Albert Speer gazes through the panorama window of the Executive Club on the 37th floor of the Four Seasons hotel and admires the Shanghai skyline. 'Look over there,' he exclaims. 'The Jin Mao Tower, isn't it fantastic? It's really a classic.' Decades of experience, it seems, have not dimmed the German architect's enthusiasm for his work. The chances of the state-funded building Speer is admiring ever generating enough revenue to pay for itself directly are slim. But, as a symbol of modern China, Speer thinks it is working very well and will attract people to Pudong, Shanghai's financial and commercial hub. 'These seemingly 'irrational' projects can be a pretty good idea,' says Speer. 'The French are doing the same, with every great president from [Charles] de Gaulle to [Francois] Mitterrand building on a grand scale. Only the Germans are too dumb [to do the same],' he says with a laugh. The opportunity to build on a grand scale is part of the reason the 72-year-old urban planner is on the mainland. Since his Frankfurt-based firm, Albert Speer & Partner (AS&P), entered the Chinese market in 1994 it has become one of the largest foreign players, designing not only individual buildings but entire cities. Speer is also one of the first architects to establish a wholly foreign-owned company on the mainland, AS&P Architects and Planners Shanghai. With Anting New Town - a city for more than 50,000 inhabitants close to Shanghai - now virtually complete, Speer is on his way to Changchun, in the northeast Jilin province, to finalise an even larger deal. The Chinese government hopes Changchun will grow into a 'Chinese Detroit', becoming the country's second-largest base for automobile production, after the more traditional car-making centre of Shanghai. To accommodate this expansion, Speer is masterminding a city extension for 300,000 new inhabitants. With such a resume, you might expect Speer to have the air of a detached businessman. But the architect still thinks of himself as an artist first and foremost, albeit one with a savvy head for business. 'It would have never occurred to me in my wildest dreams that one day we'd be sitting here in Shanghai discussing my projects in China,' he says in the strong palatine accent of his home town, Heidelberg. Indeed, architecture was not an obvious choice for Speer. A poor student, he dropped out of high school. 'That was in 1952 and it was difficult to find a job,' he says. 'But my maternal grandfather used to run a large cabinetmaker's workshop before the war and he still had some connections. He helped me to find a position as a carpenter's apprentice in Heidelberg.' A far bigger obstacle than bad marks in school, however, was his father. Albert Speer Snr carved out a unique career for himself in Germany's Nazi government, starting out as Adolf Hitler's court architect and going on to become the closest thing the Fuhrer had to a friend. He redesigned the location for the notorious Nuremberg party conventions in 1934, thus helping Hitler score a huge PR success. By 1938 he had completed Hitler's New Reich Chancellery, the nerve centre of the Nazi government, and was commissioned to rebuild Berlin from scratch into 'Germania', the monstrous capital of a new empire that was supposed to emerge following a victorious second world war campaign. When the tide of the war began to turn against the Nazis, plans for Germania were put on hold and Hitler personally appointed Speer Snr as his armament minister, putting him in charge of organising the wartime economy. This business was so deeply intertwined with the exploitation of millions of slave labourers throughout German-occupied Europe that it is widely acknowledged the sentence handed out to Speer Snr at the Nuremberg Trails - 20 years in Spandau Prison - was extremely lenient. At the time of the former reichsminister's sentencing in Nuremberg, his oldest son, another Albert, was 12 years old. The younger Speer remembers the long series of emotionally icy, bi-monthly visits to the spooky penitentiary, which was maintained solely to house a handful of former Nazi officials. By the time he completed his cabinetmaker's apprenticeship it was clear he did not want to have anything to do with the architectural work of his father. Yet neither did he want to be stuck as a craftsman in the Heidelberg cabinetmaker's workshop, no doubt a solid and honourable - but thoroughly uneventful - career. He soon realised the most sensible career options for a carpenter were either construction engineer or architect. 'What finally made the decision,' Speer recalls, 'was something that has always characterised my life: I can't stand coercion. When somebody is telling me, 'You must do this', then I have had enough already. I'll do exactly the opposite or nothing at all.' Once he figured out that a technical college, with its fixed timetables, works just like school, he decided university was the place for him. His subject of choice was architecture - but with a twist. From the start, he wanted to be an urban planner. 'My father's architecture probably played a role: I wanted to have nothing to do with that,' he says. 'I wanted to do something very different.' Still, his father's name is not going away. When Speer Jnr proposed to develop and extend the historical north-south axis between Tiananmen Square and Drum Tower to quell the growing traffic chaos in Beijing in 2002, journalists quickly and unfairly associated it with his father's infamous project to create a gargantuan north-south axis through Berlin. How frustrating, then, for the septuagenarian Speer 'junior' that, in spite of more than four decades of achievements as an urban planner and architect, the interest in his father's failures has the potential to overshadow his own successes. 'If it wasn't for his name,' wrote English architecture critic Deyan Sudjic, 'the urbane, spry Speer would be the personification of post-war Germany, the worthy Bonn republic of serious newspapers and liberal politics, where ecology and competently managed car factories are taken for granted.' But Sudjic couldn't get Speer Snr off his mind when talking to the son. Commenting on Speer Jnr's gold watch, the only discordant note, as Sudjic observed, in his otherwise impeccably understated outfit, he remarked that he felt an urge to snatch the gold chain and grab the watch dangling from it. 'A tiny, paranoid fraction of my mind half suspected that the words 'From Adolf to Albert' would be engraved on the back in thick gothic script,' quipped the critic. Instead of contemplating this scenario, Sudjic could simply have asked. Speer speaks openly about his father. He has no illusions about Speer Snr's involvement with the Nazis and is distanced enough to joke about his father's closeness with Hitler. 'Look at them,' he says in the recent documentary, Hitler and Speer - a high-profile production for German television - as he comments on old photographs that show Hitler discussing grand architectural plans with Speer Snr in the former's Bavarian mountain retreat, Obersalzberg. 'Like a couple of newlyweds on their honeymoon,' he jokes. Speer Jnr ultimately chose to study architecture at Munich University, but upon completing the course, decided to move away. 'Munich is a wonderful city, with lots of culture and everything else,' he says. 'But when, after five years, I completed my degree, I said to myself, 'Albert, if you stay in Munich now you'll never get anywhere. You must get out of here because you shouldn't just go skiing, sailing and celebrating the carnival all the time!' You know, nobody is really working in Munich. To this day.' Making good his escape from too much of la dolce vita in the Bavarian capital, Speer found himself a position in an architecture firm based in what, from a Munich perspective, seemed almost a foreign country: Frankfurt. 'Frankfurt does not have nearly the quality of life you have in Munich,' he says. 'So I spent my nights and weekends making designs to take part in architectural competitions.' While relying on old-boy networks for a career was no rare thing in post-war Germany, his father's friends did not play a role in Speer's success. He made his breakthrough in the German competition system, which is strictly anonymous. Being a beginner, he saw his first contributions fail. But, in 1964, his big break came when developers in southwest Germany invited international firms and local architects to submit entries for a competition to redevelop the town centre of Ludwigshafen. Even in an anonymous competition, the jury can usually tell which designs are by established firms - if not by the quality of the plan they can tell by the quality of the presentation. Realising this, Speer put his last penny into a top-notch presentation. It was his first win. 'When they opened the envelope,' he recalls, 'everybody was baffled: 'What,' said one of the jury, 'Albert Speer? I thought he was in jail!' But one of them knew that he had a son who was also an architect. At any rate, that's how it began. After that, my business grew very, very slowly, and I would have never thought my company would one day be among the biggest in Germany. And now we're here in Shanghai!' And not only in Shanghai. AS&P has major projects spanning half the globe, from Frankfurt to Riyadh (in Saudi Arabia) and Baku (in Azerbaijan) to Shanghai. A trademark of Speer's firm is an emphasis on ecologically sound structures. Anting New Town, commissioned by the Shanghai municipal government as a 'German town', was the first large development in China to be built with a focus on ecology. Asked what is so German about Anting, Speer laughs. 'Well, frankly, the quality. No, seriously, there is no such thing as a German town. It is a European layout. What is really new in Anting is that it pays attention to proper isolation, individual control over room climate and so forth.' The gigantic city extension in Changchun has a similar focus, which is one of the reasons Speer won the tender. 'Even though this type of planning is still relatively new in China, our clients here have been shifting attention to ecological questions with astonishing speed.' In spite of his activity in the Middle East, North Africa and countries that once comprised the Soviet Union, Speer has no doubt the mainland is the best place for planners and architects at present. 'China is fantastic for urban planners,' he says enthusiastically. 'There are beautiful challenges here.' Virtually nowhere else does an architect have the chance to design whole cities from scratch. 'In Europe there is nothing on that scale anymore,' Speer laments. 'And there's a reason for that: Europe is already built.' The most recent European development on a large scale was La Defense, in Paris. But even this futuristic district, the pet project of four successive French presidents, from de Gaulle to Mitterrand, is dwarfed by the proportions of current Chinese developments. To find a European equivalent on the scale of what is happening on the mainland, one has to go back to Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann's drastic restructuring of Paris in the mid-19th century for a royal client, Napoleon III. Despite the magnitude of the projects, there is not a great deal of money in the Chinese market for foreign planners and architects. Speer estimates the rates paid in China now are about a third of what was to be had five years ago - and, he says, that was not a lot to begin with. Yet the possibility of building on a grand scale is luring ever more architects to the mainland and the newcomers frequently enter the market by tackling their first assignment free of charge. This is also customary in the west, although this entails an obligation for the client to hire the firm again, and on regular terms. On the mainland, however, because new players are constantly pouring in, large clients can play foreign firms off against one another. While the opportunities to construct a landmark as spectacular as Rem Koolhaas' CCTV Tower, Herzog and de Meuron's National Stadium or Paul Andreu's National Theatre in Beijing occur but rarely in modern America, Europe and Japan, they arrive almost by the dozen on the mainland. However, the building boom comes at considerable cost. Even though care has been taken to ensure recent prestigious projects in Beijing have not been built upon the rubble of ancient buildings, enormous destruction has been wrought upon China's cities in the name of modernisation. As new developments come in, old neighbourhoods often have to go. The result is that hardly any Chinese city or town displays a tangible history that predates the 1950s, while most European urban landscapes consist of Victorian-age structures with new developments carefully built around them. Monuments from the past - if there are any at all - seem strangely incongruous with their surrounding environment: the equivalent of Paris' Notre Dame cathedral being surrounded by a cluster of skyscrapers. Speer, whose large Chinese developments are rarely built at the expense of older structures, believes one chief reason for this is that the history of urban landscape takes on an altogether different meaning on the mainland. 'Cities like Xian, Nanjing and Beijing have not slowly evolved,' he explains. 'They have been designed and built with astonishing speed. This is rather like we are doing today. And, consequently, the history of buildings has another meaning [in China].' One of his first assignments on the mainland was to redevelop the Dinghai area of Shanghai - then a crumbling neighbourhood. Much of it disappeared in the process and Speer was criticised by European journalists who took a look at the building site. Still, he thinks he acted correctly. 'They were shocked because they had a romantic conception of old-style neighbourhoods. So we showed them around these old structures and, well, people were carrying their s*** out in buckets and carting it onto lorries. There was zero infrastructure and when you went