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.

More and more Germans are now involved in construction and urban planning projects abroad, and Speer, 73, is not only one of the most successful; he's a pioneer in German overseas development. He began his career abroad 40 years ago in Libya, then went on to complete projects in Saudi Arabia and later in China.

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.

Relentlessly Optimistic

But Speer doesn't have to discuss his work to be an interesting conversationalist. He could just as easily talk about the weather, German politics or the latest episode of a popular TV series. Words keep him going; they're his internal operating system. His first marriage was to a television announcer, and he has now been married to actress Ingmar Zeisberg for more than 30 years. Speer emphasizes his words with decisive gestures, looks his conversation partner in the eye and rarely falters when he speaks. He had a severe stutter as a child and young adult.

At the end of the interview, Speer decided to walk through downtown Hamburg in the rain. The idea of taking a taxi for short distances is foreign to him. Walking, observing and experiencing a city firsthand are all critical pursuits for an urban planner. He seemed in high spirits, as if convinced that his feasibility study at the next day's meeting would be well received, and that Munich would indeed enter the race for the Olympics. It didn't seem to trouble him that this initial triumph would only be a precursor to the real battle, and that he'd have to compete with other firms for the privilege of putting together the city's official Olympic bid. Despite everything -- and the fact that a decision on the 2018 Winter Games won't be made until 2011 -- Albert Speer seems relentlessly optimistic.

His vision for a Munich Winter Olympics would include new stadiums and other athletic facilities in the surrounding region. The city's Olympic Village from 1972, spruced up for the occasion, would serve as the focal point of the event. An autobahn would have to be extended to the Alps so athletes and visitors would not have to negotiate traffic jams on existing roads before a competition. Speer seems to have thought of everything, even the prospect of environmentalists blocking the autobahn expansion to protect endangered frogs. "We're familiar with this sort of problem," he says. "In fact, we've even relocated entire colonies of caterpillars."

'Haven't We Seen This Before?'

After the Breloer film, Albert Speer decided it was time to emerge from his father's shadow. But this has proven to be difficult. Britain's Sunday Times recently criticized Speer for daring to build an axis for Beijing, especially after his father had tried to ruin Berlin with his concept of enormous East-West and North-South axes. The Sunday Times journalists had not taken the trouble, says Speer, to speak with him directly, otherwise he would have told them that his axis has mystical roots. On the day after the article was published, the German tabloid Bild decided to run the same story. But the Bild journalists called Speer first and discovered that there were errors in the Sunday Times' account. Bild decided not to run the story.

Most German architects of any repute have left their mark in Berlin, but Albert Speer isn't one of them. "Speer in Berlin? We've tried that already," has been the response from various competitions. Try as he might, Speer simply can't escape his heritage.

Many who interact with Speer have the same problem. When he talks about having had to "resettle" a colony of caterpillars to build a road, his listeners can't help but cringe and be reminded of his father's human resettlement plans.

Speer is aware of this. Normally he has his guard up. When he talks about working in Libya in the 1960s, he's quick to point out that the country's dubious president, Colonel Moammar Gadhafi, wasn't in power at the time.

He also knows that because of his father he can easily become a target of criticism by working in countries that are not exactly bastions of democracy and human rights, like Saudi Arabia and China.

When asked why he does it, he says -- rather sternly for his nature -- that he wants to nudge those countries in a positive direction. He insists that his commitment is the reason why issues like environmental protection and sustainability have become so important in Chinese urban planning.

Making himself as invisible as possible is enough of a concession for Speer to his difficult heritage. Perhaps it is also his unique blend of character traits -- a mixture of caution and practical self-confidence -- that makes him successful in countries like China. He is deeply opposed to behaving as arrogantly in the Far East, as many Europeans and Americans still do today. He's familiar with the Asians' sore spots and is a careful negotiator. His personal trauma is an opportunity in other countries.

Speer owns a vacation home on a hillside on the shore of a Bavarian lake near the town of Murnau, a house he designed in a minimalist Asian style. It's small, with a lot of wood and large expanse of glass, and it almost disappears in the landscape. It's the only house Speer has designed for himself over his long career. In Frankfurt, where he lives most of the time, he and his wife rent an apartment.

His grandfather and his great-grandfather were also architects. His grandfather specialized in private homes, villas for the bourgeoisie of the day. Albert Speer likes to talk about his grandfather, his father's father.

But his favorite topic is the Olympics and the work he and his firm have ahead of them. He is 73, and he could very well live until 2018. If things happen the way he envisions them, namely, that he will be the one to develop the plans for this sporting event, at least one newspaper, alluding to the 1936 Games in Berlin, will undoubtedly print a headline reading: "Speer Plans German Games: Haven't We Seen This Before?"

Of course it would hurt him, at 84, to still be seen as the junior Speer, the demon's son. But that wouldn't prevent him from continuing to work at what he does best. What else can he do? The past has left him with not much choice but to persevere.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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