Cold war classics …
Karel Hubacek’s Jested tower,
constructed in Czechoslovakia in 1968-73. Photograph: © Jiri Jiroutek/V&A
We too have such things’
What were the most important weapons of the cold war – rockets and missiles or washing machines and motorbikes? As Frances Stonor Saunders writes, everywhere and everything became a battleground, including the kitchen sink
The dawn of the cold war was literally freezing. The winter of 1947 was the worst ever recorded in Europe. From January to late March, it opened a front across Russia, Germany, Italy, France and Britain, and advanced with complete lack of mercy. Snow fell in St Tropez, gale-force winds building up impenetrable drifts; ice floes drifted to the mouth of the Thames; barges bringing coal into Paris became icebound. There, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin found himself “terrified” by the city’s coldness, “empty and hollow and dead, like an exquisite corpse”. A slight thaw was followed by a further freeze-up, locking canals and roads under a thick layer of ice. In Berlin, Willy Brandt described how the icy cold “attacked people like a savage beast”. Ghostly figures roamed parks looking for benches to cut up into firewood. The Tiergarten was hacked down to stumps, its statues left standing in a wilderness of frozen mud; the woods in the famous Grünewald were completely razed.
Just as American journalist Walter Lippmann coined the phrase “cold war”, the weather cruelly drove home its physical reality, carving its way into the new, post-Yalta topography of Europe, its national territories and populations mutilated, its ideologies braced in antagonistic poses. The Soviets were swift to move in behind the cold front, grasping the potential of the widespread instability of postwar Europe. With an energy and resourcefulness which showed that Stalin’s regime could avail itself of an imaginative vigour unmatched by western governments, the Soviet Union deployed a battery of unconventional weapons to nudge itself into the European consciousness and soften up opinion in its favour.
Experts in the use of culture as a tool of political persuasion, the Soviets did much in the early years of the cold war to establish its central paradigm as a cultural one. Lacking the economic power of the United States and, above all, still without a nuclear capability, they concentrated on winning “the battle for men’s minds”. America, despite a massive marshalling of the arts in the New Deal period, was a virgin in the practice of international Kulturkampf. But such innocence was soon to be forfeited in what high-level US strategists were already calling “the greatest polarisation of power on earth” (space, for a few years yet, was off-limits) since Rome and Carthage. “We have to show the outside world that we have a cultural life and that we care something about it,” the diplomat George Kennan told an audience at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. “I for one would willingly trade the entire remaining inventory of political propaganda for the results that could be achieved by this.”
And so it was that, against the backdrop of Europe’s bombed-out cities, with all basic infrastructures in a state of collapse, a weirdly elaborate cultural life was constructed by the two superpowers as they vied with each other to score propaganda points. As early as 1945, when the stench of human bodies still hung about the ruins of Berlin, the Russians were staging brilliant performances at the State Opera, pomaded generals listening smugly to Gluck’s Orpheus, punctuating the music with the tinkle of their medals. The Americans returned fire, opening the Amerika-Häuser, comfortably furnished (and heated) institutes offering film showings, concerts, talks and art shows, all with “overwhelming emphasis on America”. Within a few years, the arsenal of unconventional weapons with which each side conducted its offensive and defensive operations had swollen to include highbrow literary magazines, paintings, sculptures, comic books, motorcycles, fashion, chess, sports, architecture, design. Everything, in truth (and this is what both sides claimed to have the monopoly on), including the kitchen sink.
The kitchen as a site of ideological conflict was pointedly iterated by the “Kitchen Debate” between then US vice-president Nixon and Soviet premier Khrushchev at the American National Exhibition, staged in Moscow in 1959. The encounter – over a lemon yellow kitchen designed by General Electric – still registers as one of the iconic moments of the cold war. “Would it not be better to compete in the relative merits of washing machines than in the strength of rockets? Is this the kind of competition you want?” Nixon challenged Khrushchev. “We too have such things,” Khrushchev bragged, though he failed to mention that the “we” was far from all-inclusive. Of the estimated 2.7 million visitors to the Moscow exhibition, only a fraction would have the opportunity to possess the kind of commodities on display.
