Fyyri Library in Kirkkonummi wins 2021 Finlandia Prize for Architecture

The philosopher Esa Saarinen has chosen Kirkkonummi Main Library, designed by JKMM Architects, as the winner of this year’s Finlandia Prize for Architecture. The new building envelopes the original library from 1982, designed by Ola Hansson. This year’s prize is the eighth Finlandia Prize for Architecture presented by the Association of Finnish Architects (SAFA). Weekly publishes the remarks on the winning project, text by Esa Saarinen. 

JKMM has been involved in a number of new-generation library projects, including Turku Library, Seinäjoki Library, the Harald Herlin Learning Centre and, latterly, Kirkkonummi Library. Fyyri is the work of JKMM Architects, with Teemu Kurkela as the lead designer, Jukka Mäkinen as the project architect and Tiina Rytkönen as the interior architect. “We like to think of Finnish libraries as a sort of infrastructure for happiness. As an architect, it is a great privilege to be involved in these projects. The Finnish library institution is more than 100 years old, and it keeps going from strength to strength, re-inventing itself every ten years or so,”  Kurkela said.
Fyyri’s main entrance is located in a spot where the historic King’s Road, Finland’s medieval highway, bends. According to architect Jukka Mäkinen, the historic location was a source of particular inspiration for the designers. “It has been a wonderful experience for us to be involved in creating a new centre for Kirkkonummi.  The library has a unique role to play as a public building flanked by the city’s market square and medieval church. If the church is the heart of the community here, then we like to think of the library as its imagination,” Mäkinen said.

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.

Esa Saarinen. Photo: Katja Tähjä

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.

Esa Saarinen

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.

Esa Saarinen

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.

The Finlandia Prize for Architecture is awarded for the design or renovation design of an outstanding new building or building complex that has been completed within the past three years. The prize may be awarded either to a Finnish or foreign architect, or to an architectural firm for a project designed for a location in Finland; or to a Finnish architect or architectural firm for a project designed for a location abroad. 

The recipient of the Finlandia Prize for Architecture is chosen by a public figure who is a recognised expert in an area other than architecture. The winner is selected from a shortlist of projects chosen by the Pre-Selection Jury. The 2021 pre-selection jury comprised Professor Saija Hollmén, Professor Tuomo Siitonen, Professor Panu Lehtovuori and architect Mona Schalin. The secretariat was provided by Paula Huotelin, Secretary General of the Finnish Association of Architects (SAFA).The purpose of the prize is to promote the appreciation of high-quality architecture and to highlight the importance of architecture in generating cultural value and increasing well-being.

The Finnish Association of Architects (SAFA) is a non-profit professional organisation engaged in active efforts to promote architecture and high-quality living environments. Established in 1892, SAFA has approximately 3,100 members, all of whom are architects with a university degree. Additionally, SAFA has around 600 student members.