Architecture In Helsinki: Music To An Art Nouveau Lover’s Soul


The Bright Young Things out there may be surprised to learn that architecture in Helsinki is not just the name of a fashionable Australian indie pop band whose songs, as much as I’ve been able to ascertain, have little to do with the work of Alvar Aalto or Eero Saarinen. Architecture in Helsinki (not the band) is quite a delight, none more so than in its extensive catalogue of Art Nouveau classics.

This is particularly relevant with Helsinki being elevated to the role of World Design Capital in 2012, an event that is set to generate even more unbridled excitement than that of Seoul last year.

National Museum of Finland

Art Nouveau straddled the closing years of the 19th and into the first decade of the 20th centuries and achieved an artistic glorification throughout much of the world including Britain (where the Arts & Crafts Movement began in the 1880s), Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. In many countries, it was not just a design philosophy encompassing architecture, interior design and decorative arts but was shaded by political agendas.

This was certainly the case in Finland where Art Nouveau, known locally as jugend, underpinned the struggle for independence from Russia (which finally occurred in 1917) and produced a stolid, nationalistic tone often tied to the Kalevala, an epic poem first published in 1835 that is credited with developing the country’s national identity.

Helsinki Central Railway Station

The main figures of Art Nouveau in Finland included Eliel Saarinen, Hermann Gesellius, Armas Lindgren, Lars Sonck and Ernst Jung. The Helsinki Central railway station, designed by Saarinen, which opened in 1919, is an outstanding example of the Art Nouveau style.

Another is the National Museum of Finland, designed by Saarinen, Gesellius and Lindgren, which opened in 1916. Wander the streets of central Helsinki and there are many more outstanding examples to be found in commercial buildings and apartment blocks.

Helsinki Central Railway Station

In Helsinki’s many museums, Art Nouveau is also well represented. Recommended is the Ateneum Art Museum, Finland’s national gallery, showcasing a collection from the 1750s to the 1950s, and the Designmuseo or Design Museum, founded in 1873, with a collection that encompasses more than 75,000 objects, 40,000 drawings and 100,000 images.

Any visitor to Finland will find its museums and art galleries compelling although most are inclined towards the studious; an exception to this is the Outboard Museum in Porvoo, about 50 kilometres outside Helsinki. This attracts boating enthusiasts from around the world and includes a fascinating recreation of a 1950s-era outboard engine repair shop.

Words and photos © David Latta

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In Atlanta, Things Go Better At The World Of Coca-Cola


You have to feel sorry for Atlanta, Georgia. It’s suffered more ignominy than Anna Nicole Smith. During the Civil War, it was just about destroyed. The city rebuilt but what General Sherman and the Union Army couldn’t achieve was carried out with brutal efficiency by the mid-twentieth century blights of modernisation and urban renewal.

Vast swathes of the southern edge of downtown were decimated in the 1960s to allow three cross-country interstate highways – the I-20, I-75 and I-85 – to join up. Through that decade and well into the 1970s, whatever historic charm remained in the CBD was laid waste. In its place came parking lots, characterless office blocks and sprawling multi-block travesties such as the America’s Mart that encompassed all the originality of Stalinist architecture minus the whimsy.

When Atlanta was selected to host the 1996 Summer Olympics, the wheels of destruction were again set in motion. Eight hectares of the north-western end of downtown were bulldozed for the Centennial Olympic Park. It functioned well as a public meeting space during the Games but was quickly forgotten afterwards and now primarily functions as an area where the homeless can ambush tourists for spare change.

While it might be a little difficult to see and touch history in Atlanta, you can at least drink it in. The city is headquarters to a number of the country’s largest corporations, among which is Coca-Cola. Invented in 1886 by pharmacist John Pemberton in nearby Columbus, Georgia, and first sold in Atlanta, the shrine to all things Coca-Cola and then some can be found in the aptly-named Pemberton Place, across the road from Centennial Park.

The World of Coca-Cola is just that – part museum, part corporate cathedral – a vast and entertaining homage to that which all things go with. Admittance is $US16 per person (a $US26 personally guided tour includes a special limited-edition gift) but is one of the few touches of value in the city.

