By Alexander Smoltczyk
It's April 10, and the renowned German architect Albert Speer is standing at the podium in the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Doha, Qatar. Above him, visions appear and disappear again in the matte colors of a computer projector: images of stadiums, terminals, sports arenas, glass towers and entire cities. They are the worlds of an architect, oddly neat-looking spaces in which attractive people stand together in groups.
Company representatives, including suppliers of specialty steel, legal advisers and logistics experts, are crowded into the room. They meet here once a month, and they come armed with stacks of business cards and determined not to miss out on anything at the region's most lucrative construction project: the $140 billion (113 billion) plan to hold the 2022 World Cup in the tiny country of Qatar.
To anyone outside the conference room at the Grand Hyatt, the idea makes about as much sense as having the small and flat northern German coastal city of Flensburg apply to host the Winter Olympics.
"Major events like the Olympics or the World Cup make the unthinkable thinkable," Speer says as he presses a button on the projector's remote control. "There are no taboos. Fixed dates are very helpful when it comes to rebuilding a city."
Speer has a good reputation in the region. He provides master plans, feasibility studies, site analyses and planning for major events. He does and offers everything, from the big-picture concepts down to detailed plans: a new city of 3 million close to Cairo, a new capital for Nigeria, an automobile city for 50,000 people near Shanghai, a kindergarten in a town near Frankfurt, the Expo in Hanover and the Olympic bids of Leipzig, Munich and Baku.
Industry insiders say that few Germans are as good at building cities as Speer and his 120 employees at Albert Speer & Partners in Frankfurt. Speer, 77, is credited with having introduced the idea of "sustainability" into urban planning back when Germans still associated the term with forestry. The influential German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung calls him the "green conscience of the industry."
What brought him to Doha?
Speer talks about thinking in cycles and keeping spaces open, protecting resources, "decentralized concentration" and the "emotions" that all construction must trigger in people. He is speaking in English and without notes.
The conference manager had introduced this older man, as he walked energetically up to the podium, as "Professor Speer," pronouncing his name -- incorrectly -- like the word "spear." "Young people must acquire a sense for victories and defeats, the rigors and endurance of sports," Speer says at the end of his keynote address.
The audience gives him a standing ovation. He only came because of Albert Speer, says Bernd-Wolfgang Wink, who represents a company from Montabaur, a town in western Germany. And then he says, by way of explanation: "After all, he's a historic figure."
He is referring, of course, to the other Albert Speer.
It's difficult to write about an urban planner named Albert Speer without thinking of the other architect with the same name. It is unfair to have to think, when shaking Albert Speer Jr.'s hand, about whose hand this man shook as a young boy at the Obersalzberg retreat, where Adolf Hitler has his mountain residence. But, like many other things that are supposed to belong to the past but still linger on, the thought is hard to dispel.
The other Albert Speer was the minister of armaments in the Third Reich, the planner of Hitler's pantheons and the projected rebuilding of the German capital Berlin known as "Germania." That Speer has nothing to do with this Albert Speer speaking at the Grand Hyatt in Doha -- except that he was his father.
A Building Race in the Desert
Two oddly serrated official buildings are visible from the Grand Hyatt, jutting from the horizon in the distance. For architects and urban planners, a desert must be like a giant drawing board. In the shimmering haze, there is a fleet of bulldozers silently moving piles of sand around. In this place, history is something still ahead of you rather than a burden you have to drag around like a slab of concrete.
The next morning, the Gulf Times reports that Qatar's national budget has exceeded all expectations in the current fiscal year. Owing to high oil prices, revenues are twice as high as expected.
Qatar is a country with about 300,000 very wealthy citizens -- and many foreigners who do all the work. Qatar's per capita income is now higher than that of Luxembourg. There could hardly be a better place for people who give keynote addresses in five-star hotels and talk about sustainability and the "new Silk Roads of knowledge."
Oil prices that climbed from $30 to $80 to $130 a barrel have spawned a new type of ruler in the Gulf region in the last 20 years, including the Maktoums in Dubai, the Nahyans in Abu Dhabi, the Thanis in Qatar and Sultan Qaboos in Oman. They are men now around the age of 60 who were often trained at British military academies. They grew up with the certainty that they would always have enough money to fulfill their every desire.
The racetracks and palaces have now been built. But cities are bigger than palaces.
When the late French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu spoke of "symbolic capital," he was referring to the things that the nouveau riche buy when their garages are full and they still feel that they are not gaining sufficient respect from their peers. These people usually launch charities or collect major pieces of art. A similar dynamic applies to countries.
This generation of rulers in the Persian Gulf region is in the midst of a building race that often takes the shape of obsessive modernizing and rivalries over who can build the tallest skyscraper, who can assemble the most successful Champions League soccer club, who has the largest deep-water port or airport, or who has a Guggenheim museum. It's about who can create the most sustainable green city or the fastest Formula One racetrack -- or, ideally, has both things next to each other, as is the case in Abu Dhabi.
