Seinäjoki Library by JKMM 15.05.13

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In 1926, a young Alvar Aalto, still flirting with the ideals of classicism, designed the staff building for the volunteer militia in the town of Seinäjoki in east Finland. It is one of the few early buildings in this style by Aalto that can be viewed in its original condition. In 1951, Aalto, now a convert to modernism, returned to the town, beating 45 other architects in a competition to design the Lakeuden Risti church. Completed in 1960, the building, as was typical of Aalto, was a Gesamtkunstwerk that saw the architect design everything from the pews and window paintings to the fabrics for the altar.

Seinäjoki is a place where the shadow of Finland's modernist hero looms large. Aalto would go on to design five more buildings that form the cultural centre of this modest town of roughly 60,000 people. These designs – for a parish centre, town hall, state offices, theatre and municipal library – were completed between 1960 and 1987 (11 years after Aalto's death). This year, the daunting task of extending Aalto's 1967 library was completed by Helsinki-based architect JKMM, which won the project in a 2008 competition. "The most important factor was definitely the site – the very valuable, protected cultural environment," says Asmo Jaaksi, one of the four founders of JKMM. "Not an easy place to build an extension." The architect's response was to find the right balance between conciliatory and challenging.

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JKMM conceived the library extension as a sculptural form divided into three distinct masses. This creates a fragmented presence that stops it getting lost among the monolithic Aalto buildings. Copper-clad walls and roofs are a conscious effort to differentiate the old white buildings from the new. The open-plan interiors maximise the views out and allow the functions of the building to flow into each other. The new library is a place to meet, the centerpiece being a stepped seating area for people to gather. "A public library is not any more just a place for borrowing books and pursuing knowledge," Jaaksi says. "It is a place for various activities."

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There are no vertical columns to support the concrete roof spans and there is a heaviness to the structure that encloses the space, the finishes having been left rough. The interior makes subtle concessions to the work of the master that lurks outside the massive windows: the sunken library space is a nod to a tactic that Aalto used in libraries to give visitors a view over the collections, and the reading rooms offer views across the plaza to the civic centre.

JKMM sees its library as a new layer to the fabric of Seinäjoki. For Jaaksi it is time for Finnish architecture to start moving on from its prestigious but hindering heritage. "Sad to say, but I think the golden ages of Finnish design and architecture were the 1950s and 60s. That's why we must search for momentum from Aalto's heritage over and over again," Jaaksi says. "On the other hand, Aalto was such a genius that he made something exceptionally great and lasting. But certainly we should also find something unprecedented and fresh."

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Owen Pritchard

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The most important factor was definitely the site – the very valuable, protected cultural environment

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