Léon Krier does not seem to dislike modern architecture as much as I do, but he may dislike it with much more passion. The architectural theorist, master planner of Prince Charles’s new town Poundbury, and practitioner of his own edgy brand of classicism finds it easier to find a way to praise some early modernists that I find it easier to deplore, even Corbusier and Mies. His disapproval of modern architecture is much more detailed, nuanced and comprehensive than my own. My eyes are hurt by it but his soul is hurt by it. Therefore, he has the intellectual chops to level praise as he likes. This would include praising the talent of a monster like Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect.
Krier wrote a book, Albert Speer: Architecture 1932-1942, reissued in 2013, on Speer’s work, and that same year delivered this lecture on Speer at Yale. Given the spirit of the age in the groves of academe, I am surprised the lecture was allowed to proceed.
Here are several passages from Krier’s talk:
The book’s intention is not at all to applaud violence and the Nazi system, but to show how far it is a modern system. It is a modernist system and the success of it is absolutely modern. There is nothing traditional about Nazi society, just the emblems and some of the signs and the uniforms, but it is an extremely modern system, extremely modernist in fact, and the classicism was really only a very small byproduct which was reserved for special occasions. The main question the book addresses is can a war criminal be a great artist? The answer is yes. …
What I tried to prove was that he was an extraordinary talent. The question is what do we do, morally, when realizing that someone has extraordinary talent while being a war criminal. He was deeply involved in the Holocaust, the destruction of the Jews, there is no doubt and I never doubted it, and I never believed the story Speer recounted in his memoirs, and [in an interview] I told him so. I said I don’t believe your story, it was just a way to save your skin. It is impossible that you wouldn’t know what happened in the death camps. But he is a great architect. So the question is why can’t we admire a great architect who is a criminal? …
Why was classicism uniquely associated to a criminal regime, and condemned, never to be practiced anymore without bad conscience, excuses or justifications? Why just architecture? Why not the motorways? Why not the Volkswagen? Why not the industries that built the bombs, the industrial methods that set up Auschwitz and destroyed the Jews? How is it possible that we accept as innocent, as morally neutral, the modern technology which served to conquer, bomb and kill, and condemn as morally guilty the architecture, which served a symbolic purpose, is still not worked up nor integrated. We live still in that confusion.
It must be clear to anyone who has thought about this honestly that we are still in this confusion because demonizing traditional architecture by any means, fair or foul, is necessary to maintain modern architecture as the establishment of the profession. Honesty would compel fairness in the treatment of architectural style, would require, for the first time in many decades, leveling the playing field for major commissions. Given the heavy and longstanding preference of the public for tradition, fairness would doom modern architecture to a far lower status in the design and construction of our built environment.
Mr. Krier’s lecture video was very informative, and persuasive in some respects. Speer’s buildings such as the Zeppelinfeld Tribune were beyond monumental; they were designed to convey overwhelming bombast. Krier showed they were not larger in scale than other buildings in the U.S. and Europe. Speer achieved his oppressive, frightening effects partly through size, but also through design, and that took a certain kind of skill.
It was also interesting that the style of some Nazi factories was unalloyed modernism, and that Hitler’s own taste moved over time toward more reductive, mechanical styles applied to ever more vast structures.
I cannot see how Speer cannot be regarded as a classicist for clearly he is using the rhetorical power of classical form to impress and gain effect. He is not a modernist. The fuhrer hated modernism of any kind. His architecture belongs to the entirely respectable genre of stripped classicism that was fashionable at the time of its building. Earlier precedents were in the neo-classicism of Boulee and Ledoux and these used the giantism that Speer favored. I think there is little doubt that Speer was influenced by these architects. But working in a respectable style does not necessary mean he is any good. I think Steven Semes is right in that Speer’s work is bombastic and inhuman – perfectly reflecting the regime that sponsored his work. The fascist architecture of Italy is far superior and I admit to liking a lot of it.
I think, Peter, that Speer’s architecture is classical but influenced by the modernist challenge of the time in ways similar to the architecture of Cret (especially his Federal Reserve Building). Steve, too, calls Speer’s work “bombastic,” and that’s one word that may be used. Another would be monumental, designed to reflect a society expected (by its founder, at least) to last for a thousand years. I do not buy into the idea that its grand scale necessarily makes it “inhuman.” Maybe it does, but maybe not. I am not able really to talk intelligently to whether Speer is a “great” architect or artist, but I think it is important to fight the modernist trope that all traditional architecture since World War II (and from now on) is tainted by some intrinsic relationship to Nazi classicism, which seems to me to be a matter independent of the answer to that question of Speer’s talent.
Steven Semes interestingly has vis a vis this issue the same feelings that Sorkin expressed in The Nation, Michael Wise in the WSJ and James Russell in Architectural Record. They all deny even the possibility of Speer being great artist. I can only answer that if one cannot accept such a possibility, one should just imagine for an instant that Speer was a great architect and urbanist. What then?
Stating that a criminal cannot be a great artist is an interesting theory but I have never seen it openly stated nor defended nor demonstrated.
In the infinity of character and characteristic that is the human race, I think it is obvious that a criminal (even a monster clearly evil) can be a great artist. Insert the word “genius.” Nobody ever challenges the plausibility of the characterization “evil genius” as a type of character (leaving aside whether any given person merits that characterization) – which means evil great artist is equally plausible.
Whether Speer was a great architect or whether his architecture qualifies as classical I don’t feel as qualified to say. Both Leon and Steve make good cases for the latter, and Leon makes a good or at least a plausible case – so far as I can tell – for the former.
David, you might find relevant my review of Leon’s book in The Classicist, Number 11, in which I argue that Speer was not a classical architect and therefore can neither be praised nor blamed as one. It is important to understand the distinction between style and character: Even if one believed Speer’s work classical on a stylistic basis (and I argue that it is not), the real problem with his projects for Berlin is their horrifying character, which has to do with scale, expression, and intent more than with the historical sources of compositional or ornamental motifs used. Reaching for the architectural sublime is fundamentally problematic within classicism, which retains a vital connection with humanism and, therefore, the natural endowments of human perception, movement, and sense of being “at home.” An environment designed to dehumanize cannot be humanistic, by definition. I disagree with Leon about Speer being a “great artist” and think that continuing this argument does nothing to advance the classical cause. Instead, it “muddies the waters” even more than they already are. Anyway, that’s my view.
Interesting view, Steve. I can’t say whether Speer was a great artist, or a classicist. I think Leon makes a strong case. But I think it is obvious that a monster can be a great artist, which does not necessarily mean Speer was one. I believe the debate is interesting and useful because the idea that classicism is illegitimate is widespread among those with self-interested motives to condemn classicism, but also, of much greater concern, those who know only that Speer was a Nazi and leap to the conclusion that his architecture was evil. It is useful to the classical revival to combat that idea, and I don’t think that doing so muddies the waters, which need very much to be unmuddied on this score. Regardless of whether Speer was a great artist or not, you and I surely must agree on that.
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