Thomas Sutcliffe: Stalin's Rocket

The Week In Culture: Stalin's towering modern vision was old before its time

Related Topics

If you want to inwardly absorb the oppressive weight of Soviet communism, to really feel it, rather than just intellectually tick the box, you can do a lot worse than visit Warsaw's Palace of Culture and Science – known locally as Stalin's Rocket, and erected in 1952 as a "gift" to the city from Joseph Stalin.

A typical Soviet wedding-cake skyscraper, the Palace of Culture and Science is an excellent architectural equivalent for Orwell's famous image of the future – "a boot stamping on a human face – forever". There's no mistaking the message it sends – we're here and we're staying – but you only really get the measure of the insult to the city when you try to walk round it. By some trick of perspective and design you initially assume that its architectural footprint is that of a normal large building. But several minutes later, still trudging fruitlessly in hope of reaching a corner, it begins to dawn on you that it's the size of a small city.

I was reminded of my encounter with the building by the excellent opening rooms of the Victoria and Albert Museum's new exhibition, Cold War Modern, which set out to contrast two starkly opposed representations of the modern in the period immediately after the war. On one side of Checkpoint Charlie you have Stalinist neo-Classicism – an unlovely amalgam of system-build concrete and 19th-century frills and furbelows. And on the other side you have American Modernism, in which the austere virtues of wartime industry – make it fast and make it cheap – are applied to the consumer boom. The defining object here is a piece of plywood sculpture – actually a lightweight splint designed for battlefield use by Ray and Charles Eames – in which you can see four decades of bentwood furniture ready to emerge. Everywhere you look in this first room one thing seems starkly clear: while Soviet designers look back in history for a model of the immediate future, Western designers are starting with a blank slate.

There is a tiny element of cheating here. On the American side you get a quite selective account of post-war consumer design – heavy on the hallowed Modernists, quite light on the enormous amounts of reactionary lash-up historicism there was around. On the Soviet side there's not really a lot to select from – since designers who didn't toe the party line weren't allowed to work with material any more durable than Siberian snow.

But, even so, the contrasts are stark, most pointedly so in two large memorial projects on either side of the Berlin Wall. In the Soviet sector, a classic piece of heroic figuration was erected. In the West, Reg Butler won through in a competition to design a monument to the Unknown Political Prisoner with a wiry, semi-abstract piece that looked like a Giacometti radar station. The shock of the new faced off, almost literally, against the imposition of the old.

The profound conservatism of Soviet communism is beautifully disclosed here where it rubs up against the carefully scheduled design revolutions of high capitalism, which has its own selfish interest in throwing out the old and bringing in the new, preferably roughly in synchrony with the department-store stock changes. By contrast, Soviet communism, in theory at least, wanted time to stop, since perfection had effectively been achieved; and, for a time at least, it chose 19th-century German architecture as the house style of utopia. Or, rather, in the case of Warsaw's Palace of Culture and Science, late 19th-century American skyscraper design, planted on the city like a paperweight, to make sure it didn't fly away.

Blood, sweat, and tears

Ben Stiller's film Tropic Thunder includes a couple of passing gags about the potency of thespian fluids, with Robert Downey Jr's Australian method-actor at one point congratulating his co-star on the production of a real tear, after a nasty bit of one-upmanship with unscripted drool. I laughed, but shortly after the screening encountered the real thing, when Kenneth Branagh spilled a fat, splashy tear onto the stage of Wyndham's Theatre on the first night of Ivanov last week. While I don't think his rave reviews depended on that drop of salty water, I'm pretty sure it did him no harm, either. He might be pretending, we thought, but he's pretending well.

* Several reviews of Philip Roth's Indignation have referred to Ambrose Bierce's short story, "An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge", as a model for the "is he dead or isn't he" indeterminacy of its narration. I was reminded of another Bierce story as well – "One of the Missing", an unsettling little tale which shares with the Roth book a sense of how foolishly and tragically accidental our lives can be. I was prompted to read it again – and I still can't confidently say whether what I think happens in it really does. I recommend it anyway (it's readily available online), and if it seems obvious to you, let me know.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sustainability Manager

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Scheme Manager (BREEAM)...

Graduate Sustainability Professional

Flexible, depending on experience: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: T...

Programme Director - Conduct Risk - London

£850 - £950 per day: Orgtel: Programme Director - Conduct Risk - Banking - £85...

Project Coordinator/Order Entry, SC Clear

£100 - £110 per day: Orgtel: Project Coordinator/Order Entry Hampshire

Day In a Page

Read Next
Former N-Dubz singer Tulisa Contostavlos gives a statement outside Southwark Crown Court after her trial  

It would be wrong to compare brave Tulisa’s ordeal with phone hacking. It’s much worse than that

Matthew Norman
The Big Society Network was assessed as  

What became of Cameron's Big Society Network?

Oliver Wright
Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn