Léon Krier acknowledges that celebrating the work of Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect of choice and a war criminal who served a 20-year prison sentence, has subjected him to vociferous criticism. Studying Speer’s buildings “without a priori condemnation has made me, in the eyes of many sound minds, an ally of sordid crimes,” he writes in Albert Speer: Architecture 1932–1942, first released in 1985 and now being republished by Monacelli Press.
Krier, a traditionally minded architect and urbanist who perhaps is known best as master planner of Poundbury in Dorchester, England, interviewed Speer in the early 1980s as he explored the elderly German’s ambitious plans, devised in close concert with Hitler, to transform Berlin into the capital of Europe.
But Krier’s book is more than just an attempt to disentangle the political intent behind the Berlin plan, the Reich Chancellery expansion, and the Nuremberg parade grounds—to name a few of Speer’s most prominent projects—from the monumental classicism of the architecture itself; it’s also an attack on Modernism as “an ideological byproduct of fossil energies.” Krier writes: “The present-day ethical blindness to the consequences of global industrialization resembles that of the Germans towards the consequences of the Third Reich’s racist policies. We consume goods that may be produced by slave labor, use machinery that may ruin conditions of life on the planet.”
In February, Krier gave a lecture on Speer during “Achtung: Berlin,” a symposium at the Yale School of Architecture, before discussing his book with one of his fellow panelists, the unrepentant provocateur Peter Eisenman.
Peter Eisenman: Here’s my question. I’m not interested in classicism versus Modernism. That doesn’t interest me in the least. I’m very fond of the Reich Chancellery. I think it’s a fabulous plan: It’s not rigid, classical, symmetrical. I’m not so interested in that.
When I knew Albert Jr. [Speer’s son, also an architect], he used to believe in his father’s innocence. When you first did the book, there was the belief in Speer’s innocence in the general public. He wasn’t executed. He claimed not to know about the Holocaust. It was public understanding that he was innocent of any knowledge of slave labor. [His guilt] came to light 10 years ago, and it was just devastating for Albert Jr.—I know because we talked about it. He was so upset because he lost his belief in his father’s humanity, let’s say.
And so when you republished this book, I expected to see at least an acknowledgement that the situation had changed. It has nothing to do with the quality of his architecture. It has to do with his ethic, his morality, that he publicly hid the facts as he knew them. That omission, I’ve found problematic. I’m curious how you feel about that.
Léon Krier: Well, the book was [first] published in 1985. Speer died in September 1981.
PE: But these admissions came out in the last 10 years.
LK: The [German edition of the] book by Matthias Schmidt, Albert Speer: The End of a Myth, was published in August 1981, and it is that book which killed Speer. I saw him in end of June and the first week of July in 1981. And he told me that there will be a book that I’m not going to be able to handle. And I told him that I didn’t need a book to know that he was responsible in his role as Minister of Armaments, which had far-reaching powers, because he controlled the attribution of building materials around the Reich. So it was unthinkable that he would not have known. Because the death camps were colossal building sites, and he knew where this stuff was going.
PE: This was not public knowledge.
LK: It was published. If you wanted to know it, you knew it. I knew it. But that’s not the question. The question is about the ambiguity of humankind, that we can be involved in horrendous actions and yet be very kind to our families. This is an extraordinary thing.
PE: You talked today about the deaths that occurred in industrialization, the mass deaths perpetrated by capitalism or communism. I happened to be in Nuremberg two summers ago and went to the museum and realized that in the construction of the Zeppelinfeld, the Märzfeld, only slave labor was used and there was a certain deadline for construction. And many people died from the conditions of labor that built this extraordinary—no question—extraordinary place. So your questions about industrialization killing people in a regular fashion rings hollow, because people died constructing these very projects.
LK: It was a criminal regime. They used slave labor initially, relatively modestly. But then during the war, they needed it because they had the men fighting.
PE: I have no problem with discussing architecture in this, as you know. I studied Palladio. I’m doing Alberti. Albert Speer could be a subject for me. No, you know that’s not my problem. My problem is, I expected in the new edition a more …
LK: No, because it proves you have not read the book.
PE: I read the book. I just re-read it.
LK: The initial book, it was a little sentimental, I would say. The style was a bit emphatic. There was nothing really to correct, apart from the stylistic flaws. But the content is even sharper than it was before, because really the problem is not our differences with the Nazis, but our parallels. That is what the book is about.
PE: I don’t believe in Nazi architecture. I don’t believe in Fascist architecture. All architecture is political.
LK: The best architecture is political. Because it builds polis, it builds society.
