Currently reading : Ruin Value

Ruin Value

27 May 2014

Author : helenlevin

Cathedral of Light


Chief Nazi architect Albert Speer, tasked with creating the built identity of The Third Reich, only wondered in part how his buildings would express Adolf Hitler’s contemporary empire. The other question was how, like the ruins of Classical Antiquity, Nazi architecture could forever symbolically project grandeur and authority. He called this A Theory of Ruin Value, an idea which dealt with the aesthetics of Nazi architecture 1,000 years in the future.

This is so far in the future that the buildings would no longer be in use and would have decayed into a ruined state. Speer wanted to control the appearance of these ruins, to express the Third Reich’s legacy, after its demise, as a graceful decay. This Theory of Ruin Value unfolds a neurotically paranoid way of approaching life: valuing the post-functional aesthetics of a designed object as much as how that thing will work when in use, while opposing every rule of sustainability.

The Theory also appears to overcompensate for a lack of actual power. It is the frothy result of those who impatiently wished to design their empire, to guarantee their legacy. Speer and Hitler, convinced of the Third Reich’s future supremacy to such a degree, could see the beauty of their power in the ruins of their great work, before much of the work had been accomplished. This is a good lesson about healthily questioning political dominance of one person over many, to recognize the poisoning power of a desire for legacy over any promises about collective improvement.




Albert Speer denied knowing about the Final Solution and was sentenced only 20 years in prison. During this time he wrote a memoir, Inside The Third Reich. After his release from prison, information surfaced about his attendance at certain revealing events, questioning his innocence and the truth of the memoir. The extract below describes the formulation of the Theory, as with anything, process the facts subjectively.

Inside the Third Reich, p55-56

“Early in 1934 Hitler surprised me with my first major commission. The temporary bleachers on the Zeppelin Field in Nuremberg were to be replaced by a permanent stone installation. I struggled over those first sketches until, in an inspired moment, the idea came to me: a mighty flight of stairs topped and enclosed by a long colonnade, flanked on both ends by stone abutments. Undoubtedly the Pergamum altar influenced it…

Hitler liked to say that the purpose of his building was to transmit his time and its spirit to posterity. Ultimately, all that remained to remind men of the great epochs of history was their monumental architecture, he would philosophize. What had remained of the emperors of Rome? What would still bear witness to them today, if their buildings had not survived? Periods of weakness are bound to occur in the history of nations, he argued; but at their lowest ebb, their architecture will speak to them of former power. Naturally, a new national consciousness could not be awakened by architecture alone. But when after a long spell of inertia a sense of national grandeur was born anew, the monuments of men’s ancestors were the most impressive exhortations. Today, for example, Mussolini could point to the buildings of the Roman Empire as symbolizing the heroic spirit of Rome. Thus he could fire his nation with the idea of a modern empire. Our architectural works should also speak to the conscience of a future Germany centuries from now. In advancing this argument Hitler also stressed the value of a permanent type of construction.

The building on the Zeppelin Field was begun at once, in order to have at least the platform ready for the coming Party Rally. To clear ground for it, the Nuremberg streetcar depot had to be removed. I passed by its remains after it had been blown up. The iron reinforcements protruded from concrete debris and had already begun to rust. One could easily visualize their further decay. This dreary sight led me to some thoughts which I later propounded to Hitler under the pretentious heading of “A Theory of Ruin Value.” The idea was that buildings of modern construction were poorly suited to form that “bridge of tradition” to future generations, which Hitler was calling for. It was hard to imagine that rusting heaps of rubble could communicate these heroic inspirations which Hitler admired in the monuments of the past. My “theory” was intended to deal with this dilemma. By using special materials and by applying certain principles of statics, we should be able to build structures which even in a state of decay, after hundreds or (such were our reckonings) thousands of years would more or less resemble Roman models.

To illustrate my ideas I had a romantic drawing prepared. It showed what the reviewing stand on the Zeppelin Field would look like after generations of neglect, overgrown with ivy, its columns fallen, the walls crumbling here and there, but the outlines still clearly recognizable. In Hitler’s entourage this drawing was regarded as blasphemous. That I could even conceive of a period of decline for the newly founded Reich destined to last a thousand years seemed outrageous to many of Hitler s closest followers. But he himself accepted my ideas as logical and illuminating. He gave orders that in the future the important buildings of his Reich were to be erected in keeping with the principles of this ‘law of ruins.’ “


The top images are from the Nuremberg Rally on September 11th, 1937, where 130 anti-aircraft lights projected ‘columns’ 20,000 feet in the air, extending the Zeppelin Field’s spatial reach to become what is known as The Cathedral of Light. The bottom images are of The Great Hall, an unbuilt proposal that would have been “the eighth wonder of the world.”





Related articles