Improving on the Nazi Past: Albert Speer's Son, Urban Planner
German urban planners have never been as active worldwide as they are today, and Albert Speer is the protagonist in the current success story. The son of the Nazi architect of the same name is preparing a new Olympic bid for Munich, has the ear of Moscow's mayor -- and is designing entire cities for the Chinese.
He changes the world wherever he goes, and yet he takes pains to keep as low a profile as possible. He builds new cities from scratch in China. As an advisor to Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, he is planning an entire neighborhood for the Russian capital. He has dreamed up a magnificent waterfront promenade for the Azerbaijani capital Baku, bringing the city's downtown area closer to the water. And in Nigeria he is designing an entire city to house half a million residents.
In Russia he plans luxury vacation villages in the country's most beautiful spots, from the Black Sea to Kaliningrad to the Altai Mountains. The ministry of economic development in Moscow wants to encourage Russians to get to know the charms of their own country instead of vacationing in places like Turkey. The hope is that urban planner Albert Speer will manage to convince affluent Russians to stay home.
Speer owns a firm in Frankfurt with seven partners that employs more than 100 people. But he keeps a low profile, in part because his father was the legendary architect for Hitler who famously designed parade grounds for Nazi rallies and the buildings and layout for a notoriously grandiose, sanitized postwar vision of Berlin called Germania.
Today the younger Speer's employees find themselves often in China. Right now they're working on a 120-square-kilometer (46-square-mile) automotive city that will border Changchun, a Chinese industrial center. To keep pace with the enormous project, Speer has opened an office in Shanghai.
But Speer has never lost interest in Germany. In Frankfurt, where he and Mayor Petra Roth are discussing plans for the gleaming financial center's future 20 years from now, Speer envisions a more concentrated city and less of a sprawling metropolis. Part of the plan would involve the development of new residential and commercial buildings on former harbor and railroad sites. Cologne also wants to bring more order to its hodgepodge of a downtown, and Speer's job is to provide the group with a "binding" concept for the city center.
A poorly planned city is easy enough to recognize. But in an effectively designed city, the imprint of its architects and urban planners is almost immeasurable. The well-planned city is one in which seeming contradictions have been harmonized so they are no longer perceived as contradictory; it is a city that seems natural and spontaneous. Speer likes to point out that his work is invisible, and that by creating master plans he merely provides the canvas for others -- architects, road buildings, spatial planners -- to embellish with more evident creations.
Outside his profession, for example, hardly anyone noticed that a man named Speer developed the master plan for Munich's famous new football stadium. He created the space and access roads for the tire-shaped structure that has become an icon of modern architecture and has given Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron world-class reputations.
In addition to master plans, Speer's office develops buildings, but he admits to personally avoiding architecture. Speer, in fact, has good reason to keep his role more or less invisible.
A Terrible Shadow
The elder Albert Speer was not only Hitler's architect but also his minister for armaments and war production, and perhaps his only friend. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison by the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal. Nowadays, the younger Speer prefers not to discuss his father. "I am 73, and at that age you become tired of always being treated as the son of someone else," he says. Of course, perceiving Speer in relation to his demonic father is as unavoidable as it is unfitting.
In the early days of his career, he deliberately participated in anonymous competitions so that he would never have to feel that he had lost or, even worse, won, because of his father. For decades he barely mentioned the older man. But eight years ago he decided to discuss the topic at length in an interview with SPIEGEL magazine. When the interview was published, Speer was surprised to find that it had not damaged the way he was perceived in the public eye. He became more candid about himself and his family history. A TV documentary in 2005 called "Speer und Er" (or "Speer and Hitler -- the Devil's Architect") sparkles with contemporary-witness interviews from Speer fils as well as his sister, Berlin sociologist Hilde Schramm, and their brother, Arnold Speer, a doctor.
"The truth is that we had no other choice," says the younger Albert Speer. The documentary, by director Heinrich Breloer, won the German Television Prize. Viewers could hardly have been unimpressed by the testimony of the visibly shaken Speer siblings.
Late last week, Speer traveled to Hamburg to present the representatives of German athletic associations with a feasibility study for a Winter Olympics in Munich. The officials, together with Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, had gathered in Hamburg to discuss whether the Bavarian state capital should throw its hat into the ring for the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Speer met with SPIEGEL again for a lunchtime interview during those negotiations. He made sure to have a view of Hamburg's Speicherstadt (a downtown area under renovation) from the restaurant, so he could observe traffic on the street and people walking by. He seemed to enjoy the feeling of being at the center of things, in the middle of a vibrant city. He studied the menu and picked dishes to suit the mood: a "bit of soup," he said, was just the right thing for a cold day, followed by seafood, a logical choice in a port city like Hamburg. He talked about his everyday life. The world, in Speer's description, is truly a global village. He talked about trips, say, from Moscow to Riyadh as if they were jaunts between neighboring cities.
- Part 1: Albert Speer's Son, Urban Planner
- Part 2: Relentlessly Optimistic
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