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Cold Comfort

How we all can learn to stop worrying and love the new Cold War chic.

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The Cold War's back! The hostage crisis with Red China might be over, and Putin hasn't banged his shoe in public, but the murky, glad-handing, free-trade era of Clinton has reverted to the clean, machined lines of, well, one of those Eames sofas you can pay thousands of dollars for down on Lafayette Street. And with the huac -- er, decency commission -- Rudy Giuliani's putting the finishing touches on his decidedly fifties vision of a city. Meanwhile, down in Washington, Bush and his resurrected Cold Warriors, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, are busy beating up on North Korea.

"Bush and Giuliani are compatible in their values," says Gay Talese, who remembers the first-run Cold War. "They both believe that there is virtue in a sense of order."

It's remarkable how quickly these things have changed lately: The chaotic, DIY capitalism of the dot-coms is gone, and the blue chip is back. Norman Siegel, the civil-liberties champion, is running for public advocate in an anachronistic, free-the-Rosenbergs kind of way. The Yankees haven't been this unstoppable since . . . the early Atomic Age. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, designer of the newly renovated Lever House, is putting up an all-glass AOL Time Warner Center (no more pomo granite cladding). The sleek TWA terminal -- not to mention the Establishment lobby of the Time & Life building -- is a landmarking cause célèbre. Do you really need any other signs?

"There is always a yearning for order and coherence in society," says Columbia history professor Alan Brinkley. "The return of a modernism that we had repudiated is a reaction to the incoherence of postmodernism. In some ways the Cold War ending has made the world a harder place to understand. I suppose it's also too much for Bush to think of the world as a complex place."

Of course, the second time around, Cold War chic has lost its deadly edge. (Was anyone really afraid of what China would do?) Cozy amidst their mid-century-modern furniture, contemplating the city from a plate-glass skyscraper, the city's cocktail-swilling intellectual elite is even down with Castro again.

So history is reprocessed as farce. "You had this man-in-a-gray-suit sensibility, and an architecture that was almost intimidating -- but in a wonderful, thrilling way," says Caroline Zaleski, director of advocacy for the local chapter of docomomo, which presses for the preservation of modern architecture. "Hopefully, it's coming back. We already have men in gray suits sitting around in Cabinet rooms again."


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