Thomas Sutcliffe: Stalin's Rocket

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

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.