Full of life from morning to night

Kaisa Viitanen

An ordinary Tuesday at the Harald Herlin Learning Centre in Otaniemi. We observed the unique atmosphere of the award-winning building.

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Tommy Lindgren, Lecturer, Department of Architecture

The day starts with a large coffee

'I need to get a coffee. The largest one possible,' says Tommy Lindgren as he opens the glass door at the main entrance. He is the first visitor to the Harald Herlin Learning Centre today.

He walks directly to Robert’s Coffee on street level and orders a huge mug of regular coffee. 'I first came to Otaniemi as a student 18 years ago. This is an entirely different place today,' Lindgren says, gesturing around.

The library building was designed by Alvar Aalto. After having been completely refurbished, it has been serving as a learning centre for a year now. Structures between the floors have been removed to create spacious facilities that inspire learning and interaction.

This year, the learning centre won the Finlandia Prize for Architecture – rightfully so, says Lindgren. 'The refurbishment perfectly supports the users’ needs at Aalto University and encourages people to spend time in a pleasant environment,' says Lindgren as he dashes off with his coffee to the adjacent building.


‘Otaniemi has been waiting for a place like this,’ says Tommy Lindgren, lecturer in urban planning at Aalto University.


Natalia Lindholm is a second-year student of chemical engineering. She enjoys spending time in the basement of the learning centre.

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Natalia Lindholm, student of chemical engineering

Makerspace is my favourite space

How many ways can bacteria be studied using Gram staining? Natalia Lindholm is about to find out the answer. She is watching a video about biotechnology in the Makerspace facility in the basement of the learning centre.

'I was supposed to have a biology lesson, but I came here because I learn better by studying things myself.' Natalia Lindholm is a second-year student at the School of Chemical Engineering. In her opinion, the learning centre is the best place on the campus.

'If we need to focus on group work, we book a team room or meet here in the basement, as talking is allowed here. After my classes, I often hang out at the coffee shop. You always run into someone you know there.'


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Zhang Xin, Li Guoxin, Ding Jun and Zhang Xingchen, visitors from Peking University

Is this really a basement?

The participants of the SEEEP seminar are having a break. A group of first-time visitors to Finland from Peking University want to see more than just the venue.

The aniline red basement of the learning centre puts a smile on their faces. 'Such a unique design! I cannot believe that we’re actually underground in the basement,' says Zhang Xingchen.

The other members of the group agree. They could see themselves working here. But now they must return to the seminar after this quick tour of the facilities. 'We aim to cooperate with Aalto University on dissertations on logistics and the transportation industry and perhaps in other fields as well,' says Zhang Xin.


The Chinese visitors were impressed by the bold architecture and colours.


‘I think this is the best library I have ever visited,’ says Neha Kasana.


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Neha Kasana, exchange student at Aalto University and the University of Helsinki

A book lover’s favourite place

What is the best position to study? This is what Neha Kasana from Mysore in South India is thinking about when checking out the Harald Herlin Learning Centre. She is spending the autumn as an exchange student in Finland.

‘A friend showed me pictures from here, and I definitely wanted to experience this unique place myself. I’m a fan of libraries, and I love Kaisa House, the main library building of the University of Helsinki.’ First Kasana takes a look at the tables in the reading room. ‘Traditional. We have the same type of spaces in India.’ She is impressed by the ball chairs hanging from the ceiling. ‘I haven’t seen anything like this before.’

The padded recesses on the wall look nice, but Kasana does not want to climb into one. ‘I’ve spent too much time alone in a student apartment. I started feeling like the walls were closing in on me. I would probably get the same feeling over there.’

Kasana takes a seat on a huge, round stool. ‘It’s easy to interact with others here. I feel part of a larger group,’ Kasana says. She begins to prepare for the final lesson of her book-making course, where she will give a presentation on her book.

After working on her project for a while, she says that the Harald Herlin Learning Centre just became her favourite library. ‘This library has a vast selection of books, magazines and information online, but the facilities are so attractive that you want to come here and work on your project on-site.’


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Robin Bui, business student

Open even on Sundays

For the last few weeks, Robin Bui has been working on his Master’s thesis, which deals with steering methods at growth companies. Studying English-language articles has taken all his concentration and time.

‘Last weekend, I decided to go and study at my local library in the Kallio district of Helsinki. Only at the door did I realise that it was closed on Sunday evenings.’ Then Bui remembered that the Harald Herlin Learning Centre is open on Sundays. Students and employees of Aalto University can enter the library using their HSL Travel Cards. ‘I get much more done here than I would at home, where I cannot concentrate at all.’

After turning in his Master’s thesis, Robin will start packing his bags. He will spend the spring as an exchange student in Hong Kong.


‘You cannot study at ordinary libraries late in the evening, but here it’s possible. By activating your access card, you can enter the 24/7 facility at all times,’ Robin Bui explains.


‘I want to make the most of Aalto University. The services available at the learning centre are incredibly good.’


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Aneta Atsova, student of visual culture, curation and modern art

A laid-back atmosphere creates a sense of community

Laughter carries from a table at the coffee shop. A group of students of visual culture are planning their presentation on scenography. ‘We will make a poster, of course, but should we also film a video?’ Aneta Atsova asks her group.  

She has been studying at Aalto University for eighteen months and loves the Harald Herlin Learning Centre. ‘Last spring, we held a sculpture exhibition in the lobby. After that, I have had a special relationship with this building. I see it as a safe haven for homeless students,’ Atsova says with a laugh.

Atsova is familiar with the printers at Fablab and would like to try the sound studio next. You can book a session with an instructor for that. ‘I never feel alone here.’

Atsova moved from Bulgaria to Finland ten years ago and speaks Finnish, but most of her friends at the university do not speak the language. Discussions take place in English. ‘Our group of students is very enthusiastic about creating a new sense of community for Otaniemi. This coffee shop is a good example of such an atmosphere: laid-back and intense at the same time.’


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Mert Çelikok, student, researcher in artificial intelligence

Laid-back learning at the laptop

If your job is to create something new, find answers to inexplicable questions and master artificial intelligence, you need comfortable routines in your daily life. ‘I always start the day with a latte and a croissant at the coffee shop in the learning centre. I open my laptop and go through my schedule for the day.’

He spends two days of the week as a researcher in artificial intelligence and three days as a student.


‘I hope I will be able to continue my dissertation study at Aalto University,’ says Mert Çelikok, who starts his days at the coffee shop in the learning centre.

After the day is done, Mert Çelikok returns to the coffee shop. He opens his laptop and orders a latte. Sipping his coffee, he studies an article he received from the University of Oxford and takes notes for his research group. ‘I’m looking forward to seeing how the School of Arts, Design and Architecture building, which will be completed next door, will affect our lives.’


Photos: Anna Autio