Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Albert Speer and the Fascist Theory of Ruins

I recently attended an interesting little talk by Brian Dillon on the subject of ‘Modern Ruins’ at my beloved Barbican. The talk was tied-in with an installation by Robert Kusmirovski, called ‘Bunker’, which is basically a reconstruction of a generic underground military installation which revels in its artifice, its aestheticised faux-dilapidation and its ambiguous play of historical sign. Dillon (who had to rush off to an awards ceremony for which he was nominated) gave a whistle-stop tour of theories of ‘the Ruin’, most of which he suggested was covering old ground, and in a way it was. We whizzed past Rome, ‘the Grand Tour’, Soane and Gandy, Speer, Virilio, Pasmore and so on, up to Jane & Louise Wilson, Cyprien Gaillard and other contemporaries.

It was all very fascinating, especially when Dillon spoke of “layers of fiction & distance”; reminding me of one main functions of the romantic – the aestheticising of utterly banal space-time and thus the self insertion into the fictional. But he also pointed out how on the one hand, the whole field is riddled with cliché; “there is an overinvestment in ruin space”, while on the other hand there is still work to be done in working out the intellectual structure of ruinenlust and nostalgia. Here’s a little hint of where I think it might lead – there are lessons that we need ruins to teach us, but it is vital that the latter be left behind in this process of working out.

Anyway; I think it’s not a particularly controversial point by now to note that there are numerous theories of ruins, all of which overlap to some extent, making some kind of claim to politicised melancholy, but which all point in very different political directions; this can be a very difficult idea to negotiate around. Somewhat predictably, very possibly the worst theory of Ruins comes from the Nazis…

Lots has been said about Albert Speer and his ‘Theory of Ruin Value’, which is strange considering that the discussion thereof takes up a very small section of his rather thick memoirs. I recently went for a quick read of the passages in question. Thankfully the book was a hardback, so I was spared the very dubious privilege of walking around the British Library carrying a book emblazoned with swastikas. I’d like to perhaps try to properly delineate what it is that makes his theories unique, and what political implications there are in them. To do so I’ll quote the entire section on ruins, which comes as Speer is recounting his designs for the Zeppelin Field at Nuremburg:

Hitler liked to say that the purpose of his building was to transmit his time and its spirit to posterity. Ultimately all that remained to remind men of the great epochs of history was their monumental architecture, he would philosophize. What had remained of the emperors of Rome? What would still bear witness to them today, if their buildings had not survived? Periods of weakness are bound to occur in the history of nations, he argued, but at their lowest ebb, their architecture will speak to them of former power. Naturally, a new national consciousness could not be awakened by architecture alone. But when after a long spell of inertia a sense of national grandeur was born anew, the monuments of men’s ancestors were the most impressive exhortations. Today, for example, Mussolini could point to the buildings of the Roman Empire as symbolising the heroic spirit of Rome. Thus he could fire his nation with the idea of a modern empire. Our architectural works should also speak to the conscience of a future Germany centuries from now. In advancing this argument Hitler also stressed the value of a permanent type of construction.

The building of the Zeppelin field was begun at once, in order to have at least the platform ready for the coming Party Rally. To clear ground for it, the Nuremburg street-car depot had to be removed. I passed by its remains after it had been blown up. The iron reinforcements protruded from concrete debris and had already begun to rust. Once could easily visualise their further decay. This dreary sight led me to some thoughts which I later propounded to Hitler under the pretentious heading of “A Theory of Ruin Value”. The idea was that buildings of modern construction were poorly suited to form that “bridge of tradition” to future generations which Hitler was calling for. It was hard to imagine that rusting heaps of rubble could communicate the heroic inspirations which Hitler admired in the monuments of the past. My “Theory” was intended to deal with this dilemma. By using special materials and by applying certain principles of statics, we should be able to build structures which even in a state of decay, after hundreds or (such were our reckonings) thousands of years would more or less resemble Roman models.

To illustrate my ideas, I had a romantic drawing prepared. It showed what the reviewing stand on the Zeppelin field would look like after generations of neglect, over-grown with ivym its columns fallen, the walls crumbling here and there, but the outlines still clearly recognisable. In Hitler’s entourage this drawing was regarded as blasphemous. That I could even conceive of a period of decline for the newly founded Reich destined to last a thousand years seemed outrageous to many of Hitler’s closest followers. But he himself accepted my ideas as logical and illuminating. He gave orders that in the future the important buildings of his Reich were to be erected in keeping with the principle of this “law of ruins”

Albert Speer, Inside the Reich, p.96-98

So, what’s this all about? What can we ascertain about ruins from this brief and (given Speer’s proclivity for telling porkies) uncertain passage? At first glance it is a perfect little example of the intellectual shit that was the Nazi brand of romanticism. Zeitgeist? Check. Nationalism? Check. Institutionalised self-pity? Check. But should be taken at least a little bit seriously.

