The somewhat nebulous theme of the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale challenged participating countries to create standalone exhibitions that reflect a "generosity of spirit and a sense of humanity at the core of architecture's agenda, focusing on the quality of space itself."

Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, curators of the 16th edition of the world's most prestigious international exposition of the built environment, describe this theme as "Freespace."

Reads a section of Farrell and McNamara's manifesto:

Freespace focuses on architecture's ability to provide free and additional spatial gifts to those who use it and on its ability to address the unspoken wishes of strangers. Freespace celebrates architecture's capacity to find additional and unexpected generosity in each project even within the most private, defensive, exclusive or commercially restricted conditions. Freespace encourages reviewing ways of thinking, new ways of seeing the world, of inventing solutions where architecture provides for the well being and dignity of each citizen of this fragile planet.

And each country participating in the biennale — 63 total with six countries participating for the first time including Guatemala, Pakistan and the Holy See — has responded. The resulting roster of public exhibitions are thought-provoking, poignant and adventurous. Some are political. China's exhibition, for example, explores the possibilities of self-sustaining rural development in a country where cities are bursting at the seams. Portugal's exhibition celebrates homegrown public infrastructure while the markedly topical German pavilion explores how barriers, fences and walls impact cities and countries.

And from Finland comes an exhibition that serves as a love letter to its libraries.

Rikhardinkatu Library, Finland Designed by Theodor Höijer, Rikhardinkatu Library in Helsinki (1881) was the first building to be purpose-built as a public library in Finland. (Photo: Daniel Nyblin/Wikimedia Commons)

'Cornerstones of a civilized, forward-thinking society'

For a country as famously bookworm-y as Finland, a library-themed exhibition at Venice Architecture Biennale might seem a bit obvious — but not quite as obvious as, let's say, a tribute to sauna design throughout the ages.

Yet Finland's exhibition, titled "Mind-Building," couldn't be more on-theme if it tried. After all, libraries, by their very nature, revolve around openness, inclusion and generosity. They are free. And in Finland, where access to all libraries is guaranteed by law, these "multimedia-equipped public living rooms" sometimes include canine reading therapists, rooftop balconies, vinyl digitizing studios and karaoke booths. Finland's libraries are simply next level.

Referring to libraries as "constantly rejuvenating hubs of social vitality," exhibition organizer Archinfo Finland goes on to elaborate how "Mind-Building" perfectly fits the biennale theme:

Local librarians and architects of library buildings are mind-builders: library architecture is an expression of the art of architecture to address the prevailing societal values in a built form. The public library is the ultimate ‘freespace': a publicly funded place of learning that is open for everyone, for free.

On view at the Finnish Pavilion at the Giardini in Venice through Nov. 25 when the biennale concludes, the exhibition itself takes the form of a sort of pop-up library space where visitors are invited to leisurely explore 100 years of Finnish library history with, of course, an emphasis on architecture and design.

National Library of Finland, Helsinki The National Library of Finland (Kansalliskirjasto), a research library operated by the University of Helsinki, is open to the general public. This is the case with all academic libraries in Finland. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Aided by audio, video and other media, the journey begins with the construction of Rikhardinkatu Library in Helsinki, which was completed in 1881 as Finland's first public library. From there, 16 additional Finnish libraries built throughout the decades are showcased, each representing an important milestone in the marriage of public space and printed matter. With each individual library, "Mind-Building" explores how its design is reflective of the time period in which it was conceived and how it has helped redefine how libraries in Finland are built.

The exhibition even takes a glance into the not-so-distant future of Finnish libraries by including the highly anticipated Oodi Helsinki Central Library, a game-changing "non-commercial public space open for everyone" that promises to be the mother of all kirjastot when completed in December 2018.

Kaisa House library, Helsinki Dubbed Kaisa House, the dazzling main library of the University of Helsinki was completed in 2012 and is the largest academic library in Finland. (Photo: Marco Verch/flickr)

Oodi — or "Ode" in English — will, in addition to having over 100,000 fiction and nonfiction titles in circulation, feature a slew of decidedly unconventional features such as a restaurant, café, cinema, recording studio, co-working spaces, gaming area and 3D printer-stocked maker space. (Sadly, it appears that dreams of a sauna have been dashed.)

This new central library-cum-"living meeting space" is going up in the heart of Helsinki in the Töölönlahti district across from Finland's parliament building, further emphasizing the vital role that both knowledge and public space play in Finnish culture.

"Libraries are the cornerstones of a civilized, forward-thinking society. In Finland, libraries have introduced readers to our literature, spread information and knowledge, attracted young people away from the streets, taught us to use the Internet, and facilitated and equipped us to be active and autonomous citizens," says exhibition curator Anni Vartola in an Archinfo Finland press release. "Our architects have given the library its visual form. Through the art of architecture, they have participated in nourishing the social viability that the library radiates upon its users. Our exhibition is a tribute to library architecture. Furthermore, it is a reminder of the power of good architecture, exceeding time and place."

Turku Main Library Turku Main Library is one of 17 libraries featured in the 'Mind-Building' exhibition at the Venice Architecture Biennale. The new library is linked to Turku's old central library that was built in 1903 and restored in 2008. (Photo: Markus Koljonen/Wikimedia Commons)

An architectural ode to the humble library

Libraries are obviously a big deal in low-key happy Finland, where nontraditional school and classroom design are also of particular significance.

But how big?

