Monday, 25 May 2009

What to see: The National Library, Helsinki

The National Library of Finland (formerly the University Library) is often counted among the best – if not simply the best – of the many public buildings in Helsinki erected by the Prussian-born architect Carl Ludvig Engel (1778-1840) in the years after the Finnish capital was moved there from Turku (Åbo) in 1812, the University following in 1828.
“It is as splendid as the Senate Building but it has a dignified mightiness of a quite other sort, a lofty tranquillity of forms which one does not encounter earlier in his more richly decorated works”, the art historian Nils Erik Wickberg wrote about the library. Engel himself wrote to his nephew in 1833: “When this building is once completed, there will be not one university in Europe which will have a more beautiful library”.
Situated at Union Street opposite the entrance to the Cathedral of Helsinki and next to the University Building, the National Library was built between 1836 and 1840. However the interior decoration took such a long time that it was only in 1845 that the library could be taken in use.
From the main entrance one enters through a vestibule into the library’s central room, the Cupola Hall, which was inspired by Roman baths (photo 4). It is surmounted by a cupola which is 21 metres high (photo 5). On either side it is flanked by two long, rectangular, barrel-vaulted reading rooms – the North Hall can be seen in the sixth picture, the South Hall in the seventh. All three rooms are surrounded by stucco marble columns and together they “make up the most beautiful suite of rooms in the secular architecture of Finland”, Wickberg wrote.
The painted decorations on the vaults were added only in 1881, but correspond quite well with Engel’s ideas. In 1906-1907 the building was supplemented by an annex, the Rotunda, at the rear of the building. The Rotunda is by the architect Gustaf Nyström and blends in beautifully with Engel’s architecture. Underground storage rooms were built in 1950s and in 2000 and today the neighbouring Fabiania building is also at the National Library’s disposal.

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