Dear Catastrophe Architect

Albert Speer and the Garden of Spandau

I have never believed the innovators who maintain that pillars and portals are no longer permissible.
— Albert Speer, from Spandau: The Secret Diaries

During his 1946 Nuremberg trial for war crimes, Albert Speer, Hitler’s chief architect and minister of armaments, gave calm, rational testimony that hinted at remorse. He claimed that Nazi Germany’s vast apparatus of genocide had been largely unknown to him; he had simply done what his country required of him. He had also been assisting the Allied forces with the planning for reconstruction in the months before his trial, and some speculated he was destined for acquittal. But Speer had superintended Germany’s wartime military production, masterfully coordinating industry and material and relying heavily on slave labor. He was sentenced to twenty years in Spandau, a massive nineteenth-century prison complex in West Berlin.

Untenanted save for Speer, Rudolf Hess, and five other Nazi military officers who had managed to avoid execution, Spandau was a vast echo chamber. In secret diaries, Speer reminisced about dinner parties with Hitler, wartime decisions that might have gone better, and the details of his architectural ambitions. It was a lonely existence; despite their shared history, he and his fellow inmates revived old grudges and alliances, and petty disputes were inflamed by the boredom of prison life. Speer was especially ostracized for his critical take on the former regime, and for his stated determination to finish out his full sentence, even as the others schemed for backchannel pardons. Speer felt he deserved his punishment.

Spandau prisoners were denied access to contemporary journalism, mail had to be smuggled in and out, and the rare visit from a spouse or child was strictly monitored. Isolated, Speer read every book he could find. And he wrote, mostly on cigarette wrappers and toilet paper: the diaries, his memoirs (multiple drafts), a history of the Third Reich, a treatise on the history of windows. He also kept up his drafting skills, hoping that he might reestablish his architectural practice upon his release.

In the summer of his fifth year, to keep active, Speer took over stewardship of the prison’s courtyard vegetable garden. He drew up plans to recreate the space with elaborate landscaping based on designs he and Hitler had once made for Berlin. Speer’s rock garden was organized around a north-south axis, with elaborate topiary arrangements along either side. The project took him three years to complete.

At the end of his eighth year, in the autumn of 1954, Speer happened upon the idea that would occupy him for the remainder of his sentence. He began to keep meticulous track of every meter he walked in the garden during his daily perambulations, imagining, with the aid of travel guides from the prison library, that he was walking to other cities and other lands. His first trip took him to his family home in Heidelberg: 626 kilometers. In his diary, Speer wrote, “This project is… a battle against the endless boredom; but it is also an expression of the last remnants of my urge toward status and activity.” The walking project took on unexpectedly vast dimensions: from Heidelberg, Speer set off through Eastern Europe to Istanbul, passing through Afghanistan into India, through China and Russia all the way to the Bering Strait — which he crossed — continuing south down the western coast of North America. His trip ended twelve years after it began. In his final week in prison, Speer sent a postcard to a friend, asking to be picked up some thirty kilometers west of Guadalajara, Mexico. His diaries tally the total distance he walked: 31,936 kilometers, enough to have circled the globe at the equator.

As an architect, Albert Speer is most famous for the public works he designed for the Nazi regime — the Nuremberg Zeppelin Field, the Reich Chancellery in Berlin, the German pavilion at the 1937 International Exposition in Paris. They share a simple visual vocabulary: large-scale stone exteriors whose cuts imply immense thickness in the wall, tall windows set low to the ground, axial symmetry, lots of columns. His imposing stone buildings quoted equally from the long line of traditional Prussian neoclassicism, the wild drawings of revolution-era French architects Boullée and Ledoux, and the emerging archaeological evidence of the ancient Greek world, much of which had been excavated by German scholars. (Speer specifically cited the austere Dorians as an influence — a pitch-perfect choice, since the terror regime that controlled Sparta presaged Hitler and Stalin with uncanny accuracy.) But despite the mash-up of aesthetic citations, the resonance of the classical — its appeal to some vague notion of tradition, to governmental stability and authority-provided just the façade Hitler wanted.

The Third Reich was meant to subsume and reenact all the great empires that had come before it, including at the level of style. Of course, the only visual cues left by those empires were their massive and mysterious ruins. So, in a twist of thought so wildly illogical it somehow makes perfect sense, Speer set out to create buildings that would retain their gravity and power even after they had collapsed. Under the rubric of an idea he called “ruin value,” Speer designed ruin-friendly structures made out of natural stone blocks, with heavy exterior walls that would stand even after upper floors were gone; with open courtyards and long hallways. One fine day, centuries into the future, his buildings would remind the world of a once-great Germanic empire, the way the ruins of Greece or Rome remind us of ancient powers today.

