Rambling Ruins


An exploration of the architecture of Nazi Germany.

Through moldering archways and crumbling columns wind grim and mossy paths, streaking their way past ancient Corinthian capitals and decayed statues and all the detritus of the ancient world. This is the ruin archetypical, the classic picture of the remnants of the classical world, assembled for future generations to stare at and journey through, overawed at the grandeur of the empires that once were. Aesthetic comment aside, however, the architects and engineers of both past and present do not design their buildings with this ideal directly in mind: indeed, ruins for them stand as much a symbol of impermanence, of the fleeting nature of even the greatest human constructions, as of the endurance of empires past. For one uniquely modern regime, however, the idea of the ruin held great promise not only for its ruler, but for its chief architect as well. Before tearing through Europe in a spree of conquering, Nazi Germany in general and Adolf Hitler in particular were obsessed with the preservation of their thousand-year Reich in brick and stone. And in the architecture they left behind lies the same lessons inherent in all ruins: a reflection of culture, of occasional triumph, but inevitably also of downfall.

Certainly Hitler had at least some more background than most in the arduous task of designing a comprehensive architectural style for the Third Reich — the classic portrait of Hitler as art-school-failure-turned-dictator already does enough to support such an idea. Indeed, even his failure to enter art school was in some ways fueled by his own interest in architecture: the pastoral unpopulated watercolors of buildings and cottages he submitted to the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna were ultimately rejected for being an architectural rather than artistic portfolio. These early paintings do reflect Hitler’s future predilections for both the pastoral and the grand, with rural landscapes jostling with grand and florid renditions of the aging landmarks of Vienna, the last trappings of the once-great Austro-Hungarian Empire. Hitler renders both with a meticulous eye, carefully delineating rustic bricks and fading facades, with the few people present merely dabbed in, splotches of rogue paint inhabiting the landscapes and buildings of Hitler’s Vienna.

The influence of these early artistic exercises in nostalgia is clearly visible in the stylistic guidelines he envisioned for the Germany he came to rule in the 1930s. Although Hitler came to power just as the flourishes of Bauhaus German modernism were emerging, his choice of architect for the new infrastructure of the Third Reich was the young Albert Speer, whose imposing neo-classical visions appealed to Hitler’s ideas of grandeur. Among the many ideas Speer fed Hitler, the concept of ruin value — of designing buildings with their future ruins specifically in mind — was among the most prominent, and Hitler eagerly took it to heart as the best expression of the permanence of his soon-to-be empire. The idea was certainly not a new one: though Speer states that he originated the concept, ruin-mania in the 18th century culminated in the construction of a new castle-like ruin to appeal to the rulers of one vassal state of the Holy Roman Empire.

The commissions Speer was able to execute for Hitler, however, were designed to turn ruin-value into a national architectural paradigm. To preserve continuity between the Greco-Roman ruins of yore, Hitler and Speer forbade the use of modern reinforced concrete and steel in Nazi Party constructions, with historically-appropriate marble and stone as substitutes. The style in which these materials were to be assembled was a strict-laced classicism, with solid columns and arches that would stand picturesquely a thousand years onward as testaments to Aryan strength. The first Nazi Party commissions of the empire evinced this much: the Nuremburg Parade Grounds featured huge planes of amphitheater-style seating fronted by grand arches and flags, all sprawling over a site some 12 square kilometers in area. The Berlin Olympic stadium was of similar construction, with Speer adding a stone façade over a previous design Hitler regarded as impudently modern. All over Nazi Germany, this same style predominated: even the German autobahns were constructed as much as an aside to the ancient Roman network of viaducts as out of military necessity.

These constructions, however, were but minor trifles compared to the Nazi vision for a reinterpreted Berlin. Speer and Hitler created grandiose visions of the Berlin of the post-war world, comprehensively tearing up the fabric of the old city in exchange for a new world capital. The centerpiece of this German city for the ages was an enormous People’s Hall, a huge governmental gathering hall to feature a dome as tall as the Empire State Building supported by endless avenues of colonnades stretching over a thousand feet in length. Such buildings had been attempted in small scale in both architectural and engineering terms, the former through Speer’s own Reich Chancellery expansion and the latter through the building of several enormous concrete piles designed to simulate the stresses of such enormous buildings. The former was adored by Hitler for its luxurious trappings and materials; the latter, however, quickly demonstrated that any attempts to build his People’s Hall would end in a mess of subsumed soil and collapse. Such smaller-scale experiments, however, were all Speer’s dreams ultimately amounted to: the outbreak of World War II siphoned off the materials Speer so desperately needed to attempt any more constructions, and he was ultimately reassigned to manage armament production.

Like most modern ruins, what remains of Speer and Hitler’s imposing buildings never managed to acquire the historical patina of beauty characteristic of the ruins of empires past. Buildings such as Hitler’s beloved Reich Chancellery which survived the plundering of materials for war were soon themselves victims of bombing raids, artillery bombardments, and air-strikes — forces far more destructive and far less romantic than sweeping winds and the slow decay of nature. Those buildings that survived the sacking of the once-great German cities now for the most part stand desolate and empty: the hastily-assembled concrete edifices of the Nuremburg Parade Grounds now rot away in fields, their former glory starkly eviscerated by museums and history books. Some buildings, however, stand not with the same ignominy: Berlin’s Olympic stadium survived the war relatively unscathed and has hosted multiple soccer cups, and the German Autobahn still connects an ethnically-diverse and fully-integrated Germany. And with that spirit, the spirit of repurposing and reuse of the old for the expression of the best in humanity, ruin value and the ideology of empire is perhaps best refuted.

Andrew Lin ’17 ([email protected]) writes this from Mather library, whose bare concrete columns bear a rather striking resemblance to the square columns of Speer.