Design as Weapon of the Cold War

The American National Exhibition, Kaiser Geodesic Dome, Moscow, 1959
David Crowley, curator of the V&A museum’s current Cold War Modern show, reveals how design provided the battleground for much of the bitter East-West competition that emerged from the late 1940s onwards.

The American National Exhibition, Kaiser Geodesic Dome, Moscow, 1959

David Crowley, curator of the V&A museum’s current Cold War Modern show, reveals how design provided the battleground for much of the bitter East-West competition that emerged from the late 1940s onwards.

The Philips Pavilion, Brussels World’s Fair, 1958, designed by Le Corbusier (© Sabam 08)

Le Corbusier is best known as the archi­tect of cool, white-walled villas in the 1920s and brutalist concrete landmarks after 1945. What is less well known is that he was also the author of one of the most extraordinary multimedia environments of the 20th century. Working in collaboration with composer Edgard Varèse and young architect and composer Iannis Xenakis, he designed the Philips Pavilion for the Dutch manufacturer at the Brussels World’s Fair of 1958.

The result was a dramatically-engineered structure wrapped in a silver concrete skin which swept from three sharp points to skirt the ground. Inside, moving coloured lights, film and the abstract sounds of Varèse’s musique concrète bounced off the hyperbolic and parabolic curves of the structure. This was what Le Corbusier called the ‘Poème électronique’. 

Four stills from the Poème électronique, 1958. The film can be viewed in its entirety, here

Philips invested in the project to demonstrate the skills of its engineers and to outdo the spectacle of American colour television, a big audience draw at the Expo. More than 400 stereophonic speakers, for instance, swirled sound through the Pavilion. 

Le Corbusier seized the opportunity to produce a startling commentary on modern life. His film was a catalogue of contemporary fears and hopes. Images of mushroom clouds and newborn babies, Godzilla and primitive masks, military technology and primates appeared unexpectedly above the heads of the visitors. Corbusier’s designs, as the conclusion of his film made clear, was the archi­tectural Prozac which could make mankind feel at home in this disorientating world.

At the end, the public stumbled out of the windowless space blinking and disorientated. Many found the experi­ence thrilling, but one Dutch critic compared it to being eaten: “It is as if the pavilion is literally digesting us and exposing us, against our will, to acids that etch us indelibly.” 

A version of the Poème électronique is showing at Cold War Modern: Design 1945–70, the V&A museum’s major autumn show. Of course it is impossible to cultivate the visual sensi­bilities of the 1950s in 21st century visitors. After all, in our world we carry screens in our pockets and fill our homes with ‘cinema sound’ systems.

Nevertheless, the Poème électronique is a key exhibit in the V&A exhibition. Not only does it provide a contemporary commentary on life in the shadow of the atomic bomb: it also illustrates the fast-changing face of exhibition design in the period. New technologies – many with roots in military research like lasers, electronics and magnetic tape recording – presented designers in the 1950s and 1960 with a new battery of communi­cation tools. The challenge was how to make use of them.

Poster for USA Builds exhibition, 1945, designed by Max Bill © V&A Images

During the Cold War, the USSR and the USA not only competed in the arms and space races: the ‘soft power’ of film, art, consumer goods and archi­tecture were all used to demonstrate the superiority of one system over the other. Designers – including some of the best-known figures of the post-war period – were conscripted to contest these symbolic battles. And, as the Poème électronique illustrates, sometimes they used their creativity to criticise the militarism and consumerism fueled by the East-West conflict. 

In the early phase of the Cold War in the late 1940s, each side worked hard to promote its own interests around the world. The USA set out to suppress the appeal of communism whilst the USSR accused Washington of dressing imperialism in the cloak of Marshall aid funds for the recon­struction of Western Europe.

Seeking to counter the widespread fascination with life in the USA, for instance, communist states in the Eastern Bloc mounted a touring exhibition entitled This is America. The exhibits were a ragbag of Americana and included Ku Klux Klan hoods, violent comic books and garish ties decorated with pin-up images. The point was simple: American affluence obscured a coarse and innately violent culture. Agencies promoting US interests in Cold War Europe were highly sensitive to this accusation. 

