The national and international press have been in a frenzy this week over the new north-south axis reshaping central Beijing. Much play has been made of its inherent Imperial connotations, and the involvement of German architect Albert Speer, son of Hitler’s architect and close confidant of the same name. Parallels have even been drawn with the rise of the Chinese totalitarian state and pre war Germany. It’s a great story for the media but it wouldn’t be the first time the press got it wrong over Beijing.
(see Comment 2nd May 2007)
Seventy years ago, his father was dubbed the “the first architect of the Third Reich” and was best known for his plans for the Welthauptstadt (World Capital) of Germania, with its vast three mile central axis, flanked by railway stations. Now, astonishingly Albert Speer (the 3rd) is watching the realisation of his father’s plan, not in Berlin but Beijing. So read many stories in the world media this week. But are the media to blame for creating hype or has Beijing been deliberately courting controversy?
In the 1930s Speer's office had a whole room given over to a scale model of the city of the future, which Hitler could access from the Chancellery gardens and pore over in private. He instructed his designers to take their inspiration from the glory days of Rome, Athens, and Paris. The French capital’s central axis was oringinally initated by Louis X1V during his reign 1661-1715 and later developed by Haussmann between 1853 - 1870. Hitler’s vision also included a plan for the Arayn Games, a replacement for the Olympics.
Following in his father’s (and grandfather’s) footsteps to become an architect was a “brave” step in anyone’s book but his Frankfurt based practice AS&P – Albert Speer & Partner GmbH with a staff of over 100 has, over the last few decades gone on to produce an impressive portfolio of architecture in residential, mixed use and master planning projects in Germany, Russia, China and Africa.
However the German press were not impressed when Speer first became involved with the Beijing plan in 2003. Die Welt: “His Beijing Axis is awaking old memories.” The paper went on to ask if he was trying to copy his father or even outdo him.
So how did all this start? Albert Speer’s office exclusively told WAN, “The design for the so called “central Axis in Beijing” was created in an ideas competition. During the competition the project was edited by a couple of offices in differing designs. The Chinese city planning office did not judge the results but took details out of every work to create their ideal design. Now you can not identify which part of the planning was made by which office. AS&P participated in this competition and is still sometimes invited by the city planning office to give a lecture concerning this matter.”
Helping to fuel the media are reports that Beijing’s five mile strip, running north-south from a new railway station in the South, past Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City to the new Olympic Green is being built by armies of migrant workers working around the clock. In the 1930s it was reported that Hitler said of the Berlin Axis, “The required labor force would solve unemployment.”
But when questioned about the similarities Speer denied any parallels, “What I am trying to do in Beijing is to transport a 2,000 year old city into the future. Berlin in the 1930s – that was just megalomania.”
The Geneva based Centre on Housing rights and evictions has estimated that about 1.5 million Beijing residents will be displaced by the creation of the “New Beijing”. In Berlin, thousands of Jewish tenants were forcibly evicted to make way for the scheme but the outbreak of the Second World War stopped the construction.
The Chinese however defend the plan. Shao Zi Qian, Olympics committee spokesman said, “The axis is based on the ancient transport routes of the city and has been designed to incorporate the latest in modern design while providing space to preserve traditional parts.”
Beijing’s north-south axis in fact dates back to the Ming era staring in 1644 when it bisected the city running through the centre of the Imperial Palace, more recently known as the Forbidden City. A quick study by WAN using GoogleMaps satellite images clearly shows the north-south route.
And many people will rightly ask, “Why should Albert Speer be crucified for his father’s doings? But even in his own words, Speer accepted, “Comparisons with my father are unfortunately unavoidable.”
The historical roots and layout of Beijing are clearly a natural and obvious basis for the development the ancient city grid within its new urban masterplan, however what seems to be an enigma, given the connections, is the Chinese Government’s selection of architect. Were they deliberately courting controversy? In an amazing statement, Shao Zi Qian said, “We know about Mr Speer’s Nazi family but don’t see its relevance to what is happening in Beijing.”
Did the Chinese authorities really expect that the media would not pick up on this or must we draw the conclusion that this could have been their intention? Assuming this was the case, they clearly wanted to send a message. That’s scary.
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