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Hitler's Classical Architect | The Nation

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Hitler's Classical Architect

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Krier everywhere betrays his deep difficulty in understanding the relationship between form and content, and his actual readings of the work amount to little more than enthusiastic captions. His claims for Speer are always comparative, and he never analyzes the work on its merits. He rails against those who hypocritically criticize Speer’s megalomaniacal Great Hall—would-be eighth wonder of the world—because the former Sears Tower is even taller and the Houston Astrodome almost as wide. This is a typical bit of Krierian argumentation, drawing a distinction without a meaningful difference, and proposing a flaccid classification (within the category of grandiosity) that confers no advantage on Speer, however much Krier evokes breast-like “maternal” aspects of the monster dome. (Krier also betrays a grotesque indifference to the exploitation of gender, glossing over the Nazis’ view of women’s highest calling: being breeding machines for the master race, as signified by that elephantine, Valkyrian breast.)

Albert Speer
Architecture, 1932–1942.
By Léon Krier.
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About the Author

Michael Sorkin
Michael Sorkin, The Nation’s architecture critic, is the author of numerous books on architecture and is also the...

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If Krier defends Speer by asserting that nominally ethical architects have made worse buildings, there’s also the constant effort to establish quality—and innocence—by association: Krier reverts to claims (some made by Speer himself in their conversations) that the work marches in the great defile of design that includes Friedrich Gilly, Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Otto Wagner, Carl Asplund, Paul Cret and John Russell Pope. This is not simply to malign these great designers but to reveal either Krier’s truly incapable eye or his actual agenda: the defense of Speer by a conflation of all so-called “classicism” into a completely raw category that retrospectively justifies his seduction by an “artist” whose true medium was genocide. For this chain of filiation to make sense, it isn’t enough to admire Otto (or Richard) Wagner; one must learn something. As Hitler himself discovered, aspiration is not talent. And we do remember historical figures for the preponderance of their achievements: Who cares how beautifully the SS man Reinhard Heydrich, one of the main architects of the Holocaust, played the violin?

* * *

Learning is scarce in Krier’s analysis. Although the book has a full research apparatus and the imprimatur of an academic dean, Krier is no scholar. His primary sources are Speer and his acolytes, and it seems—looking at his citations—that he has consulted virtually no serious theoretical or historical works for his spirited and deeply dopey gloss. In a rare citation from an “outside” source, he quotes Hannah Arendt’s description of the importance of the transcendent character of public space. But he uses it invidiously, against her real meaning, in a revolting act of false assimilation—bringing out a Jew to defend the Nazi. Although Krier betrays the occasional flash of ponderous wit, his highest and most self-satisfied form of argumentation is summarized by a foolish syllogism he attributes to his opponents and that he thinks stymies any criticism: Hitler loved classical architecture; Hitler was a tyrant; classical architecture is tyrannical. Who actually believes this?

Am I being unfair? Here is a sample of typical assertions (all direct quotes) from the book:

§ Classical architecture was implicitly condemned by the Nuremberg tribunals to a heavier sentence than Speer.

Speer did get off easy at Nuremberg, but his status as a “classical” architect was part of what saved him, an emblem of his alleged greater civility than the other murderers in the dock. The tribunal had nothing to say about architecture. Symbols of the regime were partially—and understandably—destroyed in the effort to “de-Nazify” Germany. But many survive to this day, including the Luftwaffe headquarters (to be sure, it was kinda modern-looking), the Nuremberg stands and much fake Fachwerk housing. But if there was a war on classicism, how did the Altes Museum survive? Or Sanssouci and the castles on the Rhine? Why were the cathedrals restored? How, then, did the communist East realize the ultra-Speerian Karl-Marx-Allee after the war?

§ An influential critic of the postwar German architecture scene…fought an emphatic radio campaign to convince listeners of the high moral duty to free Berlin from the symbolic vestiges of “Fascism,” in particular the street lanterns designed by Speer.

Let us restore the elegant swastikas, too: after all, the ancient Hindus used them. What craziness to impute a sinister meaning to such faultless geometry! Perhaps it might be clarifying to string up some of the bodies hung from those lampposts in the orgy of destruction that marked the city’s last days under Nazi control. Surely we can tell the dangler from the damned.

§ It is…not surprising that architects now consider using classical columns to be ethically more reprehensible than building nuclear power plants.

Which architects are those? While we await Krier’s designs for the first Ionic Reactor, such argument, through unfounded hyperbole and limp wit, substitutes everywhere in Krier’s discourse for evidence. It’s interesting that as part of his exercises in expiation, that old Nazi Philip Johnson built a rather handsome nuclear reactor in Israel in a hybrid style: a sculpturally modernist containment vessel with a classically reminiscent arcade around a courtyard for the ancillary structure.

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§ Superficial attempts to reveal an inherent totalitarian nature in all of classical architecture only succeeded in obscuring the mechanisms and motives that generated these buildings and this style.

Here is the straw man made flesh. Who is it that claims the Parthenon is totalitarian? The statement—repeated endlessly—is actually a fig leaf for Krier’s absolutist claim of the obverse: all modernism is totalitarian.

§ Even if classical monuments are used to legitimize criminal ends, they remain unpolluted.

Guilt can come from association, and meaning can inhere in objects. The question is what we do with those so burdened by their use that their meaning is indelibly described by it. The völkisch gatehouse at Auschwitz has been retained not because it is unpolluted, but because it is the filthiest building on Earth.

§ Speer’s architecture is monumental and colossal, grand and sublime, imposing and embracing, maternal and virile…. It is as absurd to blame an airplane for being aerodynamic as it is to condemn Speer’s works for being monumental.

Or the gas chambers for being efficient?

§ To this day, many people are more disturbed by the grandeur of Speer’s designs than by images of Auschwitz.

On what planet?

A final word about the book itself. It is of stately dimensions and handsomely printed in black and white, save for a few images. One is a view of Hitler’s chancellery building in a sepia-toned shot with what looks like a hand-painted blue sky; another is an elevational drawing of the unrealized Märzfeld, a reviewing stand where 160,000 spectators were to watch military drills. In this otherwise monochrome image, the continuous backdrop of Nazi banners is rendered in vivid red. What to make of this chromatic privilege? There would seem to be a message about the consequential symbol.

It’s often said that great architecture is the product of a great client. It’s no coincidence that Speer’s was Hitler.

In “Ill Will” (May 7,2007), Charles Taylor wrote that the most durable piece of Nazi propaganda may yet turn out to be the belief that Leni Riefenstahl is an artistic genius.

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