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Home front

review - Cold War Hot Houses: Inventing Post-War Culture Edited by Beatriz Colomina et al. Princeton Architectural Press, 2004. 287pp. £17.50

A wise man once said of America that nothing ever happens there until somebody sells something. As an aphorism this is as true today as it ever has been, from the abject 'Buddy, can you spare a dime?' to the grandeur of global reach. This fascinating book is about an earlier grand sale, the selling of Modernism and innovation in the wake of the Second World War, and how its success led to total victory in the Cold War.

The Cold War was the name given to the 1946-90 ideological struggle between the USA and the Soviet Union. Unlike the preceding two 'hot' World Wars, this one was not fought with guns or tanks or bombers but - in the great leap of perception that makes this dense volume so rich and valuable - with houses. For the first time in modern history, a conflict between two economic systems was fought without casualties and won by battalions of new cars, companies of television sets, kitchen appliances and oceans of carpets and curtains, all displayed in estates of suburban houses in a perfect demonstration of a desirable lifestyle.

This was the winning image of America projected at the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow, where US president Richard Nixon debated with Nikita Kruschev, because for Nixon, 'American superiority rested on the ideal of the suburban home complete with a choice of labour-saving appliances. The American home was the main weapon in the Cold War.' This modest dwelling had a history of its own, but it had acquired a patina of grandeur during the Second World War. Between 1942 and 1945 America mobilised to great effect. Rearmament to face Japan produced a tremendous burst of military industrial growth in the Western states, and with that burst of expansion came a rehousing effort without precedent.

By the end of the Second World War, one-third of the American population had been relocated and rehoused. At the same time, technology transfer ensured that the new materials and methods developed to fight the war - plastics, aluminium alloys, electronics, paints and adhesives (all made of unfamiliar chemicals) - had to be explained to consumers. And just as the nation had solved its housing problem during the war, so it absorbed novelty and modernity in the guise of consumer education.

The image of the suburban house of the future was fixed by a succession of displays at exhibitions culminating in Hugh Hefner's 'Dream House', but our authors do not stop there. Surprisingly, there is a long chapter on the contemporaneous Beat Generation, complete with maps to show where the Beats went when they were 'on the road'. Then there is 'Plastics' - an excellent paper on the consumer take-up of an entirely new material.

This is followed by 'Pornotopia', which turns into a sort of manhunt for Hugh Hefner.

The title piece, 'Cold War/Hot Houses', by Beatriz Colomina, is brief but shows the irony of the use of the house as a weapon of war.

Elsewhere, Brendan Hookway discusses the evolution of the 'cockpit' as a militaryinto-civil building type. 'Forecast' by Annmarie Brennan is a textbook example of how to track down a corporate programme of public education in new materials and methods, as are 'Mission 66' by Jeannie Kim and 'Toy' by Tamar Zinguer.

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