The facts and figures of the Coca-Cola Company are truly staggering. Coke is consumed by more than one billion people every day and is sold in 200 countries around the world. The value of the brand itself is estimated at $US50 billion. Aside from the dark, sticky beverage so beloved of bourbon and dark rum drinkers, the company markets around 3,000 different drinks.

In the Taste It! area, visitors can try some of these different drinks. There’s Fresca from North America, yellow Inca Kola from Peru, Apple Kiwi Fanta from Thailand, Pineapple Fanta from Greece, Stoney Tango Wizi (a somewhat questionable name for something that tastes like ginger beer) from Zimbabwe, and a remarkably foul Peach Nestea from France. And, of course, Coke itself, though regrettably a shot of Jack Daniels is not an option.

The Coca-Cola Loft is packed to the rafters with memorabilia and advertising material harking back to the late nineteenth century. These include original advertising materials and endorsements from such celebrities as Clark Gable and Carole Lombard as well as Norman Rockwell paintings specially commissioned by Coca-Cola. The first thing that springs to mind when browsing this treasure chest of collectibles is what would this stuff be worth on eBay?

The World’s examination of all things Coke doesn’t shy away from the more embarrassing moments. While the expansion of the brand yielded such successes as TAB, Fanta, Sprite and Diet Coke, there was also the train wreck that was “new” Coke. On 23 April 1985, a “new” version of Coca-Cola was launched, a move that resulted in exactly 79 days of universal public condemnation until the company backed down and reinstated the “old” version. It was a case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”; paradoxically that term is generally considered to have originated in Georgia.

The Perfect Pauses Theater shows Coke advertising from around the world including the hugely-successful Hilltop television ad from 1971. This featured a jingle with the line “I’d Like To Buy The World A Coke” sung by The New Seekers and co-written by British songwriters Billy Davis, Roger Cook and Roger Greenway; Davis had written Reet Petite for Jackie Wilson while Cook and Greenway’s hits included Long Cool Woman (In A Black Dress) for The Hollies. The ad was directed by two-time Oscar winner, Haskell Wexler, responsible for Medium Cool (1969). The song was re-recorded by The New Seekers, removing the Coke references, as I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing, which went to Number 1 in the UK and was a Top ten hit in the US.

The tour ends, as these things so often do, at the merchandise store. Even the hardest to please anti-consumer will find something to come away with. Even if it is just a new appreciation of the siren call of popular culture.

Words and photos © David Latta

Nancy Wake – Bravery, Bullets and Bouillabaisse


Years ago, I worked as a wine steward in the dining room of a Milsons Point club, virtually within the shadow of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. With big windows that looked out across Lavender Bay to the Harbour, it was a popular place with locals and visitors alike. Brett Whiteley lived in one of the old houses just across the road and some of his most famous paintings took in these same views.

Amongst my regular customers was a lovely old couple I knew as the Forwards; John Forward and his wife Nancy. She looked like a grandmother from Central Casting, he a little like Jimmy Edwards. They loved good food, lots of wine and stimulating conversation; they were often the last to leave and Nancy’s booming laugh bounced off the walls like cannon fire.

One day, they asked me to organise the bar for a function at a house on the Upper North Shore. When I arrived, the place was packed. Most of the guests were French and, intriguingly, they were treating Nancy like she was one step down from God. I soon found out why. The occasion was to celebrate the release of Nancy’s autobiography and the vivacious, larger-than-life club regular turned out to be Nancy Wake, war-time heroine, member of the French Resistance and scourge of the Nazis.

Russell Braddon had written a biography about her in the mid-1950s but she was virtually unknown in Australia despite being one of the most highly-decorated women of World War II. The French had awarded her three Croix de guerre as well as making her a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur, the British the George Medal and the United States the Medal of Freedom.

Nancy was born in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1912 but settled in Sydney with her family at an early age. By her early 20s, she was living in Paris and working as a journalist for the Hearst press. She travelled widely through Europe and saw first-hand the spread of Nazi ideology; she was horrified by the treatment of Jewish residents in Berlin and Vienna.

In 1939, she married French businessman Henri Fiocca and settled in Marseille, where she lived the privileged life of a socialite. With the fall of Paris in 1940, France was split into two zones – the Occupied Zone and the so-called Free Zone in the south governed by a collaborationist regime based in Vichy.