Finnish citizens, roughly all 5.5 million of them, are prolific readers. Per Finnish Library Services, roughly 91 million books were borrowed (16.67 per capita) and 50 million library visits were made in 2014. Every municipality across the country (there's more than 300 of them) has at least one library. Many also have branch libraries and roving bookmobiles. Academic libraries at universities, so often restricted to students and faculty in other countries, are also free and open to the public.

Not shockingly, Finland's literacy rate ranks as one of the highest in the world. One 2016 study ranked it as the most literate country in the world. (The other Nordic countries — Norway, Iceland, Denmark and Sweden — also rank highly as do two of Finland's Baltic neighbors, Latvia and Estonia.)

Viipuri Library in Vyborg, Russia Conceived in the late 1920s and completed in 1935, the recently restored Viipuri Library on the Finland-Russia border, was designed in the functionalist style early in the career of famed Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto. (Photo: Ninaraas/Wikimedia Commons)

And Finns aren't just keen on borrowing books and other media. Many Finnish libraries serve as lending centers for items like sewing machines, power tools and sports equipment — you know, the kind of stuff you'd sheepishly ask a neighbor to borrow for a weekend and then be paranoid about breaking it the entire time you have. In many Finnish municipalities, you can go to the local library to borrow "items of occasional us" — and check your email, socialize with your neighbors, read a newspaper, get a few hours of work done and, yes, even take out a new paperback.

The Guardian notes that Finland's densely settled urban areas (roughly 84 percent of Finns live in cities per World Bank data) and frequently brutal winter weather both help to explain why Finland's libraries have evolved from hushed, formal book repositories to lively, democratic spaces that are more akin to community hubs than anything else.

To that end, Oodi, the most anticipated new public building in Finland in, well, forever, will function primarily as an "indoor town square," to quote Antti Nousjoki, a principal with Helsinki-based ALA Architects, the young firm tasked with designing the 98 million euro mega-library after winning an open design competition.

"[Oodi] has been designed to give citizens and visitors a free space to actively do what they want to do," Nousjoki explains to the Guardian.

Interior rendering of Oodi Helsinki Central Library A children's reading room at the upcoming Oodi Helsinki Central Library, which will also feature cafes, recording studios and space to simply congregate and hang out. (Rendering: ALA Architects)

"We want people to find and use the spaces and start to change them," adds Nousjoki. "Our aim was to make [Oodi] attractive so that everybody will use it — and play a role in making sure it is maintained."

Oodi, commissioned to celebrate 100 years of Finnish independence, also serves as an architectural testament to two things that Finns hold in the highest regard: education and equality.

"There's strong belief in education for all," Hanna Harris, director of Archinfo Finland, tells the Guardian, noting that one popular existing Helsinki library, Töölö Library, sometimes has long lines to get in, and those lines start early on weekday mornings. "There is an appreciation of active citizenship — the idea that it is something that everyone is entitled to. Libraries embody that strongly."

Töölö Library Helsinki Spacious, surrounded by parkland and featuring rooftop terraces, Helsinki's modernist Töölö Library was built in 1970 and was recently renovated. (Photo: Mikkoau/Wikimedia Commons)

A taste of Finland (in Italy)

Back in Venice at the Biennale, architecture enthusiasts, tourists and anyone who doesn't hail from the land of Moomins and Marimekko won't just be given the opportunity to learn about Finnish libraries of the past, present and future.

"Mind-Building" will also provide frazzled Biennale attendees with a low-key space to unwind, read a magazine or journal and charge their mobile devices. (No word if there's a hired shush-er on hand.)

And because, as CNN notes, "it is the people, not the architecture, who are the heart of Finland's library culture," the exhibition will also host visiting librarians from Helsinki who will be on hand to discuss the exceptionally egalitarian, versatile nature of Finnish libraries. As part of the official biennale programming, there will also be a seminar on library architecture held in November.

Cafe at library, Lohja, Finland The main library in Lohja, a leafy town on the outskirts of the Helsinki metro area, features a bustling cafe that encourages visitors to stick around for a while and socialize. Imagine that. (Photo: abc10/Wikimedia Commons)

Architecture buffs will note that Finland's exhibition pavilion was designed in the mid-1950s by Alvar Aalto, the internationally renowned Finnish architect and designer whose design for Viipuri Library — located in what is now Vyborg, Russia — is also included in "Mind-Building." (Completed in 1935 and considered a defining work in Aalto's early career, it was the first Finnish library to have a dedicated section to children's books.)

Other Finnish architects of note to have their creations appear as one of the 17 esteemed libraries featured in "Mind-Building" include Aarne Ervi (Töölö Library, 1970), Jyrki Tasa, (Kuhmo Town Library,1988), Tuomo Siitonen (Joensuu City Library, 1992), Ilmari Lahdelma (Lohja Main Library, 2006) and Asmo Jaaksi of JKMM Architects, who designed not one but two libraries featured in the exhibition: Turku Main Library (2007) and Seinäjoki Main Library (2012).

"As a design task a library is a good challenge," Jaaksi recently explained to CNN. "You must try to create architecture that attracts all kind of people and inspires a visitor to use the building in a variety of ways. A library is also a good context in which to create freely designed open spaces, with strong emotional aspects too. And empathizing the users' role is quite easy because we are all library users here in Finland."

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Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

Finland pays tribute to its beloved libraries
The Nordic nation gets bookish at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale with an exposition dubbed 'Mind-Building'