In fact, they frequently turned to the rather more cerebral images of modernity supplied by modern art and design for support. In publications and exhibitions, the austere forms of Mies van der Rohe’s glass-walled buildings or abstract paintings in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York offered images of America as the home of intellectual ambition which had welcomed European art world ‘refugees’ from fascism and communism.

Some of the best-known modernist graphic designers of the post-war world cut their teeth on publicity promoting this high-brow vision of America. Max Bill was commissioned to design his now iconic poster promoting an exhibition of US modern architecture. Wim Crouwel worked in Paris with Swiss designer Gérard Ifert on an exhibition to promote the effects of the Marshall Plan in the Netherlands. 

In the early 1950s a series of exhibitions promoting American models of domesticity were mounted in West Germany. Under the influence of Edgar Kaufmann, design curator at moma, these too took on an ‘elevated’ mode. The furniture designs of Eero Saarinen and Charles and Ray Eames were turned into symbols of democracy, affluence and liberalism to counter the appeal of Soviet-style socialism. 

A demonstration of home baking USA-style, from the American National Exhibition, Moscow, 1959 (collection of Dr Shelly Weinig)

The divided city of Berlin was given its own special venue for such exhibits, the George Marshall-Haus. We’re Building a Better Life of 1952 was a typical exhibition. Its centrepiece was a single-family home containing a generous supply of consumer goods manufactured by Marshall Plan member nations. Here was a demonstration of the benefits of international exchange guided by the market.

The building – ordinary in most respects – was rendered knowable by the fact that it was roofless. Visitors to the exhibition were led up onto an elevated gantry to spy on everyday family life, performed by actors. A narrator in a white coat explained the new miracles of the modern world like the refrigerator. 

For many Central European designers, memories of the Third Reich were still fresh. Bombastic propa­ganda playing on irrational fears had encouraged Germans and Austrians to back Hitler: what was now required was rational and ‘transparent’ images which would re-educate their viewers. The idea of an expert demonstrator explaining the modern home or, for that matter, a coolly-composed ‘Swiss’ design for a poster celebrated the power of the rational mind over the emotions.

When, for instance, Richard Lohse, the editor of Neue Grafik – the mouthpiece of Swiss School design in the 1950s – reviewed the Expo in Brussels, he argued that the new techniques employed by designers like Le Corbusier in the Poème électron­ique revelled in confusion. “[The visitor] is bombarded with visual effects, distracted by the moving of objects, endlessly rotating and propelling each other along, and deafened by ceaseless synthetic noises.”

Ultimately, for Lohse, the problem lay in the suppression of reason in favour of emotive effects. This critique was, however, out of sync with the age. Over the decade that followed, exhibition designs – many promoting Cold War interests – set out to stir their viewers. 

Charles and Ray Eames’s seven-screen film, Glimpses of the USA, as shown in the American National Exhibition at the Kaiser Dome, Moscow, 1959

Another reconstruction in the V&A exhibition is a landmark work by American designers Charles and Ray Eames, pioneers of multi-sensory and multi-media exhibition design. Their famous film installation for the American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959 was part of a major propaganda exercise designed to inject the elixir of consumerism into the heart of the Soviet empire. This seven-screen presentation, entitled Glimpses of the USA, commissioned by the US Department of State, was projected inside a massive golden geodesic dome through which all visitors had to pass.

Edited together from thousands of still and moving images (2,200 in 12 minutes, many of the Eames’ own making), the films presented America as a humane, productive and socially inclusive place, emphasising local and personal relations – and, as such, the opposite of a bombastic display of American supremacy. 

The striking impact of the Moscow present­ation lay less in the content of the images than in the dizzying inventiveness of the display. The Eames’s success in the Soviet capital was followed by another in New York which used technology to shake not only the minds but also the bodies of its audience.

IBM’s Information Machine Pavilion, designed by Eero Saarinen for the New York World’s Fair in 1964, featured the Eames’s film Think. The experience was akin to a funfair ride in which the audience, sitting on a massive bank of seats, was lifted collectively into an ‘egg’. There, they were surrounded by 14 screens of varying size which entirely occupied their field of vision. Projected inside the pavilion, Think flicked on and off these different screens, refusing to cohere into single view. 