“Refrigerator socialism”, harnessed as it was to a command economy, was never as widely available – or quite as attractive – as capitalism’s glossy counterpart. But this was not the point: as Nixon and Khrushchev’s sharp exchange shows, the question was whether items in the kitchen were mere domestic appliances, or rather the cultural equivalents of ballistic missiles, offensive weapons in the war of ideas. As the American National Exhibition explicitly stressed, a kitchen was no longer just a kitchen, but an enclave where “liberty and the pursuit of happiness” – the prizes of the Enlightenment, no less – could be attained through panel-controlled washing machines and electric waste grinders.
The Kitchen Debate has been endlessly recycled as a story of basic antinomies to evoke the black-and-white, them-and-us chequerboard of cold war politics. Cold War Modern, edited by David Crowley and Jane Pavitt, and accompanying the V&A exhibition they have curated, introduces a more sophisticated narrative that explores the interstices of this all-too-familiar grid. American officials in charge of the American National Exhibition reported breathlessly on its “overwhelming success”. But the visitors’ comment books, according to design historian Susan Reid, reveal an ambivalent response: “And this is one of the greatest nations?? I feel sorry for the Americans … Does your life really consist of only kitchens?” This is one among many critical entries. A small charge, but enough to detonate the official victor’s history that the “freedoms” and innovations offered by the American National Exhibition were such to make all Soviet citizens salivate and long for more of the same.
Was the American assembly line better than the Communist party line? Was the organisation of society around individual rather than collective desires or needs intrinsically superior? The designer Raymond Loewy, in a 1950 speech to Harvard Business School, was in no doubt: “The citizens of Lower Slobovia may not give a hoot for freedom of speech, but how they fall for a gleaming Frigidaire, a stream-lined bus or a coffee percolator.” Possibly, but within a few years his fictional Lower Slobovians could drool over a P70 coupé with a Duroplast body (the prototype of the Trabant), or a Messerschmitt Kabinenroller KR200, or Hedwig Bollhagen’s beautiful, Bauhaus-inspired black ceramic coffee set – all cold war classics produced behind the iron curtain. Or maybe people on both sides of the ideological divide actually preferred something altogether different – mock-Tudor, or German Gothic, or whatever was knocking about in the cutlery drawer. These vernaculars may not satisfy the narrative arc of “Cold War Modern”, and the “questions of existence” – Existenzfragen – it posed, but they all coexisted and competed with it.
Loewy, who worked as an industrial design consultant for Nasa in the 1970s, aligned himself as working not just in, but for the cold war, and hence saw things in rather simplistic binaries. But by the time of the Kitchen Debate, these binaries had lost their edge. Khrushchev had long since denounced Stalin, in the least secret “secret” speech ever made, and commenced the thaw that introduced a less restrictive, if still state-controlled, cultural agenda. Socialist realism, “the mask of Stalinism”, was, if not a thing of the past, no longer the sole official art. Indeed, it makes only a brief appearance in the V&A exhibition (principally, the huge tapestry depicting the reconstruction of Warsaw, woven by students at the State High School of Fine Art in Lodz). In parallel, and somewhat counterintuitively, this was the moment when abstract expressionism, deployed as “free enterprise” painting by the cultural cartel of MoMA and the CIA, became fixed as the art officiel of the west, leading one American critic to complain that realists had to “live in basements and pass still lifes around like samizdat”. We can savour the delicious irony now, but at the time, and with so much at stake, the cultural cold war was a terribly po-faced affair.
