In 2010, the president of FIFA, Sepp Blatter, announced that his organization had selected Qatar, a tiny, wealthy emirate on the Persian Gulf with a little more than two million inhabitants, to host the 2022 World Cup. It was a strange choice for one of the world’s largest sporting events: summer temperatures in Qatar regularly exceed a hundred and ten degrees, and the country would have to build nine stadiums from scratch. But the FIFA evaluation group said it was impressed by Qatar’s master plan, which had been developed by the Frankfurt-based architecture and planning firm Speer and Partners and overseen by the firm’s founder, Albert Speer, Jr.
Speer, Jr., an eighty-two-year-old with a perennially serious expression and a fondness for energetic hand motions, is one of Germany’s best-known urban planners. He has risen to the top of the German planning world over the past fifty years, thanks to his reputation for sustainability and “human scale” architecture, and despite being the son of Hitler’s favorite architect. Speer, Jr.,’s typically thoughtful approach was on display in the FIFA bid, which featured a small footprint, stringent environmental measures, and a concept for “modular” stadiums that could be shipped to developing countries at the conclusion of the World Cup. After the ceremony, Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the ruler of Qatar, called Speer, Jr.,’s office to say, “I love my Germans!”
But, since the decision was announced, Qatar’s World Cup bid has taken a darker turn. The BBC reported, in 2015, that more than twelve hundred migrant Indian and Nepali workers may have died while working on construction in the country between 2011 and 2013, including on the World Cup site. A 2015 investigation into FIFA raised concerns about corruption in Qatar’s bid, and human-rights groups have continued to report numerous workers’-rights violations in Qatar, including squalid living conditions and the confiscation of workers’ passports.
Back then, it was simply a path that opened itself up. I could draw well, I could express myself, I had ideas,” he said in the TV documentary. “The father played hardly any role, but what has always fascinated me is the ability to create living conditions.”
In 1964, he applied for his first major competition, to redevelop a section of the city of Ludwigshafen that had been flattened by Allied bombers. His plan—to move highways outside of the city center and thus preserve the city’s downtown structure—was awarded second place, and set a moral template for the rest of his career. Four years later, he received his first foreign commission—to come up with a master plan for several cities in western Libya—by pretending that his Frankfurt loft was an office and asking his friends to act as office workers when the delegation arrived for a meeting. “We dressed all of my friends in white smocks and had them bent over imaginary plans,” he told Süddeutsche Zeitung.
Since then, Speer, Jr., has made his name as a proponent of the “intelligent” city—a flexible concept based on socially progressive values—and has become a vocal opponent of “statement” architecture. Although Speer, Jr., has defended his father’s work—he told Süddeutsche Zeitung that Speer, Sr., “was a good architect, much more modern than people think today”—it’s hard not to see his own work as a conscious corrective to the crimes of his father. His modest approach stands in complete opposition to Hitler’s call for “monuments” to dominate German cityscapes. “I think, because of his father, and because he was a modern urban planner, he believed that urban planning should come from the people, and not from an ideology,” Gerhard Matzig, the architecture critic at Süddeutsche Zeitung, said.
After the work in Libya, Speer and Partners received commissions to design several master plans for Frankfurt and, in the process, shape the city’s skyline. The firm also completed projects in Asia and North Africa and planned several big events, including Expo 2000, in Hanover. Matzig argued that the firm’s urban-renewal proposal for Munich’s Arnulfpark area—a former train yard that was turned into a mixed-use neighborhood—is most emblematic of his approach. While a rival planning firm proposed covering the site with high-rises and a variation on the triumphal arch, Speer and Partners’ proposal prioritized smaller-scale mixed-use development.
By most accounts, Speer, Sr., and Speer, Jr., had a complicated relationship.