Ezra Haber Glenn is an urban planner and lecturer at MIT's Department of Urban Studies & Planning, where he teaches on community development, the use of data in public policy, and a special course in “The City in Film.”
As documented in Albert Speer’s extensive plans, the cityscape of Welthauptstadt Germania is stunning while demonstrating the Third Reich’s obsession with scale, permanence, and order.
“The Man in the High Castle”—Amazon’s serial adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s alternative-history thriller—makes excellent use of establishing shots to set the scene in its first season, lowering the viewer into Nazi-occupied New York and Japanese-occupied San Francisco with images of key buildings and landmarks, jarringly superimposed with new “alt-history” signifiers: swastikas, Rising Sun banners, and fascist propaganda billboards.
Early in the second season, however, these shots take on an entirely new and horrifying relevance. As the story traces back to the corridors of power in the Fatherland, viewers get their first establishing shot of the Nazi capital of Berlin, looking east past the famous Siegessäule (Victory Column), towards the Brandenburg Gate.
Originally erected in the 1870s, the column itself is nothing surprising: visitors to Berlin today will find it there in the Großer Stern (Great Star) rotary. In 1939, the 195-foot-tall column was relocated to this spot as the opening salvo in a massive urban planning assault on the historic city led by Hitler’s First Architect, Albert* Speer.
Speer’s plan—developed in close collaboration with Hitler, who understood the nationalistic power of architecture and urban design—was to transform Berlin: the old city was to be reborn as Welthauptstadt Germania (Germania, World Capital), the seat of the new empire.
In the end, though, beyond relocating this one column and constructing a few administrative and cultural buildings, almost none of Speer’s proposed structures were actually completed before the demands of war and the Nazi’s eventual defeat intervened.
Thus, through this one image—five seconds of film—viewers begin to enter the shadowlands between the world that was and the world that might have been. As your eye moves up from the column to follow the shot, you’re treated—or terrified—with a feast of unbuilt architecture. Using the latest software and rendering techniques to visualize the completion of actual archival plans from the 1930s, the production team has masterfully brought to life a mad planner’s beautiful nightmare: an “Alt-Berlin” that was designed to last a thousand years, but never built. (Dick’s story doesn’t get to Berlin, but he certainly would have enjoyed the mind-bending nature of this work.)
Spanning the horizon as the spine of the new imperial capital runs the three-mile long Prachtallee (Boulevard of Splendors). At the south, the massive Triumphal Arch, intended to be over 330-feet-high, large enough to fit over Paris’s Arc de Triomphe; to the north, along the Spree River, sits the heart of the Reich, an immense domed structure to be known as the Volkshalle (People’s Hall) which figures prominently in the show’s second season, including its painstakingly recreated interior. In some versions of the plans, rather than spanning the Spree, the river itself was to be relocated—like the Victory Column—to accommodate Speer’s vision.
Although never built, Speer’s monster-piece (indeed, some dubbed it the “Monsterbau,” or monster-building) truly puts the “dominate” in “dome”: looking like the U.S. Capitol on Pervitin, it would have been large enough to fit the Papal Basilica of St. Peter inside it. Hitler planned to use the massive hall to gather crowds of up to 180,000 people—what would have been by far the largest interior assembly space in the world; planners fretted that the respiration from so many excited Nazis in a single enclosed space might create its own weather patterns.
In a nice touch, given that the show takes place in 1962, a full 15 years after the war, the team updated Speer’s vision slightly. Running straight through the main establishing shot, and visible in other scenes as well, a clean and modern monorail whisks people above the city, like something out of “Wald Disney Welt’s Morgen-Lande.” Other shots depict cranes building on the ever-expanding horizon, and later in the season viewers are treated to a pitch for the Reich’s plans to dam and drain the Mediterranean Sea (an idea also found in the book, based on a real-world scheme known as Atlantropa promoted by the German architect Herman Sörgel).
To argue that Speer devised ambitious, albeit unimplemented, plans for the improvement of Berlin would be a mischaracterization. He did not so much envision “fixing” Berlin as utterly destroying it and rebuilding a new city in its place. As Hitler plotted to destroy the world in order to usher in a new Third Reich, Speer made plans for a total war on the city and people of Berlin in order to achieve his perfect vision.
It would likewise be wrong to conclude that Speer only planned this assault. Although he constructed little, he spent years making destructive “progress” in the early stages of his scorched-earth campaign. In 1937 Hitler named Speer General Building Inspector for the Reich Capital and granted him extraordinary powers, which he used to demolish entire neighborhoods and forcibly relocate thousands of residents at a pace that would have made Robert Moses jealous: urban renewal on an insane scale. Jewish families were moved to concentration camps to make room for other dislocated Berliners whose homes were bulldozed in a sickening game of cascading misery.
So complete were Speer’s plans for destruction that he would joke, when Allied bombers had a particularly successful night, that they were doing his job for him. Had Germany’s eventual loss not occurred (and the city’s underlying sandy soils been more conducive to supporting his proposed buildings), he would surely have demolished even more of the old city, including the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate.
And to what end? As described in the Guardian last April:
Architects and urban planners who have analyzed [Speer’s planned] city in recent years claim it would probably have been nightmarish to live in: hostile to pedestrians, who would regularly have be sent underground to cross streets, and with a chaotic road system, as Speer’s did not believe in traffic lights or trams. Citizens would have been made to feel variously impressed and inhibited by the towering structures around them.
Speer even contemplated the destruction of his own beautiful creations 1,000 years in the future, expounding his Ruinenwerttheorie—a “theory of ruin value”—for the architectural monuments he designed, a sort of perverted death-cult in stone, the city as mausoleum.
But beyond this historical context, there is a deeper, ideological problem with Speer’s vision for Berlin. As documented in his extensive plans and brought to life by Amazon Studios for us to contemplate, the cityscape of Welthauptstadt Germania is stunning—and “stunning” is the desired effect. As with other art forms, Hitler subscribed to a certain “shock-and-awe” school of architectural design; hence the obsession with scale, permanence, and order. The effect is to render the individual meaningless and elevate the state above all else.
As with other art forms charged with guilt-by-association with fascism, here the medium serves the message, and we must be ever mindful of the horror encoded in these awe-inspiring beautiful visions.
An extended version of this article can be found on MIT's School of Architecture and Planning's Medium blog.
*Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified Speer’s first name.