pods as spaces for concentration do not, to me, represent a bright new future for work.  I’m undecided on whether the staff at the new Urban Enviroment Division headquarters will be able to take the potential their new work spaces offer and turn it into a win. When I reflect on spatial design, what matters to me is that our built environments are created to support whatever inherently human strengths may be most relevant and beneficial within that specific context at any given time. My view is that Ylivieska Church and the Fyyri Library in Kirkkonummi are better placed than this building to succeed in that endeavour.

Fyyri Library in Kirkkonummi, JKMM Architects. Photo: Tuomas Uusheimo

The Fyyri Library in Kirkkonummi

Viewed from the market square, Fyyri has a sculptural quality to it. It is like a futuristic meteorite that has managed to land in precisely the right spot. The building is idiosyncratic, memorable. It’s confident without being arrogant, and there is a playful quality to its charm. It’s astonishing, but not overly so. 

As we approach Fyyri, I try to block out the stultifying conformity of the shopping centre next door, until I realise that it doesn’t actually bother me at all  Fyyri is capable of making the statement it makes, even from afar, because the shopping centre’s inherent dullness (sorry) serves as a contrast to the library’s almost gravitational artistic heft, which in turn sets the scene and readies the mind for the majesty of the medieval church still to come.  I find myself facing an urban force field. I would happily travel a long way to see this. 

Just an hour ago, I wasn’t even fully aware that there was a medieval church to be found in Kirkkonummi. Fyyri doesn’t exploit its proximity to what is undoubtedly a much-loved building, but together they pack a powerful visual punch. The library positively invites visitors, even those who are here in its vicinity to shop. Some will inevitably spill over to the church too. This is a built environment capable of facilitating diverse interactions between its constituent parts and an experience that sends you soaring ever upwards. There are harmonies here that few world class cities would dare to even aspire to. This is what a job well done looks like, I think to myself. 

There is a gaggle of school children gathered outside Fyyri. I’m taken aback when I realise how utterly focused they are.  They are being given an introduction to the building. 

We proceed to walk around the building, and I realise that I’ve completely underestimated it based on the photographs I’ve seen.  What route did we take to get here? I already know this is a landmark I will return to again and again.

The doors are surprisingly modest in size, but they possess a certain pull factor. This is a building you’re happy to enter from the rear and the front. The lighting is well-judged too. They’ve clearly wanted to make sure that teens and other younger visitors aren’t left hesitating in the doorway. Stepping into Fyyri couldn’t be easier, it’s like arriving at a cinema. And as far as the digital natives are concerned, Fyyri’s small library sign is perfectly on-brand, reflecting the here and the now, this moment that belongs to them.

As a person steeped in the tradition of reading, I’m a steadfast believer in the miracles that can emerge from the very depths of our soul, called forth by the books we read. There are few things I love seeing more than a person immersed in a book, lost in their own thoughts.  We all know that moment when we cast our eye over a book for the first time, as we tentatively begin to explore what’s to come. That, always, is the moment we begin to grow as humans. The onus is on us to make those moments, those opportunities for growth, available to all.  It’s not just about sharing knowledge and information, it’s about tending to our souls.  Just as a church has in its gift the ability to lend depth and intensity to our thoroughly human experience of the divine, and to affirm us in our gratitude and in our humility as we strive and thirst for heaven, like those that have come before us always have done, and just as the office building has the power to drive the entirely unstoppable and thoroughly rational flow of professional progress, so the library ensures that the very things that possess the potential to transform the life of all those who believe in the act of thinking are readily available to us.  

Libraries must change, evolve, move with the times, and that is precisely what has happened here in Kirkkonummi. Democratic by their very definition and open to all, our libraries are our agoras, porous spaces that constitute the heart of our thinking lives. Through our libraries we commit a collective act of service for the benefit of our community, we build our futures by offering everyone a space where they can think more, think different, think new, use fresh words and discover nuances, where they can escape the confines of convention, received truths and flee the rut race.  The philosophy that constitutes the library is the profoundly and enduringly relevant cornerstone on which our democracy, equality and belief in humanity all depend. If we are to grow as humans, we need to discover an alacrity of thought, new thoughts about thinking, a willingness to engage in a pursuit for greater complexity as a defence against the allure of inconsequence that threatens to flatten and reduce our humanity to a horrifically pleasant and thoroughly trivial form of barbarism.

As you walk through the doors at Fyyri you immediately enter a space guarded from above by a striking work of art, but my attention is drawn to a child-sized opening in one of the walls. Fyyri, it turns out, comes with a parallel child-height reality already built in, created, it feels, with all the gleeful joy of a five-year-old.  