The first paragraph in particular goes against the usual grain of ruinenlust, the Ozymandius-style ‘all things pass’ attitude, by pushing through the melancholy and seeing it as an exhortation to greatness. It’s a bitter and reactionary sense of the lost object, one so very common to fascism, which requires a fictionalised eden-like historical condition that must somehow be returned to (We even see this now in the UK with the appeal to some mythical ‘indigenous Britain’). The contemporary left-variation on this sense of the ruin is that longing for the future we were promised yesterday, so it shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. But what the ruin is doing here is that the condition of stable decay, of disuse, is creating the conditions for the fictionalised history to be narrated in the first place (for example; if Hitler was really interested in what had remained of the emperors of Rome, a certain basement in Siberia would have given him a better answer). Ruins here become totems, fetish-items for invigorating ideological narratives.

The second paragraph is brilliant however. Reactionary aestheticisation unfolding before our very eyes. Speer, with posterity and grandeur on the mind, finds himself traumatised by the sight of a bus station being demolished, which sends him scuttling further into the syrup of pseudo-posterity. Sighting the genuinely perishing remains of concrete and steel, he encounters the trauma of guaranteed disappearance, but has to somehow contain it. It’s almost as if ‘the ruin’ here becomes a safe point after encountering an unbearable truth- with the knowledge of disappearance now apparent, any disavowal has to concede at least some ground to it – ‘the Ruin’ here becomes an adopted immortality, a quasi-immortality. Even if the complete object is no longer viable, rendered meaningless through guaranteed loss, the ‘trace’ has become reified. There is also the irony of his fear of modern materials and their ‘ugly’ state of decay, which is a gut-reaction that casts a long shadow into architectural aesthetics. I’d be wary, however, of suggesting that this particular reaction guarantees the progressive power of reinforced concrete, even if that is hinted at.

And the third paragraph, which mirrors JM Gandy’s paintings for Soane, or Hubert Robert’s paintings of the Louvre, is a classic example of using the sentimental image of the ruin as a ‘temporal flag’- staking a claim for posterity, based on the persistence of architectural objects of antiquity. It’s not a particularly controversial point, to be honest.

So what are the basic points of the ‘fascist theory of ruins’? The ‘nationalisation’ of victimhood and melancholy, the attempted closure after an encounter with genuine disappearance, a distrust of modernisation, and lashings of sentimentality. It’s quite easy really. What complicates matters somewhat is that Speer also designed the ‘cathedral of light’, which was part of the very same bloody Zeppelin field building and party conference event, which is perhaps one of the most successful pieces of modern architecture of the last century, marking the apotheosis of the trends towards dematerialisation and lightness in architecture that were started by the ferro-vitrous buildings… just read this:

The actual effect far surpassed anything I had imagined. The hundred and thirty sharply defined beams, placed around the field at intervals of forty feet, were visible to a height of twenty to twenty-five thousand feet, after which they merged into a gentle glow. The feeling was of a vast room, with the beams serving as mighty pillars of infinitely high outer walls. Now and then a cloud moved through this wreath of lights, bringing an element of surrealistic surprise to the mirage. I imagine that this “cathedral of light” was the first luminescent architecture of this type, and for me it remains not only my most beautiful architectural concept, but after its fashion, the only one which has survived the passage of time.

Albert Speer, Inside the Reich, p.101

This all becomes very difficult at this point. How can a producer of such turgid, leaden and portentous architecture also create the ultimate in hi-tech architecture as early as the middle of the 1930s? If we take seriously the fantastical effects of technology, if, after Benjamin, we suggest that “not architecture alone but all technology is, at certain stages, evidence of a collective dream”, then we have to hand it to Speer for the creation of this event, the limit point of the process of making-transparent of architecture. One has to be careful in how one criticises this, as one will be running close to admitting that architecture is an ideologically ‘flat’ set of forms, able to be utilised by any form of power equally.

Is it possible to synthesise these two aspects of the Zeppelin field? Given that it still exists, truncated but not yet in what one could call a ruined state, it doesn’t necessarily seem like a call to arms for a future great Germany. Now used as the grandstand for motor racing events, with the field used for sports, the banality of the space and its occupancy is its genuinely uncanny aspect. Rather than venerating fragments, the fact that things are continually re-used is more significant than that they are sometimes worshipped as ‘dead buildings’. The fact that their use often fails to live up to their proposed social scale is also significant. I would tentatively suggest that rather than ruined stone worship, the “cathedral of light” is the more intellectually interesting and potent form of disappearance. But as far as synthesis comes into it, I think that the vanishing architecture of iron and glass offer us a route out of the dead ends of ruination and its idolatry. The crystal palaces are often both failed ‘ruin’ and immaterial event, and I think I’ll stop here before I start talking about ‘spectrality’ again…

1 comment:

David said...

Excellent post. Within all this, there is an exciting notion of the intensely physical and the intensely virtual working in cooperation, as if the ruin degraded into a ghost architecture of pure light.

Speer's architecture appears trapped here between two different mechanisms: the rewriting and the production of history, like spools running in different directions.

The essential viewpoint of Nazism was to "look back" after the thousand-year reich, justifying any present actions through a fictionalised official voice of History.

Does that suggest that, inversely, the melancholic preoccupation with ruins is a way of "looking forward"?