She made friends with many of the Allied POWs who were interned at the harbour-front Fort Saint-Jean and, before long, was acting as a courier and assisting in the organisation of escape routes. She came to the attention of MI9, a department of British military intelligence devoted to assisting prisoners of war. During this time, she helped more than 1,000 Allied personnel escape France.

By late 1942, the entire country was controlled by the Nazis, who were actively seeking a mysterious dark-haired operative of the French Resistance, nicknamed the White Mouse for an almost superhuman ability to escape detection.

By early 1943, however, such extensive resources were being put into capturing the White Mouse that Henri persuaded Nancy it was time to leave France. Although she was arrested on her way to Spain, she managed to escape and made it to London.

What she didn’t know until after the war was that Henri had been arrested by the Gestapo but refused to give away her secrets. He was executed later that year.

Nancy initially attempted to join the Free French Movement under General Charles de Gaulle but instead was recruited by the super-secret Special Operations Executive (SOE) which had been formed by Winston Churchill to finance, equip and train Resistance forces in Europe.

She was a member of F Section under famed spymaster Colonel Maurice Buckmaster. Trained in such necessary skills as unarmed combat, silent killing and how to make explosives from common kitchen ingredients, she was parachuted back into France in February 1944. It was her exploits during this period that grew more legendary with each retelling. The truth, she maintained, was more than enough. “I’ve read articles where I led 8,000 men into battle, just like bloody Joan of Arc,” she told me with a hearty laugh.

She was trained to kill and kill she did, with no hesitation or remorse. In one instance, she threw a grenade into a dining room full of Gestapo officers. She organised the supply and equipping of Resistance forces and was often at the forefront of battles with German troops. While she was dedicated and resourceful, she also exercised a fierce sense of humour that earned her enormous respect among the men she led. That she was a women and a foreigner made that regard even more remarkable.

When the Germans were routed from France, and her own war was at an end, she returned to Marseille and discovered the heart-breaking truth about her beloved Henri. As a small measure of comfort, she was reunited with Picon, the wire-haired terrier she’d adopted when she first arrived in Paris.

Nancy eventually returned to Australia and married John Forward, a retired RAF bomber pilot and settled in Sydney. By the time I met her, her fame had receded into an obscure historical cul-de-sac; she was simply Nancy, the hearty, earthy woman who loved a big glass of wine, making jokes at her own expense, and cooking up huge batches of rich saffron-tinged bouillabaisse for her friends.

I knew her for a few more years before she and John moved to Port Macquarie and we lost touch. After John’s death in 1997, she relocated to London where she lived at the Star and Garter Home for ex-servicemen and women. Her death, at the age of 98, on 7 August 2011, closed the final chapter on a remarkable life.

Her story was told by Russell Braddon in 1956, by Nancy herself in 1985, and by Peter FitzSimons in 2001. Upcoming is a planned biopic to be directed by Bruce Beresford.

The things you enjoy today are often the result of the influence of others. When I heard of Nancy’s death, I made up a Pernod just the way she first showed me, a generous shot in a tall glass with a full measure of ice and water. As I sipped, I reflected on the stories she told in her self-deprecating but forthright way. And I thought, I bet she’s sought out Hitler in some corner of the afterlife and is devoting a fair proportion of eternity telling him just what she thinks of him.

They don’t make dames like that anymore.

Words  © David Latta

Sydney’s Forgotten Glory – The Garden Palace Burns!


NOTE: This is Part II of the Garden Palace article.

When the Sydney International Exhibition closed in April 1880, thoughts turned to how best to utilise such a magnificent building. The newspapers of the period weighed in with a range of fanciful possibilities including turning the basement area, under the towering statue of Queen Victoria, into the world’s largest aquarium.

Public sentiment seemed to lean towards a museum. It was announced, not too long after the Exhibition, that the Garden Palace would house the South Kensington Museum of New South Wales. Whether this was an official arrangement with the London museum founded in 1852 and drawing upon exhibits purchased from the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace (and which was renamed the Victoria & Albert Museum in the 1980s) or merely a nod towards the Mother Country, is not known as the plan never reached fulfillment.

