Albert Speer is one of the best known architects and urban planners in Germany. In the past 40 years he has carried out numerous international projects. Albert Speer talked with Hans Seidenstücker about the keys to international success and the future of urban planning.
Interview: Hans Seidenstücker
Albert Speer & Partner has become one of the premier urban planning firms in Germany. What were your keys to success?
Albert Speer: You are right, we have become on of the best known urban planning firms in Germany. But it took a lot of hard work with many ups and downs to gain that reputation and win the trust of our clients. I still remember when we did not know how to pay salaries and clients did not pay us. Gaining trust, dependability and personal contacts are the key to success. This requires repeated visits to (potential) clients to talk about ideas and problems in person. Despite modern communication tools like email, there is no alternative to personal contacts. I give you one example: We are currently working on a project in Russia where we lost the competition. But a year later, the winners of the competition had not delivered on their promises and so we came in, because the client trusts us to solve his problems.
How would you assess the reputation of German architects in general?
The reputation of German architecture and engineering has become even better. German know-how, technology and organisational talent are in even higher demand. Especially German urban planning and environmental technology are sought-after. Germans are known to keep their promises and for their detailed planning, so that there will not be any unpleasant surprises for the client. But we do not make enough of our excellent reputation. We do not visit potential clients often enough and expect to receive contracts immediately. This is not how it works.
How do you establish those vital contacts?
These contacts do not appear out of the blue but are the results of long, hard work. Today, Albert Speer & Partner is often asked to enter into a competition. But we have built up our reputation over 40 years. One cannot expect to have made a name for oneself after four or five years – it takes much, much longer.
You opened your architecture firm in 1964. In 1968 you gained your first foreign contract in Libya. How did this come about?
Yes, that was Libya before Gaddafi. We developed land use plans for 40 cities in West Tripolitania, except for Tripoli, and a regional plan for all of West Tripolitania. But it was pure coincidence that we got involved. The contract had originally been given to a Danish firm, but the client was not satisfied. A German company which was in charge of cartography and aerial photography then suggested to replace the Danish firm with us.
Coincidences played an important role in the beginning . . .
Yes, after Libya, we became active in Algeria. I got to know a German lawyer who had studied in Algeria when it was still part of France. He had supported the resistance against France and had excellent ties with the Algerian leadership. He asked me whether I’d be interested in working in Algeria. Of course we were. So in 1973 we were appointed as planning consultant for the Algerian government. A team of 35 architects and engineers with their families was deployed to Algeria and remained there for more than eight years – with all the problems that entailed.
How much know-how is necessary for international projects?
In each country one has to newly acquire specific know-how. And one needs to be curious about the country and its culture. One needs dedication that exceeds the usual routine. When I began, it was adventurous, it was risky to work abroad. But it was an opportunity to broaden my horizon, to see something new. When I was a student I worked in Sweden and Turkey. Watching!
How much inspiration were those international experiences for your urban planning in Germany?
Only very little experience can be transferred. One gains intercultural sensitivity. Only out in the world does one appreciate what a wonderful experience European urban development is. And for our employees it is a huge incentive to see the world and shape something new.
You just opened an office in China and recently won the competition for the design of the Changchun Automotive City. Is China a dream for urban planners? Where else does one plan a city for 300,000 inhabitants?
Not only in China do we plan such large cities. In the Niger Delta we are planning a city for 500,000 inhabitants in Cairo we have entered into a competition to plan a satellite city for two million people. Compared to Europe or the US, the urbanisation process in the so-called Third World has just begun.
How high is the danger that the mistakes of the past will be repeated and cities in China, Africa and the Middle East will all look the same?
That is not a danger but a reality. All over the world, people’s demands and expectations become ever more similar. Living room, bedroom, kitchen, bathroom – dimensions remain different, but are becoming ever more alike. As a result, architecture – i.e. the shells within which people live – is becoming ever more alike. If successful, urban planning could make the difference. Not the individual building, but the city’s layout and the handling of landscapes and river courses will be the key. How can landscapes be conserved or enhanced. Then, islands remain, on which we build. Creativity is in urban planning, beginning with culture then landscapes, climate, types of development. Urban planning will play the key role in future, not individual buildings.
But can urban planners handle the challenges of megacities like Mexico-City?
Certainly not. But you cannot call Shanghai or Mexico-City a single city. There will be quarters that grow or degenerate. The urban planner must not have the illusion that he can control everything. That is most definitely not the case. But he can shape development on some “islands”. The influence of the urban planner is five percent at most – the rest is determined by politics, business, money.
In addition to urbanisation, sustainability is a key challenge. What role do urban planners play?
We play a very important role. We constantly seek to emphasise sustainability. But take the example of Russia where energy costs are so low that it is easier to heat and open the window than to install a decent thermostat. In the US, it is not much different. Here, it is up to the state or economic incentives change this attitude. In China, people in the cities use significantly more water than in Frankfurt. Almost 50 percent is lost during transport and the consumer pays next to nothing for water.