Words are, in many ways, our greatest possession. The things that mark us out as human, as beyond animals. They convey meaning and they connote culture. They inspire us. They are art. They are worth all the money in the world – though no-one pays for them these days and the people that turn the words into prose for you to enjoy barely scrape a living.
Finnish is a wonderfully florid, poetic language. Its words sing. Those words make you think of Moomins and Marimekko. Oodi means 'Ode' in Finnish and Helsinki's gleaming new Central Library – which is called Oodi – is an ode to words.
Finnish words are printed around the dramatic central staircase which punches through from top floor to ground. Those words describe who the library is for – from 'thinker' to 'alcoholic'. The Finns like a joke almost as much as they like a beer.
Oodi is also an ode to a brighter, more egalitarian and sustainable future. A future that regressive elements in the UK and US may be seeking to continually torpedo, but a future that the Nordic nations like Finland are devoted to.
Oodi has a skin of Finnish spruce which dances across the new library's facade and makes you think of waves and galleons. The spruce was sourced from forests near to Helsinki and it makes a point about using local resources carefully.
“Not many buildings in Helsinki are built of wood – even though it is our main local resource,” mulls project architect Jussi Vuori of ALA Architects, as he shows Living it around five days before Oodi's grand opening, as builders busy themselves putting the finishing touches to the structure and polishing the floors.
“Wood was problematic – with issues like fire and keeping warmth.” But those problems have been overcome and a slew of buildings made from wood have appeared on the city skyline, like the Loyly Sauna and now Oodi.
There's even Wood City coming soon – a sprawling development of offices and flats, plus a hotel – all constructed from timber, on Helsinki's old western docks.
Oak is also deployed inside the library and there are real trees that haven't even been chopped down – a mini forest of buceda buceris, otherwise known as the black olive tree. A dozen of these meaty arboreal interlopers are set in planters inside the vast top floor reading room.
“They were a key element of the winning project design...” explains Vuori, who's been working on the building for longer than his five year old son has been around.
The top floor is decked out with beautiful rugs designed by Finnish artists and a secret story room for kids with a door hidden in a bookcase and mango-coloured seats like something from the 1970s sci-fi movie Rollerball.
The blinds open and shut automatically – they are wired in to sophisticated software, which measures the location of the sun and the heat of the day to move seamlessly up and down.
The building is designed to be energy efficient. “The structure needs to make sure it does not give too much heat out,” says Vuori. From the top floor you can see across to Alvar Aalto's Finlandia Hall.
Aalto planned a rebuild of Helsinki in the 1960s that would have seen a multi lane highway travel over the former rail yards Oodi has been built on (and so there would be no Oodi). Times have changed and today no city in the world would dream of such a scheme.
Helsinki uses district heating and Oodi is plugged in to it – heating and hot water come from a central source. Wood chips and renewables are burnt to produce the heat. Down in the basement are some of the finest public toilets you will find in Europe. Thirty-odd stalls are grouped around a unisex plaza peopled with a dozen handsome basin tables.
Automated taps reduce water wastage when washing and there are sleek taps designed specially for refilling reusable water bottles. You'll also find these taps at the ever-present Finnish buffets (Finns love a buffet) where glasses are always filled with some of the cleanest tap water in the world. You will never see Helsinki citizens swigging from plastic bottles of water.
Oodi is future-facing, with beeping robots ferrying deliveries around and a bank of 3D printers and audio studios anyone can use. This is a true democratisation of resources. But books are its real raison d'etre.
Books sum up Finnish society: this is a country where knowledge is power, where words are worshipped and where education is incredibly good and available to all. Libraries are free and everyone from rich to poor visits with their families to borrow books. Now Helsinki citizens have somewhere stylish to slake their thirst for books and words.
Fly Air Baltic to Helsinki
Stay at Hotel Katajanokka
Writer: Christopher Beanland