Albert Speer: Architecture 1932–1942

by Samir Younés

Albert Speer: Architecture 1932–1942 by Léon Krier, preface by Robert A.M. Stern. New York: Monacelli Press, 2013. Originally published, Bruxelles: Les Archives d’architecture Moderne, 1985


The most striking commonality among the recent reviews of Léon Krier’s Albert Speer: Architecture 1932–1942 is that they somehow manage to avoid the book’s central premises. These premises include Krier’s critique of some of the justificatory claims of architectural modernism and its association with preferred political ideologies, the uses and abuses of architecture for political ends, and the difficult realization  that  a  good  architect can also become a war criminal. Yet Krier’s premises are plainly evident in his text and in his comparative same-scale drawings of buildings realized by governments of widely divergent political ideologies during the first four decades of the twentieth century. When the book was first published in 1985, it provoked widespread condemnation because it contradicted the method used by modernist architects and historians. That method compared a selection of classical buildings realized under the most oppressive regimes of the past with a selection of modernist buildings realized under the most  tolerant  regimes  of  the  present.  Krier  showed  that  this  justification—preferring one architecture by associating it with a preferred political regime, and denigrating another architecture by associating it with a reviled political regime—contained several flaws. For, if  one were to use the same argument vis-à-vis  some  of  the  most  extolled  figures  of  modernism  (e.g.,  Giuseppe Terragni,  Mies  van  der  Rohe,  Le  Corbusier),  one  cannot  but  conclude  that they worked for or were prepared to work for condemnable political regimes.

If an architectural character should be praised or condemned by its association with a political ideology, then intellectually honest scholars are expected to consistently adopt this judgment in their work. The modernist embrace of Futurism is a case in point. On the one hand, modernism absorbed most of Futurism’s artistic beliefs: the vehement break with tradition, the rejection of the continuity of space and time in representation in favor of immediacy and dynamism, the radical belief in the redemption of science and technology, and the cult-like apotheosis of modernity. On the other hand,  modernist  architects and historians sought to separate the architecture of the Futurists from their exaltation of violence and their enthusiastic associations with the rise of Fascism in Italy, by scarcely mentioning these extremes or simply remaining silent about them altogether. To associate or dissociate political or artistic content, depending on the most advantageous circumstances, gravely compromises intellectual integrity and the soundness of architectural judgment.

The Third Reich’s abuse of one of the traditions of classical architecture, deriving from the nineteenth-century academic tradition, was clearly inscribed within a larger program that manipulated all cultural forms, all the visual and rhetorical arts and their symbolism. Its aim was to convince as many unsuspecting minds as possible that the collection of images (as masks) with which the Reich surrounded itself was a direct representation of its political ideology. The deceptive syllogism was: the more attractive the mask, the more appropriate the ideology. In truth, however, all the cultural forms used by the Reich emerged within different and earlier contexts having no relationship to the Reich. This intervention effected a deep schism between form and content, because if any form can be dissociated from its originating context and attached to any content, then signifier and signified have collapsed, and the symbolic nature of art or architecture has been rendered dysfunctional. A balcony in Palazzo Venezia does not make for a Fascist state, nor does an oval office in the White House make for a democratic one.

Architects and historians have also extended their spurious political associations to materials, as if masonry, wood, iron, steel or glass could somehow carry political meaning. For decades, going as far back as Walter Gropius’ Werkbund building of 1914, many architects have insisted on an absurd association: glass, steel and aluminum are, par excellence, the materials of modernity, of open government and democracy. Take, for example, the former Reichstag, now Bundestag, in Berlin, whose “renovation” was completed in 1999. The building’s interior—which had survived in a damaged state following the bombardment of World War II—was almost completely eviscerated, with the exception of the outer walls and a small intervention made in the 1960s. The most visible external part of this “renovation” was a new steel and glass cupola containing an inverted conical structure covered  with  mirrors.  This  cupola was recently hailed as a symbol of the transparency of a democratic government. Yet the original cupola, which was begun under the reign of Wilhelm I and completed in 1894 under Wilhelm II, suffering severe damage during World War II, was made of iron and glass. In the span of one hundred years, two mostly glass cupolas, admittedly with different articulations, represented empire and then democracy.

