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The Suppression of Classical Architecture in Postwar Germany

by LON KRIER
Extracts from "Krier on Speer", Architectural Review, volume 173 (1983), pages 33-38. Earlier version of "Krier on Speer" published as "Vorwrts, Kameraden, Wir Mssen Zurck", in Oppositions, volume 24 (1981), Spring; reprinted in: "Oppositions Reader", Edited by K. M. Hays, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 1998, pages 401-411.

In Germany, important architectural discussions consciously or unconsciously continue to be overshadowed by the cultural policy of the Third Reich. Its traces, one thought, had just been erased by dynamiting its enormous, arresting symbols, when the ghost rises up again, spreading fear and confusion. For more than 30 painful years, the German people have spared no effort in proving to the free world that they have finally silenced the "word of stone" and all its traces. The massive exorcism of concrete, steel and glass structures which have so radically marked German towns and landscapes, were erected for the purpose of conclusively showing that liberty has been successfully implanted in this tyrant-battered land. When the German towns were in ruins following the war, the mayor of Stuttgart wrote: "The catastrophe of wartime destruction gives our generation the unique opportunity for a complete revision and renewal of town-planning". The medieval German town which, in its splendor, was among the sublime creations of the human spirit, the town which proudly survived 1,000 years of wars, plagues, destruction and fire, is now, after 30 years of feverish innovation, finally reduced to ashes and dust. In 30 years, with a gigantic display of material strength and a minimum of culture, the proudest communities and the most magnificent places of the German genius have been transformed into traffic islands, administrative zones and industrial deserts. Frantic industrialization, Nazism, all the madness which ended in the defeat in 1945, had not yet brought the German people to their senses. Instead of recognizing the true causes of this holocaust of out-and-out industrialization with its inevitable discords and destructive upheavals, the Marshall Plan continued what the Nazis had only started: total industrialization of all aspects of life. The disintegration of urban communities and the radical elimination of those artistic and artisanal remnants which had even survived in National Socialism are the undeniable result of this new advance.

No, the German city was not destroyed by Allied bombs! After 30 years of frantic modernization and superhuman effort, the Germans are living in the ruins of an optimism which has lost its way. The routine suppression of all their nonindustrial past has meant the destruction of their country. Now that the fever of postwar building and innovation have somewhat abated and there is no further convenient excuse for destruction, the time for reflection has come. It finds us very ill-prepared, however, since the phoenix of Modernist architecture did not in fact emerge from the ashes of the bombing. On the contrary, it was begotten in the immense suffering of a planned postwar amnesia, a forced oblivion of the past, of architecture, and of the non-industrial city in general. In Germany, all traditional, Classical architecture is still associated with tyranny and extermination under the Nazis. Architects consider that the erection of a column is more dangerous than a nuclear power station. The construction of a splendid Classical colonnade alarms them much more than a line of tanks coming from the Krupp factories. The most impressive examples of Third Reich architecture were judged guilty without extenuating circumstances and after 1945 they were condemned to dynamite and the pickax. Third Reich architecture was never intelligently criticized by the followers of the Modernist Movement. However, the matter deserves serious study, since it is undeniable that Classical architecture was one of the most important and reliable of all the methods of Nazi propaganda. Defamatory remarks by Modernist critics about these imposing public buildings take very little account of their real effect on individuals and masses. The attempts to "reveal" the inherent nature of all Classical architecture succeed only in confusing any effort at thoroughly understanding the mechanisms producing this architecture and this style. For, in total contrast to what we have wished to believe since 1945, Classical architecture was not one of the means by which the daily propaganda maintained its reign of terror over the masses. On the contrary it was the civilized face, the aesthetic and cultured faade of this empire of lies, and was used by the regime to implant its totalitarian rule in the captivated soul of the masses. Classical architecture is quite simply incapable of imposing terror by the force of its internal laws. As a part of the totalitarian system, it was chosen only as an efficient form of lie and deceptive promise. Nazi propaganda was so successful that even today, our understanding of the architecture of the Third Reich does not correspond to the reality of this agitated decade but continues to be obsessed by the few images and the imposing style which were spread by propaganda during a very limited time. In the wake of ideological repression, Classical architecture has become both the unknown ghost and the tragic victim. Undoubtedly there are very human reasons

