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War of the worlds

The extraordinary design culture of the Cold War period reflects the twin obsessions of the age: uto

A thousand metres high, built into the peak of a mountain in northern Bohemia, the Jested tele communications tower is an unnerving place. At first it seems a utopian space with all the promise of the space race. In the interior, glass meteorites slam into a concrete core and a hotel/restaurant curves at an angle, offering a view above the clouds. Yet, at the same time, it feels slightly sinister. One can imagine it as the ideal place to be when the bomb drops: above the clouds, above the fallout, with a Soviet nuclear base nearby for massive retaliation. Local bureaucrats might have sheltered in here, surviving on tinned food until the distant cities below became inhabitable again.

A reproduction of the Jested Tower is one of 300 artefacts, including models, photos, films, cars, costumes and chairs, that will be assembled in the V&A's exhibition "Cold War Modern: Design 1945-70", opening this month. The ethos of the show could perhaps best be summed up with the title of a book by the geodesic dome designer Buckminster Fuller: Utopia or Oblivion.

The exhibition quite explicitly follows on from the 2006 "Modernism: Designing a New World (1914-39)", which showcased the clean-lined, white-walled, health-conscious aesthetic of the interwar years, when modernists were principally an insurgent avant-garde, attempting (with very mixed success) to curry state favour. "Cold War Modern" picks up the thread after 1945, by which time the utopian architects, designers and aesthetes of the 1920s and 1930s had largely got what they wanted. Governments of both the competing power blocs brought in the welfare states the avant-garde had always dreamed of working for; full employment was a (brief) reality; and modernism - with the exception of the morbidly fascinating aberration of Soviet bloc classicism between 1947 and 1953 - became the dominant style from Vladivostok to Dallas.

Yet this was not a homogeneous modernism. The catastrophes of 1939-45, and most of all the war's denouement with the dropping of the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, cast a pall over what could otherwise have seemed like the victorious building of utopia (whether state socialist or social democratic) out of Old Europe's ruins. Not only did the survivors work under the shadow of oblivion, but its possibility was consistently reflected in their work. A structure such as the Jested Tower is exemplary in its idealist and apocalyptic implications.

At the same time, modern design developed into something very different. The hard, right-angled geometries of the 1920s were replaced with organic curves (often made possible by the "miraculous" new plastics), rendered concrete walls became raw, rough and tactile, suggestive of caves and bunkers, and lurid colour returned to a largely monochrome palette.

An exhibition of design from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s - a period Eric Hobsbawm retrospectively called "the golden age", an aberration of mass affluence and welfare sandwiched between two periods of crisis and unrestrained capitalism - could easily have come under the rubric of "welfare state modern", or the bland auctioneer's term "mid-century modern". By placing the Cold War at the centre, the new show effaces the "sweetness and light" of the 2006 show with a certain paranoia, a siege mentality. As in the Cold War itself, the competition was by proxy, and often disguised. However, there were occasions when the aesthetics of the Warsaw Pact and Nato directly confronted each other.

Not surprisingly, this was most obvious in divided Berlin. The exhibition and the (excellent) accompanying catalogue have much on the way design was "conscripted" on both sides. The first salvo was from the East, with the building of that monumental "socialist" classicist boulevard the Stalinallee. In fact, the first buildings on the street were in a modernist style: the interwar modernists were often Communists, and it took a couple of years before the newly occupied satellites adopted the diktats of Stalinist monumentalism. The earlier blocks were rejected by the East Berlin party bureaucracy, and the rest was constructed, largely by repentant modern ists, in a mutated classical idiom, with vast spaces, gran diose sculptures and lavish materials.

The West's response was the Hansaviertel - a modernist estate built as an informal parkland settlement: colourful, slightly whimsical, rather quiet. The contrast was enormous, but brief. After Stalin's death, one of the first signs of "thaw" was a change in architectural policy in which the rest of Stalinallee was designed in a modernist style and the boulevard then renamed Karl-Marx-Allee. The later satellite estates of the West, as in the huge Gropiusstadt, had more similarities than differences with the overbearing towers of the East such as Marzahn.

