Since VMDO Architects was founded, we have built ourselves upon a bedrock of teaching and cultivating growth for employees throughout the firm with the belief that this approach strengthens our collective knowledge. This led us, inevitably, to create our Travel Fellowship Program. Open to all staff after about two years with the firm, VMDOers can apply to travel nationally or abroad to study architecture, design, building techniques, and the cultures that create and influence them all over the world. In 2019, one of our designers, John Trevor, was awarded the Travel Fellowship to study libraries and the elevated places they hold in Finnish culture.
Finland is a progressive, design-focused country. Helsinki was named ‘The World Design Capital’ in 2012, and in 2014 was dedicated as a UNESCO City of Design . This reputation, as well as a a strong emphasis on literacy and education, helped make Finland an easy choice for Trevor’s focused study . Finish cultural values for excellent design, function, and literacy supports their nationwide effort to create world-class local libraries.
In comparison, the United States struggles at times with convincing Americans that libraries are essential public services that deserve funding. Trevor’s planwas to visit as many Finnish libraries as possible to experience the thoughtful design and crafted architecture that is so emblematic of Finland in order to bring some of those designstrategies back home.
“Libraries are interesting because these civic buildings are also intimate spaces. Libraries must reconcile collective and individual needs. As these needs change, and with them technology and culture, architects and communities must reassess their design to find the right balance between the symbolic and physical dimensions of library architecture,” said Trevor when discussing his project thesis and scope.
As community populations, ebb and flow and technology continuously changes, designs and designers must work to understand and find the right balance between the symbolic and physical dimensions of library architecture. Trevor structured his study around key themes organized into three sections: how libraries serve as community hubs, how they adapt to changing needs, and how they cultivate imagination.
“Finland is known for modern, functional architecture that is also warm, inviting, and considerate of the people it serves. I have been drawn to it since my earliest experiences in school. At first through the work of Alvar Aalto. It is the balanced approach that resonates so strongly with me: architecture that is inventive and idiosyncratic, while remaining grounded in basic functional and psychological principles that ensure its longevity,” explained Trevor.
He visited eight different libraries across Finland and produced beautiful watercolor paintings, floor plans, and photographic studies to help him explore his thesis over his trip. Trevor broke down each library into its three designated and different typologies. As community hubs, he focused on the role libraries have as collective spaces with tremendous symbolic importance. As adaptive technology hubs, he studied the practical, and technical functions and the way change must occur over time as technology and the needs of the community evolve. And finally, he looked at how each library should inspire - impacting individuals through personal experiences with books, teachers, and the building itself.
To observe the civic importance of the buildings, Trevor relied on observations of how they were situated in the urban fabric, how they were placed on site, and what basic formal characteristics (scale, symmetry/asymmetry, balance, rhythm, etc.) the library exhibited. These observations also supported their understanding of the library’s function as a community hub. For instance, from the exterior they formed an impression of the building’s personality through their visibility, accessibility, and the overall character (welcoming versus imposing, etc.) . He watched the people in the library to determine how many patrons were there, how were they using the spaces, and what range of demographics were represented.
To assess the adaptability of the libraries he first kept an eye out for programmatic innovations, and examples of new activities being introduced. This seemed like a key indicator of the vitality and flexibility of the typology. Critically, Trevor was able to see how new uses were integrated with traditional library functions. There will always, he believes, need to be space for collections and reading. Considering the growing range of activities that libraries support, he wondered how important it would be to have distinct boundaries around areas and the activities that took place in them. What kinds of hybrid spaces were represented? What thresholds, material, or spatial distinctions divided spaces?
To get at the inspirational potential of the libraries, he focused on the interior character, the quality of natural light, materiality, and the levels of ambient sound. Trevor considered how much space was devoted to quiet reading. Were the creative, active spaces inviting and lively?
“When people come together in a library, they have the opportunity to build a shared culture and reinforce connections to their community,” said Trevor. “Unlike other “third-place” social hubs like cafes or bars, libraries are non-commercial, truly public spaces. Their mission is to offer accessible resources for everyone and through their services they can become a common point of connection for all”.
This study was driven by Trevor’s passion for the power of architecture to shape community identity and uplift the lives of those who use it every day. Libraries, he says, have the potential to be vibrant civic spaces - public zones where education and the enjoyment of a diverse society can occur, no matter the typology of the space or how the patrons are using it. The work showcased in the book linked below represents John Trevor’s open and ongoing process of learning, “Travel is immensely valuable and enlightening but it does not present what you expect or deliver tidily packaged lessons to take home. I am grateful to have been given this opportunity to pursue this research with the support of VMDO”.
View John Trevor's Travel Fellowship Book: A Survey of Finnish Libraries Here.