Hitler's Classical Architect | The Nation


Hitler's Classical Architect

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In his dosshouse days in Vienna, that wannabe artist Adolf Hitler made a modest income painting postcards. The most legendary was his view of Michaelerplatz, the little square behind the Hofburg. It was home to a 1911 building now universally referred to as Looshaus, a seminal monument of early modernism and the most famous project of the architect and polemicist Adolf Loos (“Ornament is crime”). Although the lower commercial level is classical in form, feeling and materiality, the upper floors—austerely white, with simple punched windows—were controversial from the get-go, famously lampooned by contemporaries as sewer-grating. Hitler, ever the traditionalist, hated the thing and in his postcard view painted out the elegant little structure, substituting its predecessor. His animus could only have been exacerbated by the fact that the client for the building—a bespoke tailor—was Jewish.

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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Of course, Hitler later commanded a far wider field for his techniques of obliteration. Cities and towns across Europe were smashed flat. His program of racial purification was—inter alia—understood as a project of beautification, the ugly, degenerate Jews and Slavs to be effaced by the more pleasing Nordic phenotype. In the Nazi “philosophy,” this collusion of the aesthetic and the ethical was ubiquitous, and much has been written about the fanatical stagecraft of the regime: the fetishization of uniforms and ceremonies, the remorseless décor, the concentration of thought-work onto the sleek forms of the instruments of mass destruction, the exultation of the Germanness of Wagner and the operatic trajectory of a nation consigned to flames, the whole nauseating policed mythopoesis that suffused everyday life in the Reich, leading to a Götterdämmerung crescendo of mass annihilation.

Hitler’s central artistic preoccupation, however, was architecture. The Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna was long the object of his ambitions, but it twice denied his application for admission. For several years, I had the ambivalent experience of teaching at the Akademie, and while strolling around that weird, amnesiac city, I often thought that if only Hitler’s application had gone the other way, the planet would have been afflicted merely with one more mediocre architect. Unfortunate, too, that Hitler channeled his rage at rejection into a lust for acceptance, an abiding emulation of the worst kind of academic values (the insistence on the correctness of historical forms, the exclusion of the unworthy, the veneration of authority), rather than into the liberating insubordinations of the avant-garde he so reviled.

As Hitler consolidated power, however, he found a young architect who was the quintessential embodiment of his own desires. The two men enacted a weird transference, developing a co-dependence that, among other things, measurably prolonged the war, resulting in the deaths of millions. Albert Speer was just the ambitious, disciplined mediocrity that Hitler aspired to be, and through a killer combination of obsequiousness and technical competence, Speer rose rapidly, higher and closer to the center of the regime, from interior decorator to minister of armaments and war production. Without reticence, he translated Hitler’s sketches into built form and presided over the dictator’s most exalted projects of reconstitution: the huge monumental buildings, the redesign of Berlin, Linz and other cities as the stage sets for the anticipated 1,000 years of murderous pomposity. So connected to this fantasy was Hitler that one of his last acts before he fed cyanide to his dog and put a bullet in his own head was to leave his bunker and gaze misty-eyed at the architectural model of the planned transformation of his hometown in Austria that Speer had painstakingly constructed for him.

Although Speer’s redemptive dissembling has now been stripped away by Gitta Sereny and other historians, the Speerian narrative—like that of rocket man Wernher von Braun—still abides as a central ethical conundrum of the Nazi era: how could people who seemed to be like us become mass-murdering criminals? The impossibly illusory answer defines evil itself. Both Speer and von Braun managed their respective rehabilitations by claiming they were nonparticipants, merely present at the scene of the crime, and thus deserved to be credited for their special technical or artistic competences, which might well have been applied in other circumstances without opprobrium. Von Braun, after all, took us to the moon, and Speer outshone Hollywood with that fabulous searchlight colonnade at the Nuremberg rallies. For his part, Hitler built the autobahn.

* * *

The unbending axis of architectural apologetics made for Speer is a double one. A not insubstantial body of argument suggests that his kind of traditionalist taste was equally congenial to Roosevelt, Mussolini and Stalin, and that this shared taste for the stylistic affinities among the various types of “classicism” somehow liberates Speer’s work from a specifically Nazi context. This defense, of course, is exculpatory only if it fails to make any distinction within the field of this expression or to consider any integral relationship between form and function. The more outré defense of Speer insists that he is not simply tarred with modernism’s anti-classical brush but that he was an excellent architect, full stop.

There’s pretty much only one person who’s willing and eager to make this second argument—Léon Krier, whose 1985 edition of Speer’s work has just been reissued in a lavishly produced volume that includes a pre-emptive defense of Krier’s position by Robert Stern, dean of the Yale University School of Architecture. (The book ends in 1942, the year of the Wannsee Conference, and does not inquire into Speer’s role in the design of buildings that might fall outside the programmatic sanction of familiar types of public architecture.) Krier’s claim to be taken as more than the Kenneth Mars character in The Producers is built on his long-standing reputation as a spirited anti-modernist whose rhetoric on behalf of “traditional” architectural form and culture, and in opposition to the alienations of the machine, has an occasionally appealing whiff of William Morris, Peter Kropotkin and the Deutscher Werkbund. Krier’s drawings are succinct and his architecture perfectly harmless, even charming. Krier has also been the longtime court architect of Prince Charles, for whom he continues to work on a Marie Antoinette–ish new town named Poundbury. Talk about tragedy lapsing into farce.

But why bother to defend Speer as an architectural talent? Krier uses Speer, whom he does seem genuinely to revere, to continue a battle against an imaginary enemy, a long-gone modernist cabal that he thinks will be galled by his argument. By choosing to make his metonymic defense of “classicism” via its most egregious exponent, Krier displays a kind of bathetic chutzpah that he clearly thinks is clever and dangerous. This is infantile. As the immense and waxing volume of scholarly and popular work on the Nazis (from Elie Wiesel to Quentin Tarantino) shows, no issue is forbidden territory. The more specific question, however, is whether Speer’s architectural oeuvre has any formal merit.

Taking Krier’s implicit challenge and imagining the Berlin Great Hall filled with 180,000 Stones fans rather than 180,000 storm troopers, and the chancellery as an office for JPMorgan Chase president Jamie Dimon rather than Hitler, I turn to the tome in front of me and find myself bored and creeped out—and not only because the lifework of a monster has been given the deluxe treatment. The architecture itself is flat-out bad and stinks of both human and imaginative death. Speer’s designs are uniformly moribund and dry, without a spark of originality, even within the conventions of the received idiom. The proportions are flat, often compressed, lacking elegance or attenuation. The ornament is not indigenous, simply applied (Speer was working to find a specifically Nazi decorative system to replace those shopworn trigylphs and metopes). Materials are used joylessly to impress, like the slather of marble and gewgaw appliqué in the lobby of a second-rate Park Avenue apartment house. There is no subtlety in plan, section or elevation (unless you’re really into long flights of stairs and endless enfiladed halls). The symmetries are dogmatic. The rhythms in the work are uniformly military, unsyncopated, without grace notes, merely repetitive, never complex. The “grandeur” much vaunted by Krier is just grandiosity. Speer himself remarks in Inside the Third Reich (1970) that on revisiting Berlin after his release from prison in 1966, “I saw in a few seconds what I had been blind to for years: our plan completely lacked a sense of proportion.”

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