The Wall Street Journal

April 12, 2013, The Wall Street Journal

Hitler’s Words into Stone

Can architecture itself be fascist?

In the darkened auditorium, the monumental image looked familiar. But the description was not. “Rather elegant,” intoned the white-haired figure at the podium. He was speaking of Adolf Hitler’s Reich Chancellery, designed in 1938 by Albert Speer. Up next on the screen was the Nuremberg Party Rally Grounds where brown-shirted Nazis paraded en masse. “I think it is really great architecture,” said the lecturer. “You take off the swastikas, and you can admire it without feeling guilty.”

Audience members shifted awkwardly in their seats, and a few walked out to protest the remarks by Léon Krier, opening a conference on Berlin at the Yale School of Architecture in February. The Luxembourg-born architectural theorist and planner acknowledged the discomfort, saying of his admiration for Speer: “It drives people crazy because they think I am applauding Auschwitz.” But he added: “These buildings are full of modern references. It’s only the blind who think this is fascist architecture.”

Opening eyes to the architectural mastery of Albert Speer has been Mr. Krier’s mission ever since he interviewed him in the months before his death in 1981. While most researchers who met the convicted war criminal after his release from prison in 1966 delved into his role as Hitler’s confidant and armaments minister, Mr. Krier focused on Speer’s bombastic plans for making Berlin into a world capital.

In 1985, Mr. Krier produced a monograph about Speer’s designs, which display a cold, grandiose, neoclassical style. It’s not just the Reich Chancellery, where Hitler hoped diplomats would slip on the polished marble floors lining the endless corridors, but the even larger colonnaded palace for Hermann Göring, filled with vast banqueting halls and hanging gardens, and the Great Hall, an enormous building to be crowned by the world’s largest dome and spacious enough to accommodate 180,000 spectators. The book brought Mr. Krier widespread condemnation and quickly went out of print. The Monacelli Press has reissued it in a lavish edition but this time with the added twist of an introduction by the renowned architect Robert A.M. Stern, the dean of Yale’s architecture school, who designed the George W. Bush presidential library.

Mr. Stern believes that Mr. Krier should be praised for spotlighting Speer “because what transpired in Germany was so extraordinary—reprehensible politically but perhaps also laudable architecturally.” Still, at a dinner in his New Haven, Conn., apartment for participants in the conference on Berlin, some of Mr. Stern’s academic colleagues voiced surprise at his involvement with the book. “You read my introduction,” he told his guests, “you’ll see how good I am at wrapping myself in Teflon.”

Protective waffling might be expected from Mr. Stern, a former Walt Disney Co. board member whose own architectural firm works in a multitude of styles and who likes to call himself a “modern traditionalist.” He has previously allied himself with Mr. Krier, considered the father of New Urbanism, in the effort to create neo-traditional towns like Celebration and Seaside in Florida. Mr. Krier’s advocacy of walkable, planned communities recalling those of yore also brought him to the attention of Prince Charles, who hired him to create the new town of Poundbury in England, where 21st-century encroachments like satellite dishes and traffic lights are kept out of sight. Mr. Krier has an aversion not only to modernism but to modernity itself.

In “Albert Speer, Architecture 1932-1942,” he rails against industrialization and, in particular, what the Marshall Plan wreaked upon West Germany. He pours scorn on modernists like Le Corbusier, saying of his urban plans that “even the cruelest dictators would not impose such incubi on their subjects,” and argues that the Allies should have spared Speer from prosecution just as they allowed former Nazis, like scientist the Wernher von Braun, to work in the U.S. space program and on military projects. That way Speer could have embellished postwar Paris, Washington and Moscow. “Sometimes a blind eye is turned when the public interest is at stake,” Mr. Krier writes wryly—though perfectly in earnest about the missed opportunity. After all, he concludes: “The Führer had cherished all things beautiful.”

Speer understood his role as set designer for the Third Reich, saying later about Hitler: “Of course I was perfectly aware that he had sought world domination. That was the whole point of my buildings. . . . All I wanted was for this great man to dominate the globe.” In this volume buildings like the Reich Chancellery certainly shimmer in pristinely styled photos. But just what kind of beauty did Hitler cherish? Speer’s unbuilt works seem oppressive, on a scale intended to browbeat anyone in their vicinity. But Mr. Krier lauds their “sensuousness” and “motherliness.” Never mind that Hitler called Speer’s architecture “the Word in Stone” and saw it as making his ideology manifest in built form.

