Why is one of Helsinki’s most iconic artworks,
the Havis Amanda statue, hidden in a box?

The morning sun blazes over the Helsinki harbor, as armies of tourists invade the city center for the summer. But both visitors and locals are wondering why a fenced-up construction site is blocking access to the fountain at Esplanadi, and why are city builders constructing a giant box that completely covers one of Helsinki’s most iconic artworks, the Havis Amanda statue? Wearing hard-hats and day-glo vests, we’re here to find out.

Hello, who are you? What is your role in this project?
My name is Jari Mikkola, from the Helsinki City Construction Service (STARA), and I’m the Head Builder for the Hotel Manta project. My role is to organize and coordinate all the tasks and resources that are needed to complete the project within time and budget: a fully functional hotel/living room around the statue of Havis Amanda.

Who is the artist? What is the concept behind this?
The artist is Mr. Tatzu Nishi and he’s Japanese. His concept is to create one-room hotels around public artworks, so people can admire them up-close. He has done it in Europe, Australia, and the US, and this is the first time in Scandinavia.

What’s the liaison between the artist and the city?
This project came via the Helsinki City Art Museum, who’s been our client for a number of years; we have built many other projects for them. They contacted the artist and invited him to consider a suitable artwork, and he selected Amanda. So in March I got a call from architect Klas Fontell describing the idea, and asking whether we could build something like this for the summer. I consulted with my boss and he said… let’s better not. But we studied it in a bit more detail and thought it would be a nice challenge. So my boss presented the project to the board and, even though they knew it would not be easy, they decided to go for it.

What are the difficulties?
First off, there’s a big difference between what an artist envisions and what needs to be done at a practical level to realize that vision; this is not a common architectural structure that can be erected using everyday engineering, it requires special design and techniques. Then we need to consider this particular artwork is smack in the middle of the city center, with lots of traffic and tourists and whatnot, so it involves a great deal of coordination. And there’s of course the fact that we are, under a foreign artist’s design, using taxpayer’s money, completely covering one of the most beloved city statues with a giant box!

It seems people in general are not happy about it.
Yes, we are very aware of that. They say we are wasting the people’s money, and that we are idiots for putting a box around Manta, and so on. And of course everybody has a right to their opinion, but I am here to explain, if they want to hear with an open attitude, what the project is really about (even then they might not like it anyway, and that’s okay). It’s also important to let those who don’t approve know that it will only last for a scheduled period of two months and then it will go away.

So what motivated you to say yes?
Several things. My office deals with about 1.500 jobs (or more) per year, and this is just one of them, but for the artist it is a very important project. Also the people who booked the hotel must have a comfortable and safe space to enjoy their night in Amanda’s company. And so far we have successfully completed every project the Helsinki Art Museum commissioned from us, and I knew we could tackle this one too. This is what we do, we build stuff.

What do you think this art project signifies?
I had an initial, intellectual idea at first. But as we physically began to build it and interact with it, I finally understood the goal of the artist. Unless it’s Vappu and you climb on top of the statue risking jail or broken bones, Amanda is usually seen by the people from a distant point of view, but never up-close. Through this project, you get to stand at the same level, face to face with her. Come, let me show you.

We climb up the raw, temporary wooden stairs and enter the room proper. In the middle of the space there stands a tall crate that’s currently protecting something from the frantic activity. It’s Amanda! She’s inside, protruding from the floor with all the fish at her feet. As we approach her, suddenly, even though the whole room is all bare wood, exposed pipes, electric wiring, dust, materials, and workmen’s sweat, it becomes obvious what this platform, this “giant box”, is meant to do: to allow immediate proximity to an artwork whose boundaries are usually much more elusive. It’s almost scary to be so near that your extended hand could caress the bronze. She seems coy a the intimate inspection, but inviting at the same time. The proportions look bigger than those of a human being’s; the artist probably has compensated for the normal viewing constraints of height, angle offset, and horizontal distance that Jari just mentioned.

This is just incredible. I understand….
(Jari smiles) Such a different perspective of the artwork, huh?

Absolutely… I’m amazed. But, isn’t this concept a bit “elitist” in the sense that the statue will be hidden from the public, and only the few who can afford the hotel room can enjoy it?
No, no. It will only be a hotel after 17:30 in the evening up to 11:30 in the morning. During the day it will be an art exhibition and everybody will be able to come in and see her face to face.

Really? I didn’t know that.
Yeah, it will be 3 euros for adults and free for children. And even the price for the stay at the hotel is only 130 euros, which is more or less what any other hotel in Helsinki will charge for the night. The target is not an elite, it’s the general public. A very fast public, I might add: in a few hours it was fully booked, for the two months. I didn’t even get to book it for myself…

Moving around the place, we begin to think 130 euros is not a lot for this one-in-a-lifetime opportunity: even if you weren’t spending the night in the company of a world-renown masterpiece to admire up close, the views from every window are surreal. Those staying here for a night will enjoy a unique chance that it’s unlikely to occur ever again: hovering three meters high in the air above one of the most central spots in Helsinki, looking down Esplanadi to the north, and to the south, the most exciting view of the Helsinki harbor: the huge panoramic window looks precisely at a spot between Katajanokka and Suomenlinna. It’s simply breathtaking.

What a view! Was it in the artist’s plans for the south side to look exactly in this direction?
He did want it to look towards the sea, but we came up with the tricky calculations to get it oriented precisely to offer the most unobstructed sight. We also offset the whole structure to the south a bit, to displace Amanda backwards in the room and give more space to admire the view. The plans called for a strict positioning in the X axis, but were more flexible in the Y axis. I think the artist will be pleased when he sees how it turned out.

Who designed the building?
Artist Mr. Nishi and architect Fontell provided preliminary plans, then we worked with our construction, ventilation, and plumbing planners, who adjusted the original design to real-world, practical specs. It’s a 43 square meters room, a reception area, toilet, and shower. And considering the hotel will function from the 15th of August until the 12th of October, it’s prepared for all possible climates: fully isolated walls, heating system, and conditioned air system.

How many workers are here at the site?
At the beginning there were four builders and myself, then two more joined in. Plus two or three electricians, two ventilation guys, and two plumbers. I have only good things to say about the team; they have devoted themselves to the project way beyond the line of duty. I’ve had to order them several times, because it was midnight already, to stop working and go home! They would say “it’s okay, we can sleep here…” We had four weeks allocated for the job and we’re going to finish it in three.

Terrific job, Jari. Anything to add?
Only that I enjoyed enormously both the project itself, and the collaboration with my team and the City Museum, which is always challenging and rewarding. I truly hope people will enjoy the exhibition, and their nights at Amanda’s feet.