Khrushchev’s intervention in architecture also powerfully debunked the Stalin-era aesthetic, whose “American” skyscraper projects were one of the more bizarre inversions of the cold war. There were to be no more cathedrals in the cult of personality, with their classical cornices, lintels and ornamented porticoes (the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw is the example par excellence of these encrusted towers). Where Stalin’s vicious cultural tsar Andrei Zhdanov had denounced modernist architecture as “shapeless boxes” expressing the “hunger of monopoly capitalism”, obliterating all national character and destroying valuable historical complexes, Khrushchev now sanctioned the return of this style. Less, he said, was more, and he ordered architects to replace cornices with conscience, to deliver affordable, functional living environments worthy of the citizen of the Soviet utopia. What was delivered, on a massive scale, was more and more of less and less: endless avenues of prefab, multi-storeyed blocks, of weeping concrete and mildewed panel walls. Cold War Modern, as applied to mass housing, really meant “more modernism” – and it was a miserable legacy.
In another context, however, Cold War Modern produced some architectural miracles. The Ostankino television tower in Moscow (1967-69), a scale model of which has been commissioned for the V&A show, projects a dizzying, optimistic vision, a technotopia. Such telecommunication towers, which sprung up in both east and west, combined technical wizardry with gravity-defying engineering. Important gauges in cold war competition, they served twin functions as high-tech instruments and visual symbols of power. Designed to attract the public, they typically included viewing decks, restaurants and hotels, features of the leisure economy. Like the Eiffel tower, they cast an irrational spell, becoming the focus of dreams and bodily pleasures – in the reach for mythical status, both the Ostankino tower and the East Berlin Fernsehturm were staffed by air hostesses dressed in synthetic uniforms. Because of its unique position in a partitioned city that had physically internalised the divisive logic of the cold war, the Fernsehturm acquired another set of meanings: for the communists, it was a crow’s nest in a sea occupied by enemy powers; for the citizens of East Germany, denied the right to leave their own country, it provided a tantalising view across the wall into the lost domain of freedom.
As the cold war progressed, much of its basic premise – of antithesis and constructed antagonism – was paradoxically both accelerated and undermined by such technological advances. Sputnik, which beeped its message of Soviet ascendancy in the space race across the world in 1957, also announced the beginning of what Marshall McLuhan famously dubbed “the global village”, of a world connected by the “cosmic web” of communication technology. While much of this technology emanated from the highly competitive field of military research, it produced a kind of invisible membrane that covered both sides of the cold war divide. Earth, and now the space that surrounded it, was connected by technologies developed to enforce the ideology of separateness. This paradox encouraged optimism and despair in equal measure. As the philosopher Hannah Arendt observed in 1958, Sputnik signalled a modern desire to use human artifice to escape our earthbound condition. While some viewed this as the shape of the future, for Arendt this escape into artifice represented the path to worldly alienation.
Escape – from ideology and its deadening diktats, from the threat of nuclear irradiation, from the industrial overload of the ecosystem – is inscribed in the genetic code of Cold War Modern. It’s in Jackson Pollock’s splurgy, tangled lines that reach across and over the edges of his canvases; it’s in Eero Saarinen’s Womb Chair (1948), a cocoon in which the body can hide; it’s in the crypts, caves and bunkers drawn up by architects as they searched underground, beneath the sea, in space, for other habitats. Or in architect-designer Buckminster Fuller’s defensive geodesic domes, and the bubble he drew covering part of Manhattan (1962); or in Oasis 7, a giant inflatable environment suspended in mid-air, complete with small beach and palm tree (by Viennese architects Haus-Rucker-Co, 1972). Powerful commentaries, all, on the fear of Doomsday and the attempts to survive or even domesticate it.
If fallout was about anxiety, dropout was a kind of defiant rebuttal. Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes reappeared as hippy homes in Colorado’s Drop City (1965-73), no longer futuristic membranes but present-day dwellings assembled, like colourful globular shanties, from discarded car parts and other junk. A retreat from consumerism and assembly lines that, playfully, ironically, reassembled the bits and recycled them out of their own obsolescence into a new living environment. If the bomb had fallen on Drop City, then the end of the world would have been a mesmerising, kaleidoscopic happening.