Access throughout is step-free, with the spaces melding and blending into one another with a warm effortlessness.  Armed with the knowledge that the new library is built “over” the old library, I try to locate the joins between them. None are readily discernible, but what I do pick up on are a series of organic transitions, including the hugely inviting and amusing set of stairs that not only lead visitors up and down between the floors but also provide a place to sit and socialise.  The boundary between the old and the new has become a boundarilessness, the sublimely aesthetic quality of which delights me immeasurable.

Just as you’ve come in through the main doors, but before you get to the secret passage reserved just for kids, there’s a soft and gentle little café on your right-hand side with a truly grounding, restorative vibe that leads directly into a periodicals reading room. This important space soothes while it energises, positively inviting you to linger over your cup of coffee, as its large glass wall offers open views towards the church. Fyyri offers a masterclass in creating a multi-faceted and multi-layered architectural design experience. Tough defined by its complexity, the constituent features come together for a synergistic, seemingly effortless fit that is as accomplished externally as it is internally. The periodicals room plays an important role in further cementing the dialogue I could already sense while stood on the outside looking in.  

I pair my barista-made coffee with a one-euro blueberry muffin that I pick out from amongst an unpretentious selection of cakes and  bakes that tells me they are about serving more than just the bottom line here.  When it comes to the built environment, a key measure of success is the “post production” world it creates. In other words, what happens when the builders down their tools and leave. There may well be a boost to creativity. And if there is, as appears to be the case at Fyyri, it will find its expression in the little links and connections that cannot be willed into existence from the top down. You know when a place cares and is cared about, it’s a feeling that can’t be bought.  

We drink our coffees in the periodicals reading room. Sharing that space with us is a student, hard at work, his bag emblazoned with the logo of a school 15 miles away. I resolve to come and write here myself one day.

The music library and studio on the first floor are both hugely impressive.  There is a quiet room too and a reading space that’s like a reverse balcony, drawing your focus inwards not outwards, inviting you, in keeping with the basic principle underpinning libraries everywhere, to tap into the energy that characterises the human mind, the energy that Fyyri exists to enrich. 

In current library parlance, Fyyri is a “multifunctional space” but such managerese hardly does it justice. It’s all about the feel of the place here, the vibe. It’s about setting the stage for new and unexpected encounters, and about the vitally important collective phenomenon that arises when people experience a sense of ownership and belonging over something that they share. It’s about reaching a higher plane as individuals and communities, polyphonic soul symphonies that cannot be reduced to any functional or objectivist essence. Fyyri’s greatness lies in its scale, its ability to breathe in tandem with the human organism in that dimension we often describe as our soul. It’s about something that brings us all together, something we all share, something with a power to renew and something deeply personal, something greater than life itself. It’s about the backbone that holds us together from town to town, in every nook and cranny where the much-vaunted economies of scale are failing to gain traction. In the words of the philosopher Mikko Lahtinen, “there is no other country where public libraries are as popular as in Finland”. This land of a thousand libraries now has one more, and it is outstanding.

Stepping into the nave of Ylivieska Church, you are immediately transported upwards by the superlative light, carried towards something pure and sacred. That space is an opportunity for us to reach for something higher and greater, even as we contemplate our insignificance that rings out softly against the relentless drone of the universe’s superlative vastness. Stepping into Kirkkonummi’s new library is to soar too, elevated by the light that pours in through the vast windows, but here we are powered by the unknowable logic that governs the way meanings are engendered, the site were the catalytic energy of our human intelligence and the fact of our autonomy meet. They are as close as the closest book. 

At the majestic Fyyri, books are never out of reach. The magnificence of the setting is not intended to underline the visitors’ smallness, to celebrate the power of the developer or to laud the aesthetic brilliance of the designer but serves as a reminder that books are the most sacred manifestations of our secular human culture, and a resource that cannot be exhausted.  Fyyri is not a depository where books go to gather dust, they are all enticingly yet respectfully displayed for the purpose of catching a visitor’s eye. Nothing is loud or overbearing, the library does not seek to overwhelm you with the sheer volume of resources on offer. A notable success here is the way in which the multi-sensory and imagination-thrilling richness of the books available is rationed and served to us in well-judged portions. Visitors won’t find themselves engulfed under the pressure of a choice or be left feeling like resources are being withheld from them. Curiosity, friendship, inspiration and stimulation define this library, it is a space that generates creativity and builds new shared futures. 

Like all successful spaces, Fyyri offers a setting in which the library’s excellent and dedicated staff can do their jobs well. As I chat to them, their excitement is palpable. They know that their work, and the state-of-the-art resources at their disposal, benefit the local community, and they know that they form part of a library ecosystem that will continue to evolve and set the standard the world over.

Fyyri, winner of the 2021 Finlandia Prize for Architecture – I salute you.

Text: Esa Saarinen