However, another museum did occupy some of the space with the Technological and Sanitary Museum taking up space around the ground floor area of the west nave. In the end, political practicality took over. The machinery of colonial government required enormous space and the vast interior of the Garden Palace was perfect for such uses.

The Mines Department, the Harbours and Rivers Department and the Trial Survey Branch were just a few of the many government departments and instrumentalities that set up supplementary offices, storerooms or archives within the Garden Palace.

The Sydney International Exhibition eventually faded into memory and the Garden Palace became an accepted part of the Sydney skyline. Nobody gave much thought to how long the locals would be able to enjoy such a beautiful building. The answer, regrettably, was not that long.

On the morning of 22 September 1882, night watchman F. Kirchen of the Insurance Brigade made his rounds as usual and found nothing of consequence. He met up with the police patrol that regularly visited the building at 5.30am and then walked to the Domain entrance to greet the day watchman, J. McKnight. They chatted for a few minutes as dawn started to seep across the harbour.

Turning their attention to the Garden Palace, they were horrified to notice smoke curling from under the dome. Kirchen and McKnight rushed to the building. It was already too late. They entered the building and saw, through the choking dark smoke, enormous tongues of flame rushing up from the basement area, engulfing the statue of Queen Victoria, and being propelled with increasing speed along the dry wooden beams and supports towards the massive dome.

They had enough time to reach a telephone and alert the Fire Brigade before they fled the scorching heat. After a moment’s hesitation, there was barely time to rescue a pet dog, trapped and barking in panic.

By the time they’d reached a safe distance, the Garden Palace was a roaring ball of flame. As the Sydney Morning Herald later commented, “To describe the progress of the fire is to analyse the events of a few minutes”.

Fire brigades started to arrive from all parts of the city, as did horrified local residents. They could do nothing but watch in stunned disbelief. A few minutes after 6am, the windows of houses fronting Macquarie Street started to crack.

Strong winds fanned the fire which burst in a multitude of colours – dark ruby, green, yellow and blue, tinged by the chemicals and paint treating the wood and the contents of the building –  higher skyward. When the dome collapsed, the rush of expelled supercharged heat sent ash, debris and burning cinders as far afield as Darling Point. The roof of a house in Potts Point was set alight while furnace-twisted sheets of corrugated iron rained down on the grounds of Elizabeth Bay House.

The Illustrated Sydney News reported: “A dull roaring sound, and a crackling like the discharge of fire-arms. An immense flame leapt into the sky, volumes of black smoke rolled up, and with a crash like a peal of thunder the mighty dome fell in”.

By 9am, the spectacle was over. The Garden Palace, which for three years, was the first sight of the city skyline seen by ships entering Sydney Heads, was no more. All that remained were a few tottering fragments of the entrance towers, the charred brick foundations and a smouldering pile of rubble that took days to extinguish.

Just about everything within the building was destroyed including hundreds of paintings gathered for the Art Society of New South Wales’ annual exhibition, all documents relating to the 1881 census as well as other important census records going back decades, and land and water calculations that required vast sections of the colony to be re-surveyed.

Attempts to find a cause of the fire proved fruitless. One suggestion was that thieves set the fire while attempting to break into a Mines Department safe. Another was that one of the Macquarie Street landowners had been desperate enough to regain his harbour views that he had resorted to arson.

The sad truth is that fires were a regular occurrence in Victorian times and the haste with which the Garden Palace was constructed, with the Government taking control of the Exhibition’s organisation just eight months before the projected opening, necessitating the use of wood rather than brick and stone, played its part.

It was just one of those things and it robbed Sydney of the most beautiful building that had ever graced its shores.

Today, there’s very little to remind visitors that it ever existed. The Garden Palace Gates, erected in 1889 opposite the State Library (what is now the Mitchell Library), were later relocated to their present site fronting Macquarie Street. The Pioneers’ Memorial Garden was built in 1938 on the spot where Queen Victoria’s statue stood. A small brass plaque commemorates the Garden Palace.

One lasting tribute, although even that is generally known only by trivia buffs, is that the Technological and Sanitary Museum survived the fire despite losing all its exhibits, found safer lodgings and was later renamed the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences. Later still, it became the Powerhouse Museum and can now be found in Ultimo adjoining Darling Harbour.

Words © David Latta

Photos © State Records NSW