The other side of Beijing

By Alidor Aucoin on August 21, 2008

So you thought the opening ceremonies of the Olympic games were as thrilling as they were chilling?

“It was a sea of humans without an ounce of humanity,” in the words of Chinese blogger and journalist Ran Yun Fei. “It was nationalist clothing over authoritarian underwear... The elevation of the state without a single person… It was stunning on the visual level, barren on the human level.”

It should come as no surprise to learn that Albert Speer Jr. was one of the architects involved in the Beijing design team. Speer Junior is the son of Hitler's favourite architect, who was also Nazi Minister of Armaments. As Hilter¹s architect Speer redesigned the parade grounds for the 1936 Nazi party congress in Nuremberg. He designed the German Pavilion for the 1937 World Exposition in Paris, a bombastic structure which art critic Paul Westheim presciently described as a crematorium.

Speer revamped Berlin for the 1938 Olympics, and began work on plans to transform Berlin as a showcase for the Third Reich. Writing in The Third Reich in Power, Richard J. Evans says what distinguished Nazi civic architecture was not its style, “but the maniacal gigantism of its scale. Everything might not be different from civic structures elsewhere, but it was vastly bigger than anything the world had thus far seen. This was apparent in the models of Berlin that Speer spent so much time inspecting with Hitler.

On one occasion he showed them to his 75-year old father, himself a retired architect. “You¹ve all gone completely Crazy” the old man is reported to have said.

After the war, Speer was the only top ranking Nazi to apologize for his war crimes and became known as “the Nazi who said I¹m sorry.” The Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal sentenced him to 20 years in prison and he became one of only three men investigated at Nuremberg who avoided execution.

Few children of Nazi leaders have followed so closely in their fathers’ footsteps as Albert Speer Senior’s son. The Chinese didn't go out of their way to advertise the fact, but it was Albert Speer Junior who designed the 17- kilometer corridor between the train station and the Olympic Park in Beijing— the same breathtaking avenue that was illuminated by 29 different fireworks displays when the games opened to symbolize the 29 modern summer Olympic games.

Now, the Beijing Times reports the “live” coverage was faked and that producers used computerized graphics to create the amazing pyrotechnical display along Speer's broad boulevard.

According to the Geneva based Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions, Speer would have been complicit in the expropriation of the properties of an estimated 1-million Chinese who were displaced to make way for his magnificent avenue. Entire blocks of low rise tenements were expropriated, and in many cases, property owners were paid about US$80 for their homes.

 “His Beijing axis road replicates the north south axis that his father planned for Berlin,” noted Germany`s Die Welt . “Not only did the son copy his father, he outdid him.”

Albert Speer Sr.’s Berlin (which was to be renamed ‘Germania’) axis was never finished, although thousands of Jewish tenants were evicted and their homes bulldozed to make way for the grand avenue.

His son worked for totalitarian regimes in Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Yemen before he obtained his first commission in China in 1994, when he was hired to redesign an old quarter of Tianjin. He also designed a satellite town outside Shanghai based on a German village. Known as "German Town" it is a subdivision in Jiading far from downtown Shanghai, and home to an international automotive center. The project entailed the construction of various German-style buildings, and Speer Jr. was more aware than most that his concept was steeped in pejorative associations.

"Obviously, we didn’t recreate Rothenburg ob der Tauber," he pointed out in an interview with public broadcaster MDR. "We wanted to build a small, modern town with, for example, tiled roofs. Visually, the streets are different than what the Chinese are used to, they are slighted curved and lined with trees."

 Speers admits the comparisons with his father are unavoidable, but added they are unfair because he never really knew his notorious father. “I was five years old when the war began, and 14 when my father went to Prison.” He told the Daily Telegraph. “He sat in prison for 20 years. I was allowed to visit him, but it was more of a strain than a pleasure. When he came out, we still kept our distance.”

 Shao Zi Qian, a Beijing Olympics spokesman said Speer’s connection to the Nazi past is irrelevant.

“The axis he designed for Beijing is based on an ancient city artery, and is designed to incorporate the latest in urban design while providing more space to enhance traditional parts of the city. The feng shui of his design is very good. We don’t mind who Speer is, but we worry a little that other people could misunderstand this.”


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