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Career Case Study #12: Albert Speer

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A draft of this post lay in my drafts folder for almost four years. The problem was that I thought something could be said about the career of Albert Speer but what? The architect Albert Speer (1905–1981) of this post is the one you might expect, the one whose only client was Adolf Hitler, and the one who is not to be confused with his architect father Albert Friedrich Speer (1863–1947) or his architect son Albert Speer (1934–2017). Albert Speer’s career and architecture has always been an embarrassment to architects and architecture. Or at least that’s why I imagine the silence.

We all know the bare bones of Speer’s career but, when in 1946 he was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for war crimes, it was for procuring slave labour and not for aiding and abetting genocide or for his choice of clients. The buildings are dismissed as overblown megalomanic fantasies but this ought to make him an excellent judge of client requirements. Speer may or may not have been a good architect but he did know how to win over powerful and influential clients and how to pander to their visions.

I suspect this is why the silence. In terms of career development, Speer was no different from many of our brightest and best with experience working for dodgy clients, although, strictly speaking, he didn’t really win over clients with his grand designs – he only won over one very influential one.

So far, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince’s Mohammed bin Salman’s open casting call for his NEOM/The Line vision has attracted the attentions of Sir Peter Cook (of Cook Haafner Architecture Platform), Jean Nouvel, Ben van Berkel, OMA, HOK, Thom Mayne (Morphosis), Zaha Hadid Architects, Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, Taller de Bofill, LAVA, Adjaye Associates, Massimiliano Fuksas (of Studio Fuksas and Coop Himmelb(l)au), Tom Wiscombe Architecture, Oyler Wu Collaborative, CHAP, Delugan Meissl Associated Architects and UNStudio. The list keeps changing. Despite OMA and HOK – two names we don’t normally see together – saying they’re not currently engaged with any aspect of the project, the buzz reminds me of pre-2008 Dubai but with better graphics.

Any difference between Speer’s business development plan and those of contemporary architects is only a matter of degree on the client side. What the clients have in common is the desire to use architecture to grant their regimes cultural legitimacy. What the architects have in common is the desire to use architecture to grant their businesses architectural legitimacy. Architectural discussion of Speer ignores his politics and career trajectory and focusses on whether the architecture itself is any good. The verdict is that it’s not and so we reduce a political-ethical stance to a matter of aesthetics so we can easily dismiss it. We say that it’s not to our taste these days and lets us avoid having to think about how architecture gives representation to and thus validates power structures irrespective of whether they’re political or commercial. [c.f. Moneymaking Machines #4: 2 World Trade Center] Monumental architecture has done this for all of recorded history. Fire requires fuel, oxygen and heat. Buildings happen when a client has money, land and a desire to build. The corollary to this is that the desire to build is the manifestation of the desire to show how much money and land one has.

Speer obviously had a very good sense for what his only client wanted. As ever, it was a question of delivering the product that chimes with how the client wishes themselves to be perceived. Nothing has changed. This next photo on the left is Speer adjusting his model for the German pavilion at the 1937 Paris International Exposition (of Art and Technology in Modern Life). Speer’s German pavilion and Boris Iofan’s USSR pavilion glowered at each other across the main axis. I could also write this same post about Boris Iofan’s body of work for his major client but there’s already a couple of books on that, the more recent being Deyan Sudjic’s 2022 “Stalin’s Architect: Power and Survival in Moscow.” This is the same Deyan Sudjic who, in 2014, made a distinction between architecture and politics when London’s Design Museum selected Zaha Hadid Architects Heydar Aliyev Culture Centre as its Design of the Year. “It’s a prize about architecture rather than politics and its architectural quality is outstanding,” Design Museum director Deyan Sudjic told Dezeen” as if architecture is something that exists independent of clients. Some architects may claim they’re only working within existing power structures “in a complex world”, but there are still those power structures we accept and/or approve of, and those we don’t.

Mussolini and Hitler had much in common but Mussolini had no interest in architecture, or at least in architecture as the expression of authoritarian power even though it could be used as such and indeed was, as the 1937 Paris exposition shows. Guiseppe Terragni’s Fascist Party Headquarters in Como, Italy was cancelled until the 1970s when the building was brought back into that part of architecture we call discourse. Things were written and, in retrospect probably too much, but great architecture has a habit of fitting whatever discourse the era demands. It’s not that some architecture is great because so much can be said about it but more the case that it can be used to illustrate whatever it is we want to say about architecture. In other words, it’s just us projecting and neither the fault of or to the credit of its architects. Having said all that, Terragni did have a way with balconies that’s evident from his Milan apartment buildings as well as the Fascist Party Headquarters.

Speer was not Terragni but he did have an excellent sense for what his client wanted. The desired look was awe-inspiring and intimidating. Speer had a way with scaling or, more to the point, was aware of the power of overscaling to make people feel small and insignificant. In this sense, we was a precursor to the late 1990’s architecture of neoliberalism – the architecture of affect – that eschewed indicators of (human) scale, leaving observers and users alike to guess the true size of the building.

