Cold War Modern

Issue section: 

Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Until 11 January 2009

The future currently looks pretty lousy - recession, war, global warming. But I grew up in the 1960s, and back then the 21st century was going to be wonderful.

This future that never happened is the subject of Cold War Modern. The exhibition brings together hundreds of exhibits from the 1950s and 1960s. Some predict a glamorous world where we would watch television in colour, live in cities covered by huge transparent domes and wear clothes made entirely of nylon. Others put the new aesthetic into practice: everything, from armchairs to teacups, has simple geometric forms and bright clean colours.

In reality these ideas were rooted in the Long Boom, the continual expansion of capitalism from the late 1940s to the early 1970s. For many workers it meant real advances - new homes, foreign holidays and consumer goods like fridges and televisions.

Yet it also reflected the Cold War, a world divided between the capitalist West and "communist" East - and the threat of nuclear war. Some disconcerting exhibits bring together consumerism and nuclear war, like a design for a luxury fallout shelter.

The Soviet Union was a credible opponent, a country which in 40 years had advanced from a semi-medieval society to sending a human into space before the US. East and West faced off in Berlin, as shown in architectural drawings of the East's grandiose, high-quality, "workers' palaces" built along a 2 kilometre boulevard called Stalinallee. Models are also on display of the equally monolithic blocks built in the West by world-famous architects such as Le Corbusier. It's striking that on both sides communal housing was seen as the way forward.

In the official ideology of both East and West science was unambiguously positive, bringing us the computers and plastics of the exciting new world. Yet it had also made nuclear destruction possible, and was an agent of all-powerful state military machines. Artworks in the exhibition reflect the fear of nuclear war which underlay prosperity. Space exploration is the clearest example of this ambivalence - satellites and moon landings were presented as glamorous icons of progress, yet the "space race" was essentially a Cold War competition over military technologies. Films of the era like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris reflect this ambiguity about science and space in their paranoid computer and haunted space station. Dr Strangelove - a clip is included - satirises "rational" science under the control of an insane military.

The exhibition ends with an unimpressive display of material from 1968, the year of radical protest which, the V&A argues, brought Cold War Modern to an end. A consumerist future free of class struggle now seemed implausible. The US war in Vietnam and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia made the superpowers seem unlikely agents of progress. Increasing concern about the environment raised doubts about the wonders of technology. The financial crisis of 1974 isn't mentioned, but it also marked the end of the Long Boom and its modernist utopias.

It's strange to have become old enough to see your childhood in a museum, though there's a wonderful nostalgia to revisiting the weird things grown-ups asked you to believe when you were eight. This exhibition should also prove interesting and informative for those born later - it describes part of the common sense of the 1950s and 1960s, ideas which have now all but disappeared.