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Architecture and political legitimation.

by Peter Blundell Jones

The Nazis probably took links between architecture and society more seriously than
any regime that has ever been. Peter Blundell Jones(1) suggests that the monuments of
the Third Reich were intended to crush the citizen's sense of individuality, and that
attempts to infer that, for instance, Speer's architecture was apolitical are
The cover of Eric Hobsbawm's Age of Extremes, his admirable history of the
twentieth century, shows Hitler as caricatured by Chaplin in that memorable scene in
The Great Dictator when he plays with the globe. (2) It was a clever choice, for without
making Hitler the hero, it indicates the shadow that evil leader casts across our
century, while it also recognises the power of film as the new and dominant medium
of artistic expression. Curiously, the credit for the photo does not mention Chaplin at
all, but a film made in the 1970s: Hitler, a film from Germany in which it was
included as a quotation. This adds another layer of interpretation. The director of that
film, Hans Jurgen Syberberg, was among the most courageous of those German
artists in the last couple of decades who tried to face up squarely to the unacceptable
past. His struggle is a reminder of the acute pain still felt by Germans in relation to
their identity. In a radio interview, Syberberg spoke about the problem of Hitler
having soiled everything he touched, and having touched so much.
Knowing Hitler's fondness for Wagner's music, for example, and understanding the
way in which it seemed to encourage his sense of destiny, we can never listen to it
again with quite the same innocence. Associations stick. T. S. Eliot was surely right
when he pointed out that the addition of a new work of art changes the meanings of
all those in the tradition to which it belongs. One does not even need a new work: a
change of interpretation or even of context is enough.
Hitler held power for only 12 years and was dead before most of us were born, yet he
looms large, for he changed the world so much. We are still reeling from the extent of
the moral collapse, still shocked by how modern technology could so exaggerate the
barbarism. What makes it worse is that when Hitler came to power the Germanspeaking countries were in many ways the centre of world culture. Despite the
economic devastation of the First World War, the development of learning had
remained intact while the arts flourished to a new splendour under the Weimar
Republic. German and Austrian scientists continued to lead the world, to say nothing
of German-speaking historians and philosophers. The dominance of immigrants such
as Pevsner and Gombrich in our own culture shows how far ahead the Germanspeaking countries were in art history. They were among the thousands of
intellectuals driven out directly or indirectly by Hitler. In a short time the Nazis
dismantled so much. How could such unprincipled crooks and bullies have been
allowed to wreak such havoc? More to the point, how can we ensure that it does not
happen again?

As architects, we need to tease out just what the connection might be between fascist
architecture and fascist politics. This is clearest in the most extreme examples - the
official architecture of the Nazi party as exemplified by the work of Paul Troost and
Albert Speer. There seems to be a strong connection between the buildings and the
regime, but it is less easy to prove than one might at first expect, and it has been
thrown into question altogether by some in recent years. Leon Krier, for example,
suggested in the AR that Hitler's admiration of Classicism was merely incidental. (3)
He has tried to depoliticise Speer and rehabilitate him as a mainstream Neo-Classical
architect. At the other extreme we have a historian like Bruno Zevi who sees fascism
not only in the axes and formality of Classicism but even in something as elementary
as the use of bilateral symmetry - he actually writes of symmetry being 'pathological'.
For some, the use of a Modernist vocabulary by Terragni for a building like the Casa
del Fascio in Como seems to indicate that there is no clear connection between style
and politics, yet for Giancarlo De Carlo, the Italian architect who fought with the
partisans and has always been determinedly anti-fascist, there is an implicit fascism
not only in the original Rationalist work but even in more recent Neo-Rationalist
work such as that of Rossi and Grassi.
To try to unravel the issues, we must start with the question of styles. In Italy, the
progressive image of Modernism was adopted by the Fascists as it arose, but in
Germany much Modernist architecture had been produced by left-wing cities and
building societies in the late 1920s, so the associations were different. Even so, the
regime defined its artistic policies only gradually. If the Nazis had wanted at the
outset to impose a style, one might have expected Paul Schulze-Naumburg to be
taken up.
The protege of Rosenberg, he was the darling of the party right, and had also been a
scourge of Modernism from the mid 1920s. He had long been a champion of a NeoClassical - or perhaps more accurately Neo-Baroque - style backed up with the
crudest racist arguments set out in such books as The Face of the German House. But
he never found favour with Hitler or received any important commissions. Probably
Hitler did not care for Schulze-Naumburg's work, but he also liked to play Rosenberg
off against Goebbels: there was a surprising degree of divide and rule at the top of the
party. Goebbels, on the left of the party (if one can speak in such terms) was
sympathetic to the Modernists, and included works by Nolde and Barlach - two artists
later defined as degenerate - in an official exhibition. He gave hope to the Modernists
in the early days of the regime and encouraged both Mies and Gropius to contribute to
the 1934 exhibition Deutsches Volk, Deutsche Arbeit run by the Nazi organisation
'Kraft durch Freude'.
Both Modernists also submitted entries to the competition for the National Bank of
1933 and Mies almost won, indeed only the personal intervention of Hitler prevented
him getting the prize. In retrospect this was a vital turning point. Had the decision
gone the other way, Mies could perhaps have become a major official architect of the
Third Reich, for political scruples would probably not have stopped him. (4) The
implicit monumentality and anonymity of his work could have been appropriate to the

