Tales of two cities
February 6, 2003 8:48 AM   Subscribe

"Architecture is the only art that moulds the world directly ... Nobody in the 20th century grasped this more firmly than Speer's patron and employer, Adolf Hitler." Albert Speer was the man Hitler picked to mould his future empire, starting with its capital, Berlin, that would have been rechristened Germania. In an ironic twist of fate, Albert Speer's son, also named Albert Speer and also an architect, is currently in the running to radically rebuilt Beijing.
posted by costas (8 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
First of all, let me say I have little admiration for Speer Sr and really no opinion on Speer Jr. This post was inspired by a great interview of Speer Jr about his Beijing plans that I read in the paper edition of the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong's excellent English language paper. Sadly, after going through the SCMP site several times, I couldn't find a web version.

I travel a lot, and architecture is something that I notice, both when it's good, as the I.M. Pei's Bank of China Tower I am admiring from my hotel window, and both it's bad. What really interests me though is how city planning affects the culture and society of its people. If you walk in the crowded, dark streets of Hongkong, the open vast boulvards of Paris or the gigantic parking lots of Dallas, you can't help thinking that the people who decide how a city/living-space is laid out, decide long-term how live is lived and to a lesser extent, how society is organized.
posted by costas at 8:57 AM on February 6, 2003

Speer was also played by Rutger Hauer in Inside the Third Reich the TV movie adaptation of of his autobiography of the same name. The book (and subsequent movie) is quite a work in self-defense. Speer goes on and on about how innocent he really was and how he never wanted to be an evil Nazi, it just happened to him! Speer used the same defense in Nuremberg, where it worked fairly well, of course Speer, like all big shot, inner circle Nazis was complicit in the Holocaust, Speer used slave labor in his building projects and was in charge of the aircraft factories and mines where slaves were commonly worked to death in horrendous (even for a Nazi work camp) conditions, often berating his fellows to send him more workers. Justice at Nuremberg gives a little different view of Speer, and tells how he was basically let off with a slap on the wrist because of his grandstanding, sympathy-jerking, "sorrowful" testimony and as an example of what would become of Germany after the war (sanctions and rebuilding for those who chose to apologize and admit their wrongdoing) despite the overwhelming evidence contradicting his "victim of Hitler" defense. Interesting historical figure, thanks for the Speer, Jr. update costas, enjoy your stay!
posted by Pollomacho at 9:11 AM on February 6, 2003

It's poses an interesting question - can art, architecture, be fascist in itself?

Perhaps. Speer's visions meant creating buildings to belittle the common man; government buildings created to strike awe in the people who used them, giving them a sense of their own worthlessness and the grandeur of the state.

But truth be told, most government buildings around the world is like that. Is it necessary? Would it be better if the President of the United States lived in an ordinary house (if we don't take the practicalities into consideration). Would it better if Congress were more unassuming? Perhaps if it lost it dome, the stairs and the collumns would it feel more like a house for the people and not for the congressmen and women?

Or is fascist architecture only wrong in fascist settings?

I don't know, I'm just sayin' 's all.
posted by cx at 9:39 AM on February 6, 2003

cx: good point... look at Britain, where the PM is effectively living in a townhouse (the Queen is another matter though). I understand the need for Courts of Justice to inspire awe, as Justice is a social device, and its power comes from the respect people pay to it. Government, though? maybe executive branch building should be humble and approachable.

I am reminded of the Champs Elysees leading up to the Louvre. That was a device to reflect the power of the French emperor. It was a symbol of autocracy. However, a) it didn't stop the Revolution, and b) it does make for one spectacular museum now, doesn't it...
posted by costas at 9:55 AM on February 6, 2003

Excellent post, costas! Thank you..
posted by Steve_at_Linnwood at 10:00 AM on February 6, 2003

way to use tool tips, dude.
posted by Pretty_Generic at 10:09 AM on February 6, 2003

Nice post, Costas. You've introduced something new to an architect today.

As much any definition of style can be applied to architecture, one can make a case for architecture which is fascist. Here's a PDF which defines fascist architecture in the context of a building at Carnegie-Mellon.

It is interesting to read architectural history through a political lens but it is also a practice that can be fraught with errors.
is often tagged as a fascist architect yet he was a socialist and his architecture bears no (little) resemblance to Speers work.

Giuseppe Terragni's Casa del Fascio was designed for the Fascist party as a model for a typical regional headquarters. It is now known as the Casa del Popolo. Architecturally, it owes more to Mies and the international style. Mies left Germany for America, moving the Bauhaus to Chicago in the 1930's. The Bauhaus and its architecture were branded as socialist and decadent by the Nazi Party.

Architecture and politics make strange bedfellows, my favorite being the Royal saltworks by Ledoux which were first a project by royal decree only to become the basis for a utopian factory town after the French revolution.

While I do not want to defend Speer's complicity with Nazism -- something I frankly know little about -- I think my examples may show that sometimes architects are, well, prostitutes for the next great commission. To be certain, the vision for Germania was all Hitler; Speer hitched his wagon to the right patron at the time who became the wrong patron in short order.

I love the tag above the title "Albert Speer" on the first link: "the architect of the 20th century". I am really not sure how we are supposed to take that.
posted by Dick Paris at 10:46 AM on February 6, 2003

Oh, and one more thing Costas: generally, architects won't even consider a Walmart store to be architecture. It is however, as you noted, an important part of an urban (such as it is) landscape which, as it stands, calls for greater attention by architects and other design professionals. Man, that's a lot, of, commas!
posted by Dick Paris at 10:52 AM on February 6, 2003

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