At the height of his career as the architect of the Third Reich, Albert Speer was already imagining what his buildings would look like as ruins. In fact, by the mid-1930s, Speer was designing based on “ruin law,” his term for what a building would look like once it decayed. Today, Nuremberg city officials are grappling with whether his works should ever get the chance.
In Nuremberg, city officials are facing a tough decision: What to do about the increasingly dangerous ruins of Speer’s rally grounds, built in 1933. The sprawling, four-square-mile park once hosted party events and meetings, and was preserved on film in Leni Riefenstahl's famous propaganda vehicle Triumph of the Will. After the war, the grounds were turned into a memorial and protected by German law, though they were never renovated or otherwise improved.
But now, as Speer’s buildings are crumbling into true ruins, city officials say the site is in desperate need of a facelift—mainly, for safety reasons. “Demolishing the buildings would provoke international outrage—so we are going to renovate the complex, but this does not mean that we are sprucing it up,” said Nuremberg mayor Ulrich Maly to the Sued Deutsche Zeitung, quoted on Dezeen. "This is not about beautification. We will not be looking for original-style sandstone.”
The "golden hall" beneath the Zepplin Tribune, where Hitler held meetings. Via.
Why not just let it crumble? According to the paper, that would mean fencing off the ruins to prevent members of the curious public from being injured in collapses. But according to critics, shielding the ruins from the public could have unforeseen side-effects: Specifically, the “re-mystification” of the Third Reich. So instead, the city will spend 70 million euros (around 100 million dollars) making the rally grounds safe for human feet.
This is just the latest in a long line of international debates over how to preserve (or destroy) Nazi monuments. The arguments for and against have evolved dramatically since the end of World War II. In the beginning—in 1945, that is—the Allies ordered all Nazi architecture to be demolished. But as they worked to gain control over the ruined city, they broke their own rules when necessary—for example, in preserving Tempelhof Airport, which was necessary for the Berlin Airlift. Likewise, other Nazi structures were preserved, albeit scraped of all remnants of the Third Reich. After all, functional buildings were valuable in a war-torn city.
Templehof Airport in 1948.
Later, as Germany grappled with its identity in the 1960s and 70s, the perception of Nazi architecture began to change. Many politicians still argued that it was necessary to demolish existing buildings completely (leading to the partial destruction of the Nuremberg rally grounds in 1966) but others wondered whether that would only enforce a kind of architectural martyrdom—whether by destroying the past, they’d actually be memorializing it. What followed was an era of historic preservation, with many government agencies restoring Nazi buildings to their former architectural glory, minus the swastikas and flags.
But that didn’t sit right with many critics, who felt that re-occupying a piece of Nazi history sent a convoluted message to new generations of Germans. That’s where Nuremberg comes back into the picture: It’s one of many sites that have sought a “third way” between demolishment and re-use. Speer's rally grounds are meant to serve as a decaying reminder of the past, without glorifying or banalizing its role. Over 200,000 people visit it each year, according to Sued Deutsche Zeitung—many of them young students.
The question facing Nuremberg, then, is a sticky one, touching on a dilemma that bridges history, national identity, and architectural preservation: Does spending millions of Euros to preserve the rally grounds upset the delicate balance between memorializing and glorification of the past?
Hermann Göring in front of the Reich Aviation Ministry in Berlin, in 1937.
Today, the 2,100-office building serves as the headquarters for the Ministry of Finance.
The Reichsstadium, seen here hosting the 1936 Olympic Stadium, was eventually renovated and renaimed "Olympiastadion."
It has since hosted Olympic events and several FIFA World Cup matches.