Designed to ‘explain’ the usefulness of IBM’s computers to process complex bites of information (through a simple domestic task, the planning of a dinner party), Think was a misnomer: the experience was dazzling, even disorientating. As critic and writer Ben Highmore notes, IBM’s Information Machine asked its audience to “divest themselves of irrational beliefs while at the same time ‘hot-wiring’ them with the power of magic”. 

Nevertheless, for Charles and Ray Eames, Think was an illustration of the processing power of the human brain. Processing ‘messages’ into meaning required the intelligence of the entire body. In this way, the Information Machine set out to provide modern men and women with new ways of under­standing the world. Communication could function in an intuitive, even subliminal fashion, or, as Charles Eames put it, could “blast on the senses”. 

Experiments in Architecture and Technology’s Pepsi Pavilion, Expo ’70, Osaka, at night. On the left are Robert Breer’s white sculptures, Floats, moving slowly around the plaza, and Frosty Myers’ light sculpture, Light Frame, cutting through the fog sculpture by Fujiko Nakaya surrounding the roof of the pavilion. Photo: Sunk-Kender. (Courtesy E.A.T)

Such techniques reached their height in the late 1960s when champions of what was sometimes called ‘the expanded cinema’ argued that multi­media could stimulate the mind with its synaes­thesic effects and restore sensation to bodies dulled by routine. The champions of intermedia experi­ments were groups like Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) founded by engineer Billy Klüver and artists Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Whitman in the USA in 1967. 

At the World’s Fair in Osaka in 1970 E.A.T. teamed up with Pepsi-Cola to produce an experi­mental and interactive environment. eat turned the experience of visiting the pavilion into one of sensory overload. ‘Visual sounds’ were produced with coloured lasers and electronic music by composer Lowell Cross.

Visitors to the pavilion were able to turn their visit into an interactive experience with audio handsets that could pick up audio signals on loops fixed in the pavilion structure or create three-dimensional images of themselves using a pneumatic hemispheric mirror created by Whitman. The dome of the pavilion was cloaked in a perpetual cloud of artificial fog conceived by Frosty Myers as an allusion to Mount Fuji (much to the frustration of nearby food and souvenir vendors who demanded a fog trap).

Around 1970 serious, even grandiose, claims were made for such multi-sensory environments. In Gene Youngblood’s words, they would “turn the participant inward upon himself, providing a matrix for psychic exploration, perceptual, censorial, and intellectual awareness”.

Projection onto buildings, the sky or landscapes would literally change the world. With all the sensory functions of the body stimulated, mankind would learn ‘how to live’ again. This was a classic cocktail of 60s thinking, combining Marshall McLuhan’s ideas about the media with enthusiasm for the ‘liberating’ effects of play.

The mirrored interior of E.A.T.’s Pepsi Pavilion from Expo ’70 in Osaka. The spherical mirror was 90 feet in diameter and made of reflective mylar. Photo: Sunk-Kender. (Courtesy E.A.T)

The marriage of artistic invention and corporate interests in Osaka in 1970 was not a happy one. This was an echo of the Poème électronique 12 years earlier. Philips and its engineers were exas­perated by the open-ended experimentalism of Corbusier and Varèse in the face of real deadlines and budgets. Similarly, Pepsi-Cola and eat fell into dispute on similar grounds, with the added frustration for Pepsi of a lack of opportunities to promote its product. It was not that the pavilion was off-message: it had no ‘message’.

Today, almost every gallery or museum sets out to engage its visitors with digital projections and interactive art projects. Will Alsop’s multi-purpose arts building, The Public, in West Bromwich opened this year. With digital ‘wallpaper’ projecting messages authored by visitors carrying Radio Frequency Identification Tags which enable the exhibits to recognise and respond to them, The Public has been claimed – not least by the architect – as the model for a new kind of art centre.

This familiar claim is, of course, an exaggeration: the ground was broken 50 years ago by schemes like the Poème électronique. In recreating such schemes, Cold War Modern: Design 1945–70 at the V&A presents a chance to understand how the roots of our multimedia environment today lie in the East-West competition which gripped the world more than 50 years ago.

David Crowley is consultant curator to Cold War Modern: Design 1945–70 which is at the V&A until January 11. A book with the same title has been published by V&A Publications. For some examples from Crowley’s book of Cold War Posters, see our previous post, here. The above article appeared in the October issue of Creative Review.

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