The planned grandeur of Berlin was intertwined with a military expansion aimed at European control. This intimidating, overblown architecture accorded no value to individual human experience. It stands, as Mr. Stern notes in his introduction, in marked contrast to Mr. Krier’s own work as an architect and planner, which is anything but grandiose. Poundbury, though rigidly implemented in terms of architectural style, is a humanely dimensioned and welcoming place, forgoing the monumental classical in favor of the vernacular.

After Nazism’s defeat, both East and West Germany sought to exorcise the ghost of Speer’s monumental schemes. The West Germans set up their government in a deliberately self-effacing provisional capital, Bonn, while Soviet-controlled East Germany demolished the remnants of the Reich Chancellery. When German unification in 1989 led to the re-creation of Berlin as a governmental seat, Speer’s designs haunted the architectural competitions to reinvent the city. Since he had proposed a north-south axis for Hitler’s capital, only proposals for a government center organized along a symbolic east-west route were considered. Any plans for new state buildings with the vaguest hint of a classical pillar triggered phobic reactions.

Mr. Krier correctly objects that there is no clear congruence between architectural form and ideological meaning. Washington, D.C., he points out, has modern façades that would have been welcomed in Hitler’s Berlin. Classicism, he thinks, has been unjustly tainted by association with fascism. At the other end of the spectrum, sleek modernist design was deployed under Mussolini and a forward-looking capital like Brasília, built to signify democratic openness, perfectly served Brazil’s military regime.

Yet the attempt to portray Speer’s work in purely aesthetic terms can be willfully misguided. Mr. Krier argues that the architect’s vision went astray only in 1942, when he became armaments minister and adopted an “unrepentant belief in industrial civilization.” But Speer’s architectural and urbanistic designs were part and parcel of Nazism’s totalitarian belief system from their inception; there is no clear division in his career. After Mr. Krier published the first version of this book in 1985, the historian Susanne Willems uncovered documentation that renders it difficult to dissociate Speer’s schemes from the Nazi genocide. While Speer long denied any knowledge of the Final Solution, Ms. Willems shows that from 1938 Speer initiated and cooperated closely with the Gestapo in the persecution of over 50,000 Berlin Jews who lived in the areas for which he drew up plans. At Speer’s behest, these Jews were deprived of their homes and deported to concentration camps.

In his introduction, Mr. Stern admits that most architects gravitate to power but says that Mr. Krier’s motives are unrelated to any personal political agenda. The Luxembourger is no crypto-fascist, but his resolute antipathy to modernism leads him to place Nazi misdeeds in questionable context. In his own introduction to the original issue of “Albert Speer,” Mr. Krier wrote: “Auschwitz-Birkenau and Los Angeles are children of the same parents.” That offensive phrase has been dropped from his updated introduction but remains part of the facsimile edition included here. Diagrams on another page compare size and layouts of “artistic and industrial ensembles,” setting the configuration of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp side by side with the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and a Volkswagen factory.

For those who are only vaguely familiar with Hitler’s architectural tastes, perhaps having seen them parodied in Charlie Chaplin’s film “The Great Dictator,” the drawings and photographs in Mr. Krier’s book provide an extended glimpse into Nazism’s megalomaniacal spatial aspirations. But despite all their indisputable fascination, the images reinforce the argument made by many architectural historians that there were far more accomplished early 20th-century neoclassicists than Speer, among them Edwin Lutyens, John Russell Pope and Paul Cret.

“Can a war criminal be a great artist?” asks Mr. Krier. “My answer is undeniably yes.” But there is another important question posed by this book: whether it is permissible to find beauty in an art that served to legitimize an abhorrent regime. He warns that Speer’s work has a “seductive beauty” that “hurts moral feelings and confuses judgment.” Though he is again bemoaning a contemporary inability to regard classicism in a detached manner, it is Léon Krier who is in a delirious thrall to a malevolent aesthetic.