June 2000, Architecture

The Burden of History

What's it like to be Albert Speer's son and namesake—practicing architecture in Germany?

It’s not easy to emerge from the shadow of a famous parent, and the offspring of esteemed architects are no exception. Eero Saarinen managed to make his mark after a period of partnership with his celebrated father, Eliel Saarinen. The sons of Frank Lloyd Wright and I.M. Pei have more quietly pursued their elders’ career path. But what happens when the father is the profession’s perhaps most demonic figure, Hitler’s architect and armaments minister?

The son of Albert Speer, an architect bearing the same name as the man condemned at Nuremberg, has had a unique row to hoe in postwar Germany. Now 65 and head of the country’s largest urban planning firm, Speer drew up the master plan for Expo 2000 opening this month in Hanover.

In 1937, Speer’s father grabbed the world’s attention when he designed the Third Reich’s monumental neoclassical pavilion at the Paris International Exhibition. At Hanover, Albert Speer & Partners have reworked and expanded the city’s existing trade fair grounds for an entirely different kind of exhibition, weaving its terrain into the urban fabric and striving to create an area with strong chances for afterlife once the world’s fair ends in late October.

The Hanover Expo includes a large central plaza and landscaped axes that bear but faint resemblance to the gargantuan imagery commonly evoked by the Speer name. “I am proud to work in the tradition of great German urban planners and, although many people do not believe me, only very late and very little did I study the work of my father,” Speer said in an interview at his Frankfurt offices. “It did not influence me, nor did it hamper me from independently wanting to create public squares and boulevards where they are appropriate.”

Born in 1934, Speer grew up at Hitler’s mountain retreat, the Obersalzberg, along with other families of the Nazi inner circle. Hitler occasionally dropped in at their villa, where he drank cocoa and played with Albert and his five younger siblings. Their playmates included the children of Hitler’s adjutant Martin Bormann and those of his physician Karl Brandt, who helped organize Nazi killings of handicapped youth.

On formal occasions like the F’hrer’s birthday, the Speer boys donned lederhosen and their sisters put bows in their braided hair to celebrate together with Eva Braun.

“It was a totally normal childhood,” Speer says today. His impression of Hitler? “A nice uncle, from my childish perspective.” His father, busy concocting bombastic designs for Berlin and later enslaving millions of laborers to supply weapons for the Wehrmacht, was rarely home. “He was not the kind of father who went over your homework.” Nor was life within the eye of the storm wreaking death across Europe without emotional pressures. At around the age of ten, coinciding with the Reich’s collapse and his father’s arrest by the Allies, the young Speer developed a severe stutter. “You could say I’ve repressed all that,” he says of the impediment’s origin. “I really don’t know anymore. But it was a severe handicap that I very consciously and actively combated.”

Speer’s stutter was absent for most of the three-hour interview conducted in his native German, although it reasserted itself when discussing his father, who died in 1981. The distance between them was life-long, something Speer attributes to personal dynamics rather than a moral judgment on his part. “The man whom I visited once a year in Spandau and who then came out was as foreign to me as one of my professors. An emotional connection did not exist. This had nothing do with him or my confrontation with his life.”

Nonetheless, according to Dieter Bartetzko, architecture critic for the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, “He has an unconscious compulsion to show that he’s different from his father.” Bartetzko sees this in both AS&P’s design work and the way the firm is run, describing Speer’s urban schemes as socially minded and humanely scaled, without adopting the pronounced anti-monumentalism that characterizes some postwar German architectural work. “He’s a very generous and liberal boss,” Bartetzko added.

Never did Albert Speer consider changing his name, which he is the third generation to hold. (Germans do not use the tag “junior” or “the third.”) Family tradition made his career choice “more or less inevitable,” since not only his father, but his grandfather and great-grandfather were architects. After completing his studies in Munich, Speer said he was only able to gain self-confidence in speaking following a 1964 bus trip around the United States. Americans, Speer recalled, have a “more relaxed way of dealing with people, and so for the first time I was able to overcome my inhibitions.” Along the way, he stopped to visit the influential city planner Edmund Bacon in Philadelphia; Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in Chicago and architect Lawrence Halprin in San Francisco.

“The openness with which I was received in all these offices impressed me very much and greatly influenced my way of running an office,” Speer said. “This has always been a tremendously democratic office. We have a system of internal workshops where projects are discussed. I have four partners who share business management. I don’t know everything that’s going on this office and I don’t want to know.” As a result, the work shows no signature style. AS&P’s team of 90 architects and planners had over 250 projects last year. Current efforts are highly varied, including a proposal for Europe’s tallest skyscraper, a competition entry with Coop Himmelblau for the Olympic village at the 2004 Athens Summer Games and a new city in the Central American nation of Belize.

The patriarchal legacy has cut both ways, creating career opportunities at the same time it placed others out of bounds. Speer prides himself for having built his practice upon anonymous competitions, while lamenting that being Albert Speer has thwarted him from working in unified Berlin. Speer stayed away from contests for prestige government projects in the new capital — “for obvious reasons”—but he has vied for other major commissions there. Having lost every job so far, he says he faces “discrimination by virtue of consanguinity.”

“I’ve heard about instances where we were as strong as others in competition but then it was said, ‘Does it have to be Speer? We’d prefer to take the other one.'” On the other hand, Speer has hardly been shut out of the revived metropolis where all that remains of his father’s grandiose plans are a few dozen street lamps. He was the chairman of the jury that chose the design of the Lerhterbahnhof, soon to be Berlin’s largest railway station, he served on the jury judging new designs for the Alexanderplatz and AS&P did advance planning studies for the city’s new airport.

Speer has conceded that his father’s name surely opened doors in the Arab world, where he began working more than a decade before the Arab-Israeli peace process got under way. As to whether he had qualms about putting himself in the service of powerful regimes in view of his father’s role in promoting state architecture, Speer replied, “I never gave it any thought. At any rate, we’ve never worked for a dictatorship.”

AS&P has received major civilian commissions from an array of non-democratic governments, often competing against U.S. firms to obtain them. In the 1960s, Speer designed a regional plan for pre-Gaddafi Libya, then a monarchy. For the Saudi kingdom, he did a plan for the summer capital of Ta’if as well as a Foreign Ministry housing complex in Riyadh. While Nigeria was under military rule, his firm designed the first ministerial building erected in the government seat of Abuja. And in 1998, AS&P won a contest to design a new district for China’s provincial capital of Chung-ching. The firm put forth a towering glass skyscraper to house the communist administration, poised atop a massive half-cylindrical structure that evokes the classic modernism of Brasilia or Chandigarh.

The shadow of his father has loomed equally large in Speer’s work with New York architect Peter Eisenman on a vast Frankfurt office and residential project known as Rebstockpark. “This [collaboration], for an American German Jew, has an enormous fascination,” Eisenman said in a 1996 film documentary about his own career. Eisenman went on to describe their work together as “something that in Yiddish would be called traif, which means not touchable. Psychologically Albert needs to be working with an American Jew, as I need to be working with a German who was very close to the inside.”

Speer offers a slightly different take on their collaboration. “It’s simply a joy to work with someone who is as intelligent, lively, unusual, and quick as Peter — My name plays a great role for him, but in my professional life I am not the son of my father but the manager of one of the best architecture and planning offices. If that were not the case, then Peter Eisenman would not work with me.” His speech faltering, he then referred to himself in the third person: “If Speer were different, or authoritarian, it would not have happened.”