Another direct confrontation profiled in the exhibition was "Expo 58", held in Brussels. This international expo is an encapsulation of the aesthetics of utopia and oblivion - a series of rough drafts for the future wherein superpower conflicts are played out in temporary pavilions and collections of objects. In the shadow of the gigantic steel metaphor of the Atomium, the Soviet and American pavilions were put next to each other. Both were modernist in style, though rather overshadowed by the award-winning, organic, modern Czechoslovak pavilion and the Philips pavilion, where Le Corbusier, Iannis Xenakis and Edgard Varèse created a Poème électro nique that combined the images and sounds of a harmonious new mass society with those of the potential apocalypse.

Part of what marks these artefacts out from those in the earlier modernism exhibition is the curious question of what happens to an avant-garde movement when it wins its battles and gets what it wants by achieving a position of power - but finds that it wanted something different all along. Real advances (the much-underrated social housing programmes, health services, extraordinary technologies) came along with other factors that had not been in the original plan. As modernism became hegemonic it also became conformist, an official aesthetic.

"Cold War Modern" shows that a movement which once aimed at an entirely new kind of everyday life came to reproduce the old one, only with more labour-saving devices. Domestic design seems to be an ever-present feature as women were coaxed back into the kitchen, away from their wartime independence. The famous Kitchen Debate at the American National Exhibition in Moscow between Nikita Khrushchev and (the then vice-president) Richard Nixon was a curious spectacle of two ungainly men in suits discussing kitchen appliances as if they were the most important thing in the world. Which, as consumerism became a geopolitical barometer, they essentially were.

There would be a modernist, as much as an anti-modernist, reaction against the reduction of utopia to washing machines and department stores. The likes of the Situationist International, the Utopie group, and other cliques of Marxist modernists in the west rejected the perversion of the Bauhaus ideal into regimented consumption. A remarkably similar critique emerged on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Among the films excerpted in the V&A show is the Czech director Vera Chytilová's astonishing Daisies (1966), in which two young women decide that as the world is spoilt, so will they be - and indulge in a delirious orgy of creative destruction, cutting up images and products of consumerist abundance. The film begins and ends with images of destroyed cities.

The new left came to see the postwar consensus as a social peace based on conformism and quietism. In a sense, the 1968 revolts in Prague and Paris used modernist means (the old "revolution of everyday life" of the 1920s) against the modernism of paternalist business and Stalinist bureaucracy. After their defeat, there was one last attempt to use Cold War technologies for utopian ends - Chile's Cybersyn system. Set up by Salvador Allende's government, this was an advanced proto-internet, designed to create a "decentralising, worker-participative and anti-bureaucratic" socialism. It was destroyed after the CIA-instigated coup of 1973.

The exhibition cuts off at the start of the 1970s, when the postwar settlement began to collapse. Yet the Cold War returned as grim farce in 1979, with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and with geriatric ideologues such as Ronald Reagan and Konstantin Chernenko waving their fingers over the nuclear button. But if official culture would not register this, pop culture did. The sounds of paranoia and futurism were everywhere in 1979-83, from Joy Division's eastern bloc bleakness to Kate Bush's Protect and Survive lullaby, "Breathing".

Even in design, early hi-tech architecture had a certain Cold War tinge, with Richard Rogers's Lloyd's building evoking a paranoid yet thrilling industrial aesthetic. The crucial difference is that official, mass design became, in Kodwo Eshun's phrase, a "future-shock absorber", the pace of change disguised by a return to vernacular building and postmodern historicism. It is the tension between the possibility of utopia and oblivion that fuelled much of this extraordinary period, so don't expect today's looming third Cold War (reduced to a great power feud between states sharing an adherence to nothing more than bellicosity and the bottom line) to offer anything like the same aesthetic headiness. Oblivion looks a far greater possibility than utopia.

"Cold War Modern: Design (1945-70)" opens at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London SW7, on 25 September. More details:

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Labour: How to save the party