Inherent within Krier’s critique are implications that go far beyond the architecture built under the Third Reich. His work touches on essential questions of architecture, namely, how is architectural character endowed with content, and where is the ascribed content appropriate or spurious? Architectural character has the capacity to elicit complex associative thoughts and emotions on the part of the observer that go beyond the architect’s initial intentions. Of these associations and projections, the political vesture has played a significant role in both the understanding and the misunderstanding of architectural character. When politics provides the legislative framework for a civic association, it articulates a common ethos. When architecture provides the physical framework that shelters the public and private realms, endowing each with its own suitable character, it articulates a common locus. Understandably, politics and architecture have been linked. After all, both of these arts are called to serve the city. But it is one thing to state that architecture serves, shelters and endows with suitable character the various political purposes within the city, be they governmental, mercantile or cultural, and quite another to claim that architectural qualities represent political content. The second  claim  implies that one can pass from judging architectural qualities to the judging of political intentions, or vice versa. More explicitly, it suggests that there is an association between the composition of architectural elements and a political content that hovers over the mind of architects and guides their hands.

Now, architectural character and political content can certainly be used, misused and abused. There have been many contentions about their relationship, with some architects and historians seeing no relationship whatsoever, and other architects and historians considering architecture as a direct representation of political aims. Much ink has been spilled on this issue, which sharply divided architectural debates in the 1970s and 1980s, and it still does. In these decades, the debate concentrated primarily on the associations between politics and architectural character (calling it style), and on historians’ use of ideological factors in order to privilege one dominant narrative, one preferred set of architectural forms. This debate, however, neglected several significant points that are germane to the link between politics and architecture. It did not justify why the citizen politician and the citizen architect are both called to build the city. It did not explain the difference between political freedom of expression and architectural or artistic freedom of expression; nor did it clarify that the confusion of artistic genres is related to the confusion regarding the different kinds of artistic freedom. The clash about these issues seems to have recently receded into the background of architectural exchanges, perhaps because, far from having resolved this issue, the protagonists have temporarily put aside an exhausting argument fraught with intense rancor.

It is important to note that Speer himself, as attested by his  Memoirs, clearly intended to use his architecture as an expression of the political ideology of the Reich. Krier’s critique applies to Speer’s abuse of classical architecture for the political ends of the regime that he served. Krier’s detractors usually ignore this aspect of his critique and remain silent about his piercingly candid  question:  What  about  the  other  buildings  of  the  Reich,  which  were overwhelmingly industrial? Why does the architecture of industry (especially that of armaments) not fall under the same associative scrutiny?

Krier’s detractors do not forgive him for having understood that Speer was a good architect before he became a Nazi, before he served the megalomaniacal intentions of Hitler. Speer’s ethical failure resided in putting his architectural as well as his organizational talents in the service of the Nazis, who also used the multiple talents of sculptors (Arno Breker), filmmakers (Leni Riefenstahl), scientists (Werner von Braun) and industrialists for their sinister ends. That Speer was a war criminal is self-evident. But Krier calls attention to one of the paradoxes of the human character: the same individual is capable of being at once an artist and a criminal. The knowledge that art historians, writers and filmmakers have of Caravaggio’s violent  actions—which  he  handled with sanguine dexterity—somehow does not  deter  them  from  appreciating his paintings. Krier does not suggest that Speer’s architecture should become part of the repertoire of precedents that architects study. Nor does he suggest that, in order to study Speer, one should suspend one’s ethical beliefs. Rather, Krier draws attention to the spurious associations between artistic forms, architectural forms and a host of meanings that are external to architecture, such as political content. Since the governments of Washington, New Delhi, Berlin and Moscow concomitantly used similar forms of classical architecture to represent their different political ends, how could one but conclude that the different political meanings assigned to this architecture are a proof of political  innocence?

SAMIR  YOUNÉS  is Professor of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame. His latest book is The Imperfect City: On Architectural Judgment (Farham, Surrey, U.K.: Ashgate, 2013).

American Arts Quarterly, Fall 2013, Volume 30, Number 4