Among the odder conceits of the Romantic movement was the vogue for rendering new buildings as ruins. Inspired by Piranesi’s moody vedute of noble Roman monuments in picturesque decay, late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century architects such as John Soane had their latest works depicted as they might look millennia in the future—bare ruin’d choirs and whited sepulchres that spoke of vanished glory and emotional depth. This bizarre practice was revived by Albert Speer, Adolf Hitler’s master builder, who appealed to his patron’s apocalyptic instincts by urging him to anticipate their projects’ Ruinenwert (ruin value) and approve extra expenditures to guarantee that the Thousand-Year Reich would leave architectural remains equal to those of the ancients. Speer’s vision was fulfilled sooner than he expected, and among the more popular picture postcards that Allied soldiers sent back home from Germany in 1945 were images of the architect’s Berlin Chancellery of 1936–1939 as a blasted shambles and Hitler’s Bavarian country house of 1935–1937 as a hollowed-out wreck.
Yet several major examples of Nazi architecture—a twelve-year outpouring of publicly financed construction that encompassed everything from the Autobahn system and the 1936 Berlin Olympic Stadium to officer-training schools and death factories—were so solidly crafted that even saturation bombing could not reduce them to rubble. Some have served several successive German governments, such as Ernst Sagebiel’s sprawling, stone-clad Aviation Ministry of 1934–1935 in Berlin, which was first recycled by the Communist East Germans as the House of Ministries, then after reunification was used by the government’s restitution agency, and now houses the nation’s Finance Ministry.
Two decades after the war, the still-vexing question of how and even whether to deal with this long-taboo chapter in twentieth-century culture was finally addressed at the Modern Architecture Symposia (MAS), three biennial conferences held at Columbia University in the 1960s to define and codify the Modern Movement for the first time as a historical development. Participants included many of the period’s leading architecture and art scholars—including Alfred H. Barr Jr., Vincent Scully, and Rudolf Wittkower—but transcripts of most of these fascinating proceedings remained unpublished until the new critical compendium of highlights edited by Joan Ockman and my wife, Rosemarie Haag Bletter, with Nancy Eklund Later.
The historians Henry-Russell Hitchcock and George R. Collins invited their principal benefactor, Philip Johnson, to discuss Nazi architecture, a logical choice because of his fascist sympathies during the 1930s and the Stripped Classicism of his most recent buildings. But Johnson demurred, doubtless worried that his shameful political past would harm his blossoming architectural practice. Instead, at the 1964 MAS session the Vienna-born Harvard historian Eduard Sekler examined architectural reactions to Hitler in his native Austria, but admitted that until then…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.