Even at the age of 77, Professor Albert Speer is not thinking about giving up his passion. The founder of Albert Speer and Partners (AS&P) was in Doha to give the keynote speech at the Construction Week Qatar conference: Building Towards 2022.
Despite a grueling day in the spotlight, Speer was spritely, good-humoured, and eager to talk at length about his background and his firm’s key role in Qatar’s World Cup plans.
“The idea of retiring is not going to happen any time soon,” he remarks. “I do a little bit to stay healthy – I exercise every morning, in the gym or the pool, and I have a personal trainer. As long as I feel I can influence and bring ideas and creativity to the office I would like to stay.”
Speer says that he wasn’t particularly inspired to be an architect, but fell into the profession due to family tradition. “It was less about inspiration and more of a necessity. After the war I was stammering a lot – I couldn’t really speak. I left school and did a carpenter’s apprenticeship.
“Then I went to the technical school in Munich and studied architecture for five years. I followed the tradition in the family – my grandfather and my father were architects.
“I wanted to do urban planning in the future, but these possibilities were not given at that time in German technical schools. Munich is one of the most beautiful cities but I got a job in Frankfurt. In the 60s it was a very grey and unattractive city.”
Speer explains that he received his big break by pitching for work in his spare time. “Over the weekend and at night I started to do competitions. The first two or three I lost but eventually I won an international competition for the development of the settlement in Ludwigshafen.
“My boss was very supportive as he saw it was a good opportunity for me. So I started a one-man office. That was in 1964. Now the company has grown to about 120 people in German and 30 people in Shanghai.”
Despite winning its most prestigious job in Qatar and having several projects in Saudi Arabia, Speer is uncertain about opening an office in the Middle East.
“If we continue to do just consultant work there is no necessity to open an office here. I prefer that all the people are in Frankfurt as we have very good connections. But if we are invited to do a stadium or two then we have to have an office.”
He explains that his firm’s involvement in the Qatar stadiums was unexpected. “We developed a new field of activity in doing bid books for large sporting events. Every year there is a sports fair in a city, in connection with the International Olympic Committee.
We decided to display our Olympic competitions in a small booth at the sports fair in Canada.
“Members of the Qatari government visited us and later we got an email saying ‘please come to Qatar, we would like to talk to you’. We were chosen and we did a good job.
“They wanted to have a very personal contact and didn’t want to have one of the big players. I was not in the negotiations – the next generation did that. I think this was the right strategy as the Qataris are 35-40 years old.
The client’s aim was to have the best bid book given to FIFA and this is what we, together with our partners including Arup and Nusli, managed to do. This is not the only reason for winning, but it played a part.”
He also adds that the “emotion” in the bid book was a crucial quality. “I think it was important that you can see emotion in our stadiums. They are Qatari stadiums – they have something to do with the culture of the people.
“They are not just technical, which could be built in Moscow or Berlin. They were mainly done by a female architect in our office. I’m very proud that these prototype Islamic stadiums were such a success.”
Speer is optimistic that the emotion of the renderings can be replicated in the final products. “We are part of the team and we hopefully will be part of the execution team too. You can never say they will definitely build them as designed. There are so many influences.
“But the decision making people on the bidding committee and the execution committee are the same people and I am very convinced that they stick to the concept. Because it is a winning concept.”
Speer says his favourite designs are Al-Khor stadium, which resembles a sea shell and the Al-Wakra stadium due to its location in the city centre and integration with leisure, shopping and social facilities such as playgrounds and swimming pools.
“Al Wakrah stadium is part of the city centre and this is very feasible economically. All the car parking spaces for the stadium can be used in the evening, not just once a week.”
Speer adds that good city stadiums can benefit the community. “In Germany, for a long time people thought that a stadium has to be far out in the middle of nowhere because of noise and litter. This changed completely.
“It is tied into the stadium design. If it’s more attractive and people can bring their children, if it’s open for women, and interesting to stay there because you have restaurants and playgrounds and a place of worship, then people are not just spending one and a half hours there, but five hours.”
He cites his company’s Allianz Arena in Munich, completed in 2005, as a good example of a city centre stadium. “A stadium can be a community meeting point. Our Allianz Arena in Munich is a good example, with all the facilities, restaurants and playgrounds. It’s not only the match itself, it’s the lifestyle.”
When it comes to other successful city stadiums, he points to the Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid and London’s new Olympic stadium. Speer was less positive about China’s Bird’s Nest stadium.
“The Bird’s Nest is incomparable. The Chinese wanted something spectacular but it is not sustainable. They have used steel to an amount that is incredible. It’s an icon, but it’s not used much,” he remarks.
AS&P is working on several projects in China, including large master planning schemes. As an urban planner, he believes that the masterplan is a viable model for the Middle East, if it is executed correctly.
“It depends what is the context of a masterplan – it is no solution if it is trying to solve all problems. It has to be flexible for future developments. Things can change in terms of the market and the population.”
He says that maintenance is critical. “Cairo has Sadat City, which was started 25 years ago. It is a pure catastrophe, because parts are built, parts are empty and others are run-down. In many countries in the region, maintenance is not known.”
Commenting on AS&P’s current Middle East projects he says: “We are doing a lot of work in Saudi Arabia. We have done the Diplomatic Quarter in Riyadh, which is still one of the best urban developments in the Arab world. We have designed and engineered the King Abdullah Road which is about 25kms long.
“We are doing a very nice building in the centre of Riyadh – a huge criminal court project. It will be finished at the beginning of next year. We are working on a masterplan for 2032 for Alexandria. It is very complicated because of the change in the government. We are now waiting for decisions. Qatar is much faster.”
According to Speer, the greatest challenge for Qatar’s World Cup delivery is not the stadiums. “A stadium can be built in two and a half or three years. The critical part is infrastructure. To build a rail system of 100km in seven years is really very hard.
“It’s not a question of construction – it’s the planning and coordination and the permissions. You can’t have construction sites in Doha everywhere. The people will explode. The plans have been reduced to 100km, which I think is feasible, but it is a huge challenge.”
He offers further words of caution: “The biggest errors in huge projects are done at the beginning because nobody thinks about the alternatives of what is going to happen. I was told this by my former teacher, a famous Swiss architect called Jakob Maurer.”
When asked whether he received any architectural advice from his father or grandfather, Speer slowly shakes his head. He makes no mention of his father, but speaks admiringly about his grandfather. “My grandfather made enough money when he was 50 years old and stopped working as an architect. He built himself a villa in the cool area behind Heidelberg castle and lived until his mid 80s. He was a very strong man. Many of his buildings that were not destroyed in the war are protected buildings.”
Coming from a long line of Albert Speers, with both his father and grandfather bearing the same name, he reveals that this trend is very unlikely to continue. “I have no children. My brothers and sisters have eight or nine children altogether, but there are no more Alberts. I think there were enough.”