regime, while the expression of the latest technology would have added a suitably
progressive note. But Hitler's tastes were too bourgeois and backward looking, and
this was not at all accidental: it was part of his unerring political instinct. Things
known and respected by the masses, if only subliminally, had to be cited to impress
and to inspire respect. The regime needed a past more than it needed a future,
memory more than aspiration.
Hitler was not the first leader to borrow forms from antiquity to substantiate his
authority and to give it a pedigree, and he was not the last. Indeed, most societies
have to invent and reinvent their traditions and they adjust their myths of origins and
their use of relics accordingly. (5) Architecture plays a major role in this process
because it has always been one of our main repositories of long-term memory, while
it also frames and shapes our rituals.
Stone is among the most enduring of materials, especially when laid heavy and flat,
and it gives us a potent reminder of the passage of time. Stone buildings therefore
indicate age and stability. Greek and Roman temples are engraved in popular
conssciousness as the most ancient and venerable buildings of Western Civilisation.
Whatever they originally meant, they have become symbols of permanence and
authority, and re-use of their forms for palaces or town halls has reinforced the
connection. When one runs across fragments of a Roman city one is also impressed
by the scale of the operation and the single-mindedness of it. Such large-scale plans
consistently carded out require and reflect a high degree of political organisation,
usually involving a hierarchical power structure. The spatial order tends to reflect the
social order, whether one is looking at a Roman camp, Baroque Karlsruhe, or even
Power and technique
With Roman ruins, even the sheer size of the single stones impresses, because it
shows a scale of building technology far beyond that of the medieval or modern
fabric lying adjacent. The organisation of technique in itself is an expression of
power, and since it is the main reason for the building's persistence, it becomes also
an expression of longevity. That large single-minded projects carried out in a short
time by emperors and dictators were also often achieved by slave labour is no
coincidence, and in such cases self-expression by the builders or even displays of
their skill could obviously not be encouraged. This is the opposite of the Ruskinian
ideal according to which a fellowship of craftsmen produces a much differentiated
whole, combining individual contributions in a collective effort for the expression of
common beliefs and aspirations. The cumulative quirkiness of Gothic, which at close
quarters dissolves the unity of the whole into a thousand individual gestures of
worship, would be of no use to a dictator, especially one like Hitler. His selfappointed mission was to unify the nation, which left little room for individual
expression. The party appeared in uniform, and it was something of a shock when
these uniforms took over the Reichstag, indicating that members were no longer
present as individuals, but only as party representatives.(6) Unity meant excluding all
other groups and conflicting views: one party, one nation, one leader.

Hitler had wanted to be an architect, and even sketched designs. As soon as he gained
the power to build, he cast around for a suitable architect, lighting in Munich upon the
unlikely figure of Paul Troost, who was neither young nor notably successful, and
who died before his first large projects for Hitler were complete. But Troost provided
just the image that Hitler wanted, and his manner was skilfully developed by the
young Albert Speer.
What was it about Troost's work that so attracted Hitler? Not just the Neo-Classicism,
evidently, which could be found in many other forms, but perhaps more the sheer
spareness of it, stripped to the bone, the relentless repetition and the deliberate
overscaling. The Haus der Deutschen Kunst in Munich, for example, is a grim
building, utterly forbidding in its monumentality. There are no cosy corners for
moments of relief, and no fine detail. Indeed, every element is enormous, suitable for
the giant's castle in Jack and the Beanstalk. The doors are enormous but so are the
half-metre high door hinges and their great screw heads. There is an awesome
melancholy power about it, and the knowledge that such great doors and columns
once honoured the Gods of past civilisations makes one worry about twentiethcentury Gods on earth.
Another important work of Troost in Munich was the pair of temples to celebrate the
heroes of the failed putsch of 1923. Again the language is stripped Classicism, and
there is an element of deliberate ruin, for the temples were roofless, leaving the tombs
of the heroes open to the rain and frost - such stalwarts would bear it unflinchingly for
the sake of their Fuhrer. The site of these temples is also significant. They completed
one side of Konigsplatz, an axially placed square in which von Klenze's Glyptothek
(perhaps the best Neo-Classical building in Munich) also stands. This square was
intended as the focus of party events using Klenze's monument as a legitimating
backdrop, just as Schinkel's Altes Museum in Berlin was used for the May day
ceremonies there.(7)
After Troost died in 1934, Speer quickly picked up and developed the architectural
style that the older man had invented. He had been well prepared to do so in the role
of student, then of teaching assistant under Heinrich Tessenow, a hitherto rather
sensitive architect who had developed a taste for austere and minimal NeoClassicism. In the early 1930s, Tessenow won the competition for the reconstruction
of the interior of Schinkel's Neue Wache as a monument to the dead of the First
World War. He made it a stark and simple box with sheer stone walls and he set in the
middle a stone cube with a simple wreath on it.
Above was a circular skylight. It was altered under the Communists, but now the
room has been restored, only with a Kathe Kollwitz sculpture in the middle. It has a
strange scale and a quite remarkable poignancy: the monumentality is not overbearing
but quietly dignified. You can see in it precisely what Albert Speer took from
Tessenow, but the master had a delicacy of touch and sense of humanity quite missing
from his pupil.

