City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Rovaniemi Library, Alvar Aalto (1966)

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Whirlwind tour of a far-north moonbase classic, May 2011

Rovaniemi is just outside the Arctic Circle and even in the May of that year, was appropriately chilly. The far-northern lakes we flew over, during the short flight from Helsinki, appeared glassy, semi-frozen, crisp reflective screens mirroring the surrounding forests.

Boyer and I were there for a social innovation conference at Santa Park—yes, really—but beforehand we managed a quick hit-and-run on some of the civic complex designed by Alvar Aalto, which represents part of the reindeer antler-inspired masterplan he produced for the city after 90% of it was destroyed towards the end of World War II.

The town hall and library are perhaps the most refined of the several buildings he designed for the city. The former can be seen in some of the shots below, towards the end, but we were really there to see the wonderful library.

From the outside, the library is a low-slung building, lean and long and multi-faceted, comprised of clear modules connected together at shallow angles and trimmed by pragmatic colonnades, each block topped with glowing extruded window-boxes, exemplifying what I’d call the ‘moonbase’ style.

Inside is typically refined, well thought-through thresholds and flows leading to sunken reading rooms, small pools of easy concentration. These are wrapped in tall shelves of books, topped with white walls and clerestory windows which draw in as much light as possible from outside—this is a land of intense light and dark, after all—while Aalto’s peerless array of lamps provide warmer glows at floor level. Bespoke fixtures are everywhere, internal spaces adorned by vertical slats in brass and wood, some of which are echoed on the exterior. The warmth of these materials inside, as well as the forms of ornamentation an organic modernist would allow, beautifully counterpoint the deceptively simple exterior. That exterior also features signature door-handles (“the handshake of a building”) and lovely type, though this is superseded by the epic shield and type on the Town Hall (Kaupungintalo, below).

Full set of Rovaniemi photos at Flickr. If you valued this piece, please recommend it — in other words, press below, so that others may find it too.


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