We could talk about how big as well as overscaled Speer’s projects were. There was the Prachtstrasse that was to be the five kilometer street at the centre of the new Berlin. At one end was an arch modeled on Paris’ Arc de Triumph but large enough for the original to pass through. At the other end of the street was the assembly hall Hitler imagined for the German people. This would have been 700 feet high with floor space for 180,000 people. It culminated with the Volkshalle, the “people’s hall” that, at 700 feet (213 m) high and seating 180,000, would have been the largest indoor structure in the world had it been completed. This is about the diameter of the Caesars Superdome in Louisiana. The dome of the Singapore National Stadium is about 1,023 feet (312 m) diameter but only 260 feet (approx. 80 m) high – about one third of Speer’s Volkshalle.

In 1938 Hitler asked Speer to design a new chancellery building and it was completed in record time apparently. The exterior is Visitors to Hitler’s office were led through this Court of Honor (left, below). The sentries in front of the columns give an idea of its scale. The steps in front of them look miniscule. The door behind them must be somewhere between five or six meters high. Even the statues are twice life-size. This is architecture designed to make people feel not just little but insignificant.

This next image is the ante-room to Hitler’s office. It’s more of the same. There are no shadows but probably much reverberation. Human-scale, warm, welcoming and friendly it is not. Again, the axial door is the same size as the previous one, and twice the size and several steps up from the other door in the photograph.

Inside, there’s a disarming asymmetry and suddenly shadows everywhere. In his book, The Edifice Complex, Deyan Sudjic walks us through this progression from the point of view of the Prime Minister of Poland about to surrender in the early days of WWII.

Speer designed the Nazi party rally grounds known as the Zeppelinfield but it’s its better known as the site for his most famous work, the Cathedral of Light. In a 1971 interview for Playboy magazine [ ! ] Speer said “I divided the flag‐bearers into 10 massive columns, forming lanes through which they could march to the speakers’ platform. Spotlights illuminated the massed banners, as well as the huge eagle crowning the stadium; and to highlight the effect, I asked Hitler to requisition 130 anti-aircraft searchlights – virtually all the Luftwaffe had at the time…. The dramatic effect was breathtaking, beyond anything I had anticipated.”

The size is impressive but even that’s rendered insignificant by the imagined infinity of the vertical columns of light. Once again, Speer uses overcalling to represent might. Vertical columns of light were also used for New York’s Tribute of Light public art installation recreated every year from sunset to sunrise on the night of September 11. It’s more poetic with the vertical columns of light following the outlines of the original World Trade Center towers and giving shape to our memories, while the beams’ “heavenward” attenuation symbolizes our wishes. It’s a beautiful and fitting memorial.

Official Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Randall A. Clinton

Speer’s legacy is limited to the vertical light column device and his relaxed modern attitude towards who he worked for. Neither of these innovations are acknowledged.

• • •

Albert Speer

19 March 1905 – 1 September 1981

1927: Awarded architectural license
1931: Joins the Nazi Party
1933: Appointed Hitler’s personal architect
1937: Hitler commissioned him for projects including the Reich Chancellery and the Nazi party rally grounds
1937: Appointed General Building Inspector for Berlin, including the Central Department for Resettlements resettlement (of evicted Jewish tenants in Berlin)
1942: Appointed as Reich Minister of Armaments and War Production.
1944: Established task force (using slave labour) to increase production of fighter aircraft
1945: Accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity (mainly involving the use of slave labour)
1946: Convicted of two of five counts and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment
1966: Released from prison
1969: Publishes Inside the Third Reich, based on his writings from prison
1975: Publishes Spandau: The Secret Diaries, chiefly about his role in the Third Reich and his relationship with Hitler
1981: Dies of stroke

• • •


  • Just a thought about Mussolini and architecture: It’s true that he seems to not have had an interest in architecture but I think it’s more important to say that in matters of culture, fascist Italy was rather liberal. Many buildings built during Italian fascism were very much an expression of authoritarian power and every bit as monumental and lacking any human scale as what Speer did. But next to that there were, let’s call them modernist, buildings like the one you showed or my beloved Trieste indoor market ( Those would have been entirely impossible in Nazi Germany. So, it’s not that Mussolini particularly liked modernism, he, and fascist Italy as a whole, simply didn’t care a lot about what was build while Hitler and Nazi Germany cared a lot, which led to Speer.

    • Yes, you’re right. Just thinking about the parts of Italy I’ve seen, there’s a lot of monumentality dating from that time. But that’s a wonderful market building!

  • says:

    Graham as always a wonderful piece of writing. When looking at the buildings included it became obvious I knew nothing really about Albert. A man missing in the history of Architecture. I now am aware of little of his work. The size of the structures is truly unbelievable. It is almost worthwhile making a journey to review those remaining
    Accomodating the number of occupants was a challenged that is likely beyond today’s architects. How would you know how many toilets to provide?

  • Very good! Also good to get link to Architectistan post which I had not seen. Perhaps if he had had other clients he would have been judged less harshly!!

  • Before launching himself into Hitler’s arms, Speer was Tessenow’s chief clerk! I also remember a story about Frank Gehry, who as a (B) architecture student at one of the Ivy League schools was disgusted with one of his profs, who boasted to the class about the work he was doing for the Shah of Iran. In case you haven’t seen it, there’s a great scene in the movie Downfall of AH and Speer discussing Germania as they stroll around the model, as Russian shell-fire booms in the distance. Apparently the Volkshalle was so large that it would have had its own weather, including rain, as a result of the humid aspiration of the assembled volk!