One of Helsinki’s landmarks, the monument to honour national composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) was the result of a public fundraising campaign and a two-stage competition in 1961-62. At all stages, the project stirred an unprecedented public debate, as the entire Finnish population seemed to be divided into two camps, the conformists urging for a figurative solution, and the modernists accepting an abstraction as well. Finland’s first abstract public monument, Eila Hiltunen’s copper fountain outside the Bank of Finland, had been unveiled in 1961.
The competition was organised by the Sibelius Society, established after the composer’s death in 1957. Eila Hiltunen, one of the 50 participating sculptors, submitted an abstract entry, Passio Musicae, consisting of hundreds of tubes, superficially resembling organ pipes (Sibelius never composed organ music). The Jury invited the five best projects, and Hiltunen’s radical one as an extra entry, to the second round.
For the second round, the Jury was strengthened by three international members, Oskar Hansen (Poland), Luciano Minguzzi (Italy) and Knud Nellemose (Denmark). The expert members of the jury favoured Eila Hiltunen’s final project, a much-evolved version of her first entry. The relatively dense cluster of pipes had transformed into an airy, free shape suggestive of a birch forest or the Northern Lights. The nature feeling was enhanced by openings and rich texture on many of the tubes.
Although Eila Hiltunen was declared the winner, only after moths of heated public debate was she commissioned to realize her project. The Monument Committee requested the addition of a figurative element to satisfy the public. In shaping Sibelius’s face the sculptor chose to depict him in his creative age, not as the familiar elderly man, the national icon. Even this was too much for some critics. The placement of the new element was more of a problem, as it conflicted with the original landscaping plan, drawn by architect Juhani Kivikoski.
The main part of the Sibelius Monument consists of approx. 600 acid-proof stainless steel tubes of various diameters, welded together individually and hand-textured by Eila Hiltunen. While several specialists were consulted on metallurgy, structural calculations and welding methods, the physical accomplishment of this structure, which measures 10.5 (length) by 6.5 (depth) by 8.5 (height) metres and weighs 30 tons, is the work of two people, Eila Hiltunen and assistant-metalworker Emil Kukkonen, 21 at the start.
The work lasted almost four years in Helsinki’s Lauttasaari suburb, in a temporary studio erected for a previous high-profile project, the equestrian statue of Marshall C.G.E. Mannerheim. A great shed, it was primitive, dark and ice-cold in winter. Fortunately, the new photo studio of Otso Pietinen, Eila Hiltunen’s husband, offered modern amenities next door.
Welding stainless steel is challenging, as it is easily deformed by heat, and special jigs were employed to keep the tubes straight. Eila Hiltunen used the then new MIG (Metal Inert Gas) welding technology to texture the surface of the outer pipes. Wearing a 1930s leather jacket and red overalls scattered with holes from welding sparks, she would sit on a tube for hours, with the welding torch in one hand and a water-hose for rapid cooling in the other. This exposed her to toxic metal fumes in spite of protective masks, resulting in chronic bronchial asthma.
Apart from physical hardship, Eila Hiltunen also endured constant public pressure and animosity during the project. The budget was scant at the outset and did not increase with the additional requirements from the Monument Committee.
The Monument Today
The Sibelius Monument was unveiled on September 7, 1967. President Urho Kekkonen was present, with Finland’s political, cultural and business elite.