I think this book review at the New Criterion puts paid to any recent, somewhat optimistic takes on the architect, Albert Speer. And, yes, Michael J. Lewis is a good historian who I’ve met on a couple of First Things occasions. The end of his review is pretty telling, and provacative, perhaps moreso than any pure polemic that modern architects tend to employ, because it doesn’t have to twist history or facts for its power…history itself is often quite enough:
“But somehow one senses that Speer falls in a different category, that one cannot excuse the opportunism of the artist in order to appreciate the integrity of the art. Kitchen briefly mentions without comment one telling fact, which is that as an architecture student Speer occasionally paid poorer students to prepare his drawings. The practice is not unknown, but it is not what one expects from a truly architectural mind, from someone who lives and thinks architecture, and who exults in the making of form. Kitchen suggests that Speer’s cleverest design ideas, such as the Luftwaffe searchlights illuminating the Nuremberg Rally grounds, came from his assistants.
Why is it, one might ask, that there are no architectural drawings by Speer among the book’s illustrations, not a single sketch, not one perspective? The idea sketches that survive for Germania are not by Speer but by Hitler. Hitler was not an architect of terrible originality or distinction, but in a certain sense he was more of an architect than Speer—that is, he was brimming over with ideas for buildings and forms—derivative and conventional to be sure, but fired with all the passion and longings and resentments of his frustrating years in Vienna around 1909. He had the one architectural quality that Speer did not: an urgent architectural imagination. One somehow cannot imagine Speer waking up in the middle of a night with the compulsion to sketch a sudden idea.
This is what makes Speer in the end so repellent, and all the more so because of his courtly good looks and air of easy urbanity; it is that he does not even have the excuse of the opportunist, that he made political compromises in order to practice his art. Stripped of the murderous politics, in which his complicity is now beyond all doubt, there is precious little art left.”
However, the weak link in this argument is that, as one of my friends mentioned, there is something very artistically consistent about Speer’s work which is indicative of a guiding mind and vision in much the way many modern “starchitects” work, at the very least. This suggests that his involvement was more than simply the role of a “critic” or the public image of someone else’s genius or someone else’s drawings, but rather that he had a real architectural personality which held authoritative sway, and this evident most conspicuously because of its absence in equal measure or degree by Hitler’s other architects.