Speer was a wonderful organiser, and won favour at first within the Nazi party for
some refurbishments done with speed and efficiency. But very early on he also started
to make suggestions for the staging of the party rallies at Nuremberg. It was Speer in
1933 who suggested the arrangement of triple banners behind the Fuhrer's podium,
and Speer who later developed the idea of the so-called Cathedral of Ice using
military searchlights at night to create the impression of gigantic columns. (8)
Triumph of the Will
The most impressive record we have of a Nazi rally is Leni Riefenstahl's film
Triumph of the Will, showing the rally of 1934. No doubt her skilful camerawork and
editing exaggerates the effect, but the whole thing was remarkably well
choreographed and Speer's settings also come across as enormously powerful. They
got it worked out between them in the nick of time, for the first rally in 1933 had been
a somewhat ragged and disorderly affair. Riefenstahl was there and shot a lot of
footage, but it was not usable. Triumph of the Will was the result of a second attempt.
It is something to get so many thousands of people together on a field to concentrate
on one person speaking, and the effect is greatly intensified when the crowd is in
uniform, set out in orderly rows according to rank and file, and when everyone is
programmed to execute synchronised manoeuvres, with marching figures creating
formal patterns as a great human sculpture. Such events need to be co-ordinated in
time and space, and this is where the architecture comes in. For the space to seem
unified, it needs to be framed and defined as a single room, in which the whole party
supposedly representing the whole German people - is symbolically gathered. To
make it read clearly and to give the Fuhrer an appropriate degree of prominence, his
podium needs to be on the central axis. Behind the Fuhrer are the three swastika
banners, Speer's first invention.
At the height of the ceremony the axis was so-to-speak sanctified by being walked by
the Fuhrer personally while the massed ranks of party members to either side waited
in respectful silence. Hitler was accompanied by two of his henchmen, to each side
and slightly behind, for if completely alone he might have seemed too small, yet five
walkers would have been too many. Three also fits in with the banners behind. The
end of the journey at the opposite end of the axis was the centre of the other side of
the giant room. Here was built a kind of temple for fallen heroes with an eternal flame
of remembrance. A break in the leader's address was a pause for contemplation, but
the visit to the temple, equal and opposite to the podium, also provided a chance for
the Fuhrer himself to adopt a momentary humility, showing respect to the memory of
the dead. Were these again the heroes of the party who died in the 1923 putsch, or
were they all the German soldiers who died in the First World War?
The Nazis were somewhat obsessed with death, perhaps because only in death would
all loyal party members come perfectly together, dissolving all individual differences.
Hitler and Speer were fascinated by monumental architecture the architecture of death
because such architecture stresses the totality, the whole party, the whole people.
Some interesting light was thrown on this in an anthropological study of death by
Maurice Bloch and Jonathan Parry. (9) They report on various societies with a double