PE: So the question is, the son felt differently about him. You don’t have a different sense of Speer as a person? Because he was different than all of the people around Hitler. He was of a different class, of a different sensibility.
LK: He came from a bourgeois family.
PE: He could have been different.
LK: He should have, yes. But so should have the whole German upper middle class: the engineers, the doctors, all the people who participated in the system.
PE: So you still would maintain there’s no difference today in the view of Albert Speer?
LK: No, the book gives you that view, which I think is the right reading. He is highly responsible. He is all the more responsible because he was in this high position. He was very educated. He was extremely good looking. He had everything, really, to his advantage. He’s all the more guilty. Yet, he’s a great artist. I forgot to show my last slide today, where you see the Berlin skyline by Speer, with the big dome. And then the [projected] Manhattan skyline in 2050. What is the more humane city? What is going to survive better into the future?
PE: A humane city? Now you’re sounding like Hans Stimmann, [the former Senatsbau-direktorin in Berlin]. Because the reason I did not build [the Max Reinhardt House] in Berlin is because it was not considered humane. Those towers were monuments, they were icons. But let’s talk about master planning. You made a plea today about the need for master planning. My feeling is that master planning, through at least the 19th and 20th century, has proven to be illusory, and in a certain way destructive, whether it’s [Ludwig] Hilberseimer or Corbusier. I don’t even count Speer.
LK: I think you maybe confuse the term of master planning. You confuse the result with the technique, because you cannot do a city without master planning.
PE: I don’t want to do a city. That’s what I’m saying. We don’t need to do a city. I don’t need a master plan for New Haven today.
LK: And look what it is like.
PE: It’s awful, but they have a master plan.
LK: They had the wrong master plan. Again, you condemn the instrument, instead of condemning the idea, which ruined the town.
PE: The wrong master plan is devastating. It’s better to have no plan than a bad master plan.
LK: It’s like you have bad shoes and you condemn the shoe. Just change your shoes.
PE: It’s not so easy to get the right master plan. Here’s the way I would argue with you, given the change in my own work. I am starting to do larger-scale projects. … But I also realize that I’m not capable of operating beyond a certain scale.
LK: You are much closer to Albert Speer than you think. I am very, very far away. But a project like you did in Santiago [de Compostela in Spain], it’s a scale that is no longer the size of a building. It’s a whole landscape. At Harvard now they call it landscape urbanism.
PE: Santiago is 200,000 square meters. Six buildings. We’re doing 15 buildings in Istanbul, the same outside of Naples. We’re starting to do larger-scale projects, but they’re not what I would call master plans.
LK: So where is your limit? What is too big?
PE: I don’t know what it is.
LK: I am now your client. I have a load of funds and political pull. I ask you to design a new town for me. Would you refuse?
PE: I would say no. These towns that people are designing in China … I have some morality.
LK: Come on. I don’t believe you. I design anything I can fit on this size of paper, whether it’s a town or a chair.
PE: No, no, see, I don’t believe that. It makes a difference to scale, to the human individual. You think you could design a town—honestly, you—for three million?
LK: Yes. I am strongly convinced I can do it better than most people do.
PE: See, I don’t believe I could. Do you believe there is any urban plan since World War II of any value urbanistically?
LK: Yes, there are many. Poundbury is an important development. It’s a real city. You won’t go there; it’s not to your liking. But the master planning process works there.
PE: It’s not a question of my liking. It’s a question that you believe, you keep arguing for the present. You argue that the Nazi leaders argued for an architecture of the present. And I would argue that Poundbury is an architecture of nostalgia. There is an aesthetic at Poundbury that I don’t think is of the present.
LK: But that’s where you are wrong, because it has nothing to do with going back into the past or thinking that the past was better.
PE: I would argue that there is a difference between Poundbury and [the work done by Luigi] Moretti, [Guiseppe] Vaccaro, and [Adalberto] Libera [for Mussolini]. I think that you’re unwilling to admit that my liking for Moretti and Vaccaro is not nostalgia. It’s something else. We’re not going to talk about Speer’s plan for Berlin because I think it’s another thing: The North–South Axis is a great idea. The scale of that dome, I think, is a little big. The scale of the 405,000-seat [stadium Speer designed in Nuremberg], to me, is crazy.
LK: You would refuse to plan it.
PE: Yeah. I would. I’d plan it at 70,000. The traffic. Come on, Léon, think of it, trying to get in and out of a 405,000-seat stadium.
LK: I am not proposing it. I am just looking at it as well done. It’s a beautiful thing.