explaining this process of equating the images of Classical architecture with those of destruction and tyranny, but this does not extenuate the fact that the equation is based on incorrect logic: it confuses political ends and cultural means. For example Urlich Conrads, one of the most active minds in postwar German architecture, led a passionate radio campaign in 1971 in order to convince his listeners of the moral necessity to destroy the lamps designed by Albert Speer along the main EastWest Berlin auto route because they were the symbolic remains of fascism. This operation did not completely succeed, and today only some of Speer's fine lamps have been replaced by menacing lines of twisted posts which survey your car journey like a row of whips. The systematic destruction of Nazi buildings after the war was supported by equally specious arguments. It did not correspond to a desire by the people or to a genuine need of the conquerors or conquered. Instead, it was a strange form of auto-da-f, an expiatory fever which did not exorcise anything but tried to repress the most ingrained fanaticism by destroying all its former idols. Christian churches were once installed in Roman public baths and basilicas in accordance with papal bull. Christian altars rose on pagan temples, not as an ultimate challenge by the victor to the beliefs he had humbled, but to ensure a transition from one to the other. These surely are all proofs of moral impotence and emptiness, lack of ideas and of human purpose; in short of the fundamental insecurity of this Modernism which can never add anything except massacre to massacre, which always and everywhere can conquer only through destruction and cannot make advantageous use even of the most impressive buildings of the defeated enemy. But any agreeable life is based on memory; all intelligent activity is a recapitulation of past experience. Memory is the basis of all intelligence, and our environment, habits, feeling and reason depend on it. It is the basis of all human life and all culture. In postwar Germany and subsequently throughout the industrialized world, Classical architecture has been called reactionary, nostalgic, even fascist, and has been officially suppressed. This suppression, which is equivalent to programmed oblivion, has become actual oblivion for postwar generations, and is thus no longer a subject of feeling or thought. Today no school of architecture teaches the philosophical principles or the technical principles of Classical architecture. Subsequently, in this mist of forgetfulness, a horde of sentiments have arisen around Classical architecture. They are made up of anguish but also of nostalgia. For nostalgia is an enigmatic desire for what escapes the reason but remains deeply rooted in the hearts of the citizens. They have never lost the taste for Classical architecture and, in spite of all the efforts of industrial ideology to convince them of the contrary, they have never been nostalgic for the Bauhaus boxes and other Modernist creations. It seems that architects are the only people who are afraid of Classical architecture.

"We cannot go back" therefore expresses not an objective impossibility but the fears of a profession which is losing its authority. The forbidding power of this maxim has led an entire profession to blindness and cultural amnesia. This is the only way we can explain the fact that this single profession is responsible for converting one of the mot beautiful countries in the world into an industrial desert. Architects, however, refuse to accept responsibility for this; on the contrary they take refuge in vague imperatives and always in economic and historical necessity. But the heroic reconstruction of the historic centers of Warsaw and St. Petersburg, of Rothenburg and Verona has definitively proved that even the greatest economic distress is not an excuse for building an ugly town in place of a beautiful city. If therefore architects refuse to take responsibility it is simply because they are incapable, since programmed oblivion is now combined with a loss of memory which is both moral and technical. The rejection of Classical architecture after the Second World War was based on a series of errors and losses of memory. However, the rejection of a particular style or period taste -- which is only too easy to understand -- has been combined with the unreflecting rejection of universal human principles on which all architecture has been based for thousands of years. Authority without memory is a blind authority. It will always be led by anyone who chooses to be its guide. When a great profession can no longer oppose the venal interests of an industrial economy or state, it can do nothing but serve them and be their cruel, slavish instrument. Classical architecture constructs a beautiful, genuine common world. Modernist architecture can create only an ugly, unreal and abstract world. The discussion in Germany and elsewhere about authoritarian architecture and what a democratic architecture can be is only a diversion from the real problems of human work, which builds and must always rebuild and maintain the town and its architecture. Those engaged in these discussions seem to accept, without exception and almost as a matter of fate, the cultural vacuum of their own profession as an inevitable fact of nature and history. This is why architects remain powerless in the face of protests by all sections of the population against Modernist architecture. Architecture is not political; it is only an instrument of policy.