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Cultural hub: materials control and maximum prefabrication are keys to this new urban centre near Helsinki.

Pekka Helin and his associates triumphed over budgetary and planning constraints to create an exemplary public library, music conservatory, and chamber music hall in the Alberga district of Espoo, a satellite city of Helsinki. The linked buildings are part of the first phase of a new commercial and cultural hub for this fast expanding township, which is located at the junction of major roads and rail links. The architects exploited a natural valley to place the library, school and low-rise shopping around a piazza that extends over a podium of supermarkets. Three pension funds joined forces to develop the site and they leased the cultural buildings back to the city.

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'We cannot afford to build cheaply in Finland,' observed a local architect, knowing that the climate and his peers would quickly expose any shortcomings. That was clearly the guiding principle here. For the Finns, like their enlightened neighbours, a library is an essential investment in the community, providing information and entertainment for all citizens, and offering solace through the frigid gloom of winter. Music is another priority in the land of Sibelius and Salonen, and the hall has delighted leading artists as much as the students who use it on a daily basis.

Facades of patinated copper plates with asymmetrical fenestration allude to books and musical notes, and contrast with the steel- and granite-faced store fronts. The library is signalled to the street by a lofty portico, with delicate steel columns framing wood louvres to shade expansive, south-facing windows. Public levels are ranged around a steel-framed atrium, with a pitched glass lantern rising through the third level of mechanical services and space for future offices. Warm-toned limestone floors withstand the traffic of snow boots, and rich burgundy waxed stucco provides an inexpensive alternative to Venetian stucco lustro. Ceiling services are screened with black wire mesh. The lower floor is divided down the middle. Public areas, furnished with blocky upholstered benches, and spaces for young people face the main entrance from the square, while adult areas to the rear overlook the street, which is a storey below the piazza. Pivoting doors close off the main library from the late-opening youth section, with its sound- and video-mixing studios and other sophisticated amenities. A rotunda with slit windows and bowed-disc sound reflectors suspended from the ceiling, dubbed the 'text balloon,' is used as a story-telling space and for interactive performances. Reading rooms, work areas--including a 160 sq m IT zone--and non-fiction stacks surround the atrium on the upper floor. A glass bridge leads to a suspended balcony that hovers within the double-height lobby of Sello Hall, providing access to its 402 steeply raked seats. Expansive windows on the piazza facade pull in natural light that sparkles off the waxed stucco on the inner wall. Soft grey is washed over dark blue to provide a surface as polished and rich as marble. The space is warmed by the birch-strip ceiling and oak-block floor; an open staircase with a finely detailed steel balustrade leads up from the lower-level cafe.

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The auditorium was the first of the type Helin had designed, except for a second-prize entry in the 1980s competition for Tampere--but he loves classical music and served on the jury for the new Helsinki concert hall. His team worked closely with Moller Acoustics in what he calls 'a fruitful battle' to create an ideal space for chamber music, taking architectural inspiration from the engineers' digital modelling and demanding specifications. The hall, which is 23m long, 16.8m wide, and 13m high from its lowest point, floats within the structure to insulate it from outside noise. Every surface is designed to enhance the sound and animate a simple black box--actually midnight blue.

Recycled cotton-fibre paste provides a rough, integrally coloured wallcovering that dampens reverberations. The fibre is mixed with glue and sprayed onto a double layer of gypsum board in a patented Finnish process. Vertical illuminated niches in the side walls check parallel vibration and diffuse sound, as do the wooden blocks on the back wall. Visually, these play off the discontinuous wood ledges that project from the other three sides, giving fast reflections to the players and adding horizontal energy to the music. A stage canopy of acoustic clouds and sails that bridge the angle between side walls and ceilings, also enhances the quality of the sound. Heavy curtains can be drawn to dampen acoustics for amplified music, speech, and movies.

Prefabrication, lightweight cladding that was easy to install, and inventive use of inexpensive materials contributed to the success of these buildings. Helin describes as 'mud-wrestling' the five-year process in which the programme was repeatedly changed (a multiplex was proposed and then withdrawn from the site of the music school), and subject to the developers' penny-pinching. It's clear who won that contest, for the Alberga project is a worthy successor to the firm's light-filled headquarters for Nokia in another district of Espoo (AR April 1998). That corporate complex rivals Telenor in Oslo (AR November 2003) in scale, humanity, and energy efficiency, and bodes well for the office component of the Kampi Centre development that Helin and others are building on the old central bus station site in the heart of Helsinki (AR January 2001).

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Article Details
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Author:Webb, Michael
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:4EUFI
Date:Aug 1, 2004
Words:899
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