The main building of the National Library of Finland

The main building of the National Library of Finland is one of the most renowned landmarks of the early-19th century Empire architecture and is also significant among the public libraries of its time at a European level. The point of departure of the design is fire safety: a construction site away from the university’s main building, surrounded by planted trees, as well as halls and rooms covered with arches.

In the architecture of the façade and the magnificent interiors, C.L. Engel combined, in an original way, motifs from Classicism and references to the ancient world. The Emperor Nicholas I of Russia approved the most monumental of the three alternatives drawn up by Engel. The symmetrical placement and the layout of the library halls can be derived from the bathhouses of the Roman Emperor Diocletian.

The exterior and interior architecture is based on solemn a Corinthian column system, the façades have been arranged applying the Classical temple architecture and the height dimensions of the columns and the framework follow the dimensions of the university main building exactly.

The large halls of the library are all interconnected. The entrance leads directly to the core of the building, the Cupola Hall, and continues to Rotunda annex. The numerous reading rooms, South Hall and North Hall are connected to the Cupola Hall. At first, all halls had only rows of columns circling the walls and behind the galleries supported by them, the bookshelves were organised by discipline. Hall columns are coated with stucco marble. The decorative paintings of the arches were completed in 1881.

Taken as a whole, the three grand halls of the National Library of Finland are one of the finest entities in Finnish architecture.  The entrance of the library is opposite the Cathedral of St. Nicholas, currently known as the Helsinki Cathedral, built at the same time. Consequently, the library is an inherent part of the entire Senate Square area and the political message of the architecture, which emphasised the state connection with Russia.

In the 19th century, artworks and plaster cast copies of Classical statues.  In 1904, Magnus Enckell’s large-scale Symbolist painting “The Golden Age” was placed on the upper gable of the North Hall.

Image: The main building of the National Library of Finland was designed by the architect C.L. Engel in 1836 and it was completed between 1840 and 1845.


The construction of Rotunda, the annex to the library designed as a book repository, was commenced in 1902 and it was taken into use in 1906–07. Rotunda has six floors above ground. Shelves for 200,000 volumes were placed radially on all floors around the elliptical open middle space.  All structures in Rotunda were designed to be fireproof, using a steel frame and reinforced concrete. For its time, the building is extremely modern, one of the first of its kind in Finland. The inside stairs are of reinforced concrete, window frames and the supporting structures of the extensive glass ceiling are iron, while the windows are string inserted glass. The architect Gustaf Nyström, matched the appearance of Rotunda seamlessly with the old part of the library, while the architectural details absolutely represent the style of the early-20th century. The exterior walls are covered at the height of the heads of the supporting columns with a series of symbols of various sciences, the liveliest ones made by the sculptor Walter Runeberg.

Image: Rotunda’s façade drawing. Gustaf Nyström c. 1905


Fabiania, named after its location on Fabianinkatu, was originally built as the Faculty of Chemistry and Anatomy. The successor of C.L. Engel, who died in 1840, as the architect of the university was Jean Wiik, whose first independent design was the laboratory building.  It represented simple, symmetrical Classicism and austere office construction, when compared with the university buildings designed by Engel. Fabiania building was transferred to the National Library of Finland in 1998.

The new underground collection space of the library, “the Book Cave”, was completed in 2001.

Image: Façade of the Fabiania building. Gustaf Nyström 1895.

The most extensive renovation in the history of the library 2013–2015

As background information and a tool for restoration solutions in the National Library of Finland building, a building-historical survey was commissioned from Okulus Architects Oy.
The aim of the survey was to present the historical change periods in the building to better understand its current state and to find out the age of the later construction parts.  The library interiors are one of the most impressive and exceptionally authentically preserved examples of Engel’s architecture. The Finnish survey (published 22 Sep. 2011) can be read at

In the renovation, the functionality and disabled access of the library was improved and building services engineering was renewed. The alteration work promoted the preservation of the building and its use as a library. The library building is protected by the city plan and the Act on the Protection of Buildings. The National Board of Antiquities actively partook in the project, at both at design and implementation stages.

The documentation of the renovation project (in Finnish): Kansalliskirjaston peruskorjaus, työmaadokumentointi 2013 - 2015 (

Pictures of the renovation (Flickr)

Image: Kati Winterhalter


  • Bibliotheca Renovata. Helsingin yliopiston kirjasto. Toim. Pertti Koistinen ja Heikki Kääriäinen. Helsinki 1957
  • Nils Erik Wickberg: Senaatintori - Senatstorget - The Senate Square - Der Senatsplatz. Rungsted Kyst 1981
  • Yliopiston Helsinki. University Architecture in Helsinki. Toim. Eea Pekkala-Koskela. Helsinki 1990
  • Bibliotheca Academica.Helsinki University Library, the National Library of Finland. Editor Rainer Knapas. Helsinki 2001
  • Tiedon valtakunnassa. Helsingin yliopiston kirjasto - Kansalliskirjasto 1640 - 2010. Rainer Knapas 2012.
  • The Helsinki University Library, The National Library of Finland 1640 - 2010. Rainer Knapas 2012.
  • Kansalliskirjasto - päärakennus ja Rotunda: rakennushistoriaselvitys Kati Winterhalter and Mikko Bonsdorff 2011 (
  • Kansalliskirjaston peruskorjaus, työmaadokumentointi 2013 - 2015  Kati Winterhalter, Mikko Bonsdorff and Matias Mäenpää 2016 (
  • Kansalliskirjasto. Huomioita ajasta, pinnasta ja tilasta. Kati Winterhalter 2016.