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The ghost of Hitler's architect Albert Speer casts its shadow

Popular images of architects change over time.One hundred and fifty years ago, Gustave Flaubert, author of Madame Bovary , included the image of the architect as 'a dreamer who always forgets the stairs' in his dictionary of received ideas. And so he remained for a century or more until Ayn Rand's Howard Roark turned him into a women's magazine hero, young, handsome and hoping for nothing more than a crack at the new town hall.

By the 1960s Howard Roark had aged considerably and was treading the boards in Joan Littlewood's The Projector as the servile tool of ruthless developers. Then he became identified with the tragedy of the tower blocks and began to be hunted down in his elegant Georgian house by journalists, dragged out and charged with responsibility for Ronan Point, Broadwater Farm, comprehensive redevelopment, overspill estates and windswept plazas everywhere. Before long princes of the realm and TV pundits were cheered when they denounced him as an arrogant brute.

Abruptly, with the coming of the National Lottery and millennium bonanza, this terrible baiting ceased. As a result, where 20 years ago media and public alike would have been baying for blood, now they greet falling glass, wobbling bridges and untoward skyscrapers with an indulgent smile.

So far so good. But just as the profession has begun to emerge from its bunker mentality in anticipation of a spell of universal approbation, the shadow of a truly terrifying role model has fallen across its path. It is the ghost of Albert Speer, architect, war criminal, and one of the most successful autobiographers of modern times.

The real Albert Speer, Hitler's architect and minister of armaments, died in London in 1981, 15 years after his release from prison. Now, against all probability, he has risen again as a theatrical character of Hamlet proportions. He first appeared on the stage playing a supporting role in Richard Norton-Taylor's Nuremberg . Then, last year at the Almeida in north London, he received top billing in Esther Vilar's Speer , a fiction in which, in old age, he is lured to east Germany to use his tremendous organising skills to save the bankrupt socialist economy, but ends up debating the morality of his life and work over a model of Hitler's Germania, with its enormous dome.

This year Speer has graduated yet again. Given an incredible four hours instead of Vilar's 90 minutes, and his full name as the title, he appears alongside the famous model of Germania again in David Edgar's Albert Speer at the National Theatre. The play is drawn from the encyclopedic biography by Gitta Sereny. This time the stark, dramatic sets enhance the prominence of the model (the actor playing Hitler uses the dome as a recliner while holding forth to his acolytes), while the diverting parody of a classical master class by Tessenow ('Whatever is successful is bound to be simple'), and the telling depiction of the impossibility of rejecting opportunity when it presents itself - even at a railway station - conspire to give Speer's Faustian tale a timeless currency.

Where Hitler and his courtiers are trapped beyond redemption in their period uniforms and barbaric rituals, Speer, seldom in uniform, makes the leap from 1941 to 1981 in modern dress. Here is a man who shows that it still is possible to be 'purely technical'. A man who (one thinks) could leave the theatre at any time to be reunited with one of his V2 rockets at the Science Museum, or teach a class a lot about the management of new technology. An architect, moreover, whose works are all destroyed but whose model of an unbuilt city has entered the image cascade of the twenty-first century. An architect who saw into the future of all architects everywhere.

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