Many small countries suffer from an inferiority complex, believing they do not receive enough attention and therefore feeling the need to somehow aggrandize themselves. Perhaps it's a survival strategy.
To make sure they get enough attention, rulers hire so-called "starchitects," such as Norman Foster, I.M. Pei, Jean Nouvel, Rem Koolhaas, who always wear the all-black uniform of the world's top building designers. This type of architecture, says British city planning critic Deyan Sudjic, is always about the same things: power, fame, spectacle, remembrance and identity.
Of course, these days, it's all about sustainable power and sustainable spectacle. "I love the Arabs," says Speer after the conference, as he walks down the wide staircase to the lobby, a hangar-sized room filled with the sound of burbling water and the scent of Omani incense. He likes the light here, and he likes rulers who can still have the courage to make plans.
Speer has nothing against big projects. "They simply want to show everyone what they can do," he says. "It's like the church tower in the past: When something's flat, no one sees it." The only caveat, he adds, is that this type of construction must include a "human dimension." It's a very German concept -- and a very postwar-German one at that.
He doesn't like the fact that Dubai's skyscrapers have been built so closely together, calling them "the slums of the 21st century." He has written a book, "The Intelligent City," about the arrogance of architects. The city planner makes proposals, he says, nothing more.
Speer doesn't use the usual architects' jargon. He speaks with a slight accent from the Germany's southwestern Palatinate region, and he occasionally trips over words starting with vowels before making an almost imperceptible legato between them.
In fact, Speer says it was his stutter that led him to drop out of school and start an apprenticeship in carpentry in nearby Heidelberg. "The piece I made for my journeyman's exam was a music cabinet, which I designed in accordance with the rules of the Golden Ratio, with a pear-wood veneer and inlaid walnut veins," he says. "But it was just the shell and never installed," he adds -- in other words, just a proposal.
Speer talks about his 1958 trip to Ankara on his Lambretta motor scooter. He traveled without a helmet and with the firm goal of leaving everything behind. He admits that he was driven by a spirit of adventure, saying: "I wanted to get out and see something different." Speer's father was still in Berlin's Spandau Prison at the time, where he spent more than 20 years. He was one of the highest-ranking Nazi officials to have survived the war and the subsequent war crimes trials in Nuremberg.
The younger Speer always refused to take the easy route, for example, by changing his name. Instead, he altered his signature so that it didn't include his father's large, pointed A. "Ultimately it's about how you shape your own life," says Speer.
One of Speer's partners says that it "obviously bothers him to be referred to as 'Junior' at his age" and adds that it's "understandable." Speer once told the architecture critic Gerhard Matzi that he had spent his entire life trying to distance himself from this father.
His sister Hilde became an education researcher and a member of the city-state of Berlin's parliament for an environmentalist party. A younger brother became a doctor and applied to change his first name. He had been named Adolf.
Escaping History Abroad
The Arab world brought Speer success and happiness. By happenstance, he secured a major commission in Libya, which was still a kingdom at the time, followed by ones in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. He became captivated by the Middle East. He liked the region, its light, culture, clothing and heat. He talks about how the king of Saudi Arabia receives his subjects once a month: "Everyone is admitted and heard. These are completely different ways of thinking."
The diplomatic district of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia's capital city -- and one whose public squares still host beheadings -- is Speer's favorite former project. "We were able to achieve a mixed-use development, a neighborhood in which 70 percent of residents are Saudis and with a water-management system that was unheard of in the Arab world at the time."
Some of his clients have been overthrown in rebellions in recent months or are now in relatively more precarious situations. The urban populations were no longer willing to have their lives dictated to them.
"We wouldn't have worked for Gadhafi," he says. "We have been working in Saudi Arabia since 1977, and we'll continue to do so." In fact, Speer has a rule of thumb: "Generally speaking, Germans should be able to work in countries with a German embassy."
Indeed, one senses that he's clearly had enough of this debate. "We are doing something for the people when we develop a master plan for 4 to 6 million residents in Alexandria," he says. "This has very little to do with politics."
Speer grew up the eldest of six children in Berchtesgaden, the town in the Bavarian Alps right below what would become Hitler's mountain retreat. His grandfather was an architect, and so was his father, who would become the general building inspector for Berlin and, later, Hitler's minister in charge of armaments and wartime production. The young Speer was often at Obersalzberg, where Hitler would give him candies while his father explained the plans for the new capital, Germania, to the "nice uncle." "Our big cities today have no monuments that dominate the city landscape, and that could somehow be seen as emblems of the entire time," Hitler wrote in his polemic "Mein Kampf."
"Politicians intentionally exploit architecture to seduce, impress and intimidate," writes Deyan Sudjic, the city planning critic, citing an example from Speer's family history: the Reich Chancellery in Berlin. Its entrance was designed to make every visitor feel tiny.
Speer says monuments don't interest, and that he prefers to leave them to architects like Jean Nouvel, Norman Foster and Zaha Hadid. Though he doesn't like monumentality for its own sake, Speer still isn't afraid of size of a project and everything it involves. He is more interested in a city's complexity than in the aesthetics of individual buildings.
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