funeral custom, and argue that this was once much more widespread than now, if not
universal. The first funeral focuses on the loss of the individual in a way that is
familiar to us, and he or she is buried. Sometime later the bones are exhumed for the
second funeral: the occasion when the bones are added to others in the ancestral tomb.
The second ceremony is almost the opposite of the first, for it celebrates not the
individual but the family or clan aS a whole. Hitler's totalitarian regime could borrow
the trappings of the second funeral to stress that the individual is nothing, while the
state is everything.
Inventing tradition
Just as the Nazi regime looked to a millennial future, it had to have a past, a tradition,
a sense of honour. The leader could suggest that he was merely the instrument of a
greater cause, the holder of an office that would transcend him. The slow respectful
walk down the axis at Nuremberg caused everyone to wait, showed their
concentration, while it also defined the space of the assembly ground. Had Hitler
merely stayed at one end, it would have had no centre. Had he walked around it in a
disorganised way chatting to groups of party members here and there, there would
have been no compelling unity. The active establishment of the central axis gave
measure and definition to the space. Adding to the spatial unity of the party gathered
in the single room of the Zeppelinfeld was a temporal unity linking them with the
immemorial German past. The new stone buildings with their sense of permanence
could have been there for centuries and seemed certain to persist for centuries to
come, the axis walked ceremoniously by the great leader and his successors annually,
each time receiving a new breath of life. The buildings were not only supposed to
represent the thousand-year-Reich but to persist as impressive ruins. In the event they
became ruins earlier than expected.
Doubtless the great axis planned by Hitler and Speer for Berlin would have served a
similar ritual purpose at an even larger scale. The leader's speeches would have
happened in the great hall at the bend of the Spree, while the heroes were to be
remembered in the great triumphal arch, again at opposite ends of an axis, though
now so large that it would have to be a motorised parade. The extreme scale is
something nobody can miss. Both Hitler and Speer were intoxicated with it. In Inside
the Third Reich, Speer reels off the vital statistics of the world monuments of the past,
and states quite unequivocally that he and Hitler were out to beat the record. (10) Beside
the proposal for Berlin there was also to be a gigantic new stadium to admit even
more people for the Nuremberg rallies, and to provide a venue for the Olympic
Games, which were supposed to happen in Germany for ever more.(11)
Understanding the Nazi use of axes and symmetry, some have condemned these as
necessarily fascistic devices. Bilateral symmetry does make an axis visible, and axes
are inherently hierarchical, but they are widespread in architecture and hardly to be
avoided. It can be argued that axiality begins with the first rectangular room, for if it
is other than square there is always a long axis and a short axis, and the longer is the
more important. If a door is made, the most important position for it is in the centre.
These things are transposed directly from our own experience of being in the world in

our largely symmetrical bodies. Important things go on the ends of axes: fireplaces,
altars, windows, the best painting in the room, father's seat at the head of the table,
and of course the leader's desk. The axis gives precedence to the things placed at its
culmination, and the things can give precedence to the axis: it is a reciprocal
The authority of a judge in a law court depends on the occupation of the highest seat
on axis, and the spatial layout helps define roles of all other participants. This has to
be done clearly and quickly, for they are strangers to each other, and yet are dealing
with life-and-death issues on behalf of society. Justice must be seen to be done.
The architectural framing which supports authority can easily lend itself to overauthoritarian abuse. Was this not precisely the case with the Zeppelinfeld and the
Nazi proposals for Berlin? These architectural settings played a significant role in
substantiating a criminal regime and anaesthetising people's sense of personal
responsibility, in making them part of a hysterical and malleable mass. The
architecture not only has these associations because of the way it was used: it carries
excessively authoritarian implications in itself. As a party member at Nuremburg, you
would be carried away by the spectacle of the all-powerful: as a secret dissident, you
would find it deeply alienating and threatening. In both cases it achieved its objective.







Edited text of a lecture given for the Twentieth Century Society on 20/1/96 at the symposium
Architecture in Uniform, Festival Hall, London.
Eric Hobsbawm The Age of Extremes: the short Twentieth Century 1914-1991, Michael Joseph, London
See Krier on Speer, AR February 1983.
See Elaine S. Hochman Architects of Fortune:Mies van der Role and the Third Reich.
For accounts of nineteenth-century British inventions and reinventions, see Eric Hobsbawm and Terence
Ranger, eds. The invention of tradition, CUP 1983.
Conversely, Moseley's Blackshirts were stopped in this country precisely by forbidding them to wear
uniforms in public.
See Iain Boyd-Whyte's essay 'Berlin, 1 May 1936' in the Art and Power catalogue, South Bank Centre,
1995, pp43-49.
For Speer's own account of his entry into providing the settings for rallies see his Inside the Third Reich,
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London 1970, p26.
In their book Death and the Regeneration of Life.
See Speer, Inside the Third Reich, pp67-68.
Ibid, p70.

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Publication Information: Article Title: Architecture and Political Legitimation. Contributors: Peter
Blundell Jones - author. Magazine Title: The Architectural Review. Volume: 200. Issue: 1193. Publication
Date: July 1996. Page Number: 64+. COPYRIGHT 1996 EMAP Architecture; COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale