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Hitler’s Classical Architect

Why is Léon Krier defending anew the work of the Third Reich’s master builder?

By Michael Sorkin

May 21, 2013

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.
Buy this book

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.”

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.)

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.

§ 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.

Michael SorkinMichael Sorkin (1948–2020) was the architecture critic of The Nation from 2013 to 2020.

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