Though it did have roots in the nineteenth-century architect Gottfried Semper, who advocated using natural materials and who had developed a baroque neoclassical style of his own, Speer’s ruin value — misreading the trajectory of the ancient world and then fetishizing its traces — was a thin disguise for his larger rejection of modernist architecture, perhaps even the modern more generally. The formal, material, and aesthetic revolutions in architecture that began in the late 1840s and culminated in the Bauhaus were, to a large degree, tied to the use of new building technologies, chiefly poured concrete over reinforced steel frames. In 1923, Walter Gropius, then director of the Bauhaus, had announced that “a new aesthetic of the horizontal is beginning to develop which endeavors to counteract the effect of gravity.” It was poured concrete that made this kind of aesthetic possible, and during the early decades of the century, architects like Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Auguste Perret, and Frank Lloyd Wright all made substantial use of it. The impact of technology on building practices, and thus the nature of what buildings were supposed to look like, was uncertain, if also exciting and charged with potential. But in speeches and essays, Speer rejected poured concrete outright, arguing that its limited lifespan and poor weathering made it unsuitable for the great public works of the Reich. It was not grand, not classical, and would not look good after catastrophe. Of course, to keep pace with Hitler’s frenzied building schedule, Speer had to use contemporary tools and technology: beneath his limestone exteriors, he later admitted, there was often reinforced concrete framework.

In an essay on Hitler’s architecture, Speer once wrote, “My buildings were intended, as I specified in 1936, not only to express the nature of our movement. I went beyond that. They were to be a part of the movement themselves.” And sure enough, Speer’s buildings embodied the jumbled, confused, self-contradictory, and even self-hating relationship with modernity that National Socialism espoused. He ultimately came to feel that his greatest contribution to the Nazi regime wasn’t architecture at all, but rather his plan for the 1934 Nuremberg Party Congress. It was Speer who visually coordinated the columns of marching soldiers, and Speer who turned the imposing array of aircraft searchlights toward the night sky, what became known as the “cathedral of light.” The outdoor rally was so mediagenic that it became the centerpiece for Leni Riefenstahl’s film Triumph of the Will.

Speer’s greatest gift, it turned out, was not for architecture, but rather for set design. He imagined radical possibilities for the visual presentation of power: the style and placement of Hitler’s rostrum, the endless repetition of the Nazi flag, the parade routes that moved motorcades of politicians through vividly symbolic scenery. Nazism had a whole host of mythologies, public rituals, and invented traditions that had to be playacted at elaborate social gatherings. The historian Peter Fritzsche explains that the Nazis created a parallel world for their citizens: “Amidst a familiar universe of stable links to family, region, and social milieu, the Nazis constructed a second world out of a network of organizations in which the traditional criteria of social worth and social placement had no validity.” Seen in this light, Speer’s work makes a different kind of sense. He was to build the scenic backdrop for a fascist dreamworld, stage managing the theatrics of social control among set pieces he had specially designed.

As it happens, the idiom of fascist architecture is actually quite generic. During the 1930s, the style known as “stripped classicism” (or “modernized antique”) was as popular with the Works Progress Administration as it was in greater Europe. Paul Cret employed Speer’s beloved large-scale Doric motifs for his United States Federal Reserve Board building in 1937. In Berlin it would have stood for National Socialism, but in Washington it symbolized democracy. So what distinguishes the two? Speer’s work is fundamentally defined by its theatricality — the sacrifice of use value in favor of aesthetic and historic value, since the main purpose of the Nazi-built environment was the production of its own identity. To that end, Speer ran counter to the essential modernist tenet that form ought to follow function. For him, form was paramount.

Descended in spirit from Germanic classicists such as Semper and Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Speer derided and ignored the intellectual ferment of the day, clinging to the nineteenth century’s great fable of the reconstituted classical (which was, it should be noted, a critical expression of the modern consciousness in its time). Speer’s was the last gasp of the Romantic traditionalism that the Deutscher Werkbund and the Bauhaus were systematically dismantling. But unlike Gropius, Mies, or Le Corbusier — “Of course, I know them all,” he ruefully noted while in prison — Speer did not believe in architecture as architecture, as a practice on its own terms. No one who did could build failure into the works themselves. Speer didn’t believe his buildings ought to survive.

Of course, nobody wants to live in a Le Corbusier building, either, these days. The rationalist salvation promised by modernism proved hollow in its own way; the buildings were as inhumanly proportioned as anything Speer designed, and drew myopically from a limited repertoire of shapes. Today their aesthetic rigidity bores and agitates architects and audiences alike. It is possible, perhaps, that Speer’s engagement with traditionalism gave him a more realistic sense of his work’s impermanence, unlike his contemporaries and their quest for the radically new. In any case, failure unites all the branches of the modernist tree.

Albert Speer had been an unworldly and unsuccessful architect when he joined the Nazi party in the early 1930s, in the midst of the global depression. Hitler was his ticket out of perpetual underemployment. Speer proved so adept at pleasing the Führer’s particular taste that he became the leading architect in Germany without truly completing his studies. Speer’s Wanderjahre, the travels one undertakes as part of one’s apprenticeship, came to him late: he never actually saw the world he helped destroy until he walked through it in prison. And in the safe, comforting routine of Spandau, his Wanderjahre mutated into a wistful wanderlust. The regime he’d enabled had forced millions into labor, death, or the stateless wandering of exile, and his punishment afforded him more than a decade of exploratory tourism.

In prison, Speer returned to the primal act of his craft: walking. The construction of space, physically or symbolically, depends on that space being experienced, demarcated, mapped, and comprehended on a human scale. Before recorded history, before even the most rudimentary stone cairn, there was the path. To pass away his interminable present, Speer pretended to walk the earth, and unwittingly walked himself deep into the distant past. His working life had rested upon a wild restaging of history, and here, with every loop around the endless courtyard — touring ancient and modern cultures simultaneously — he lived out the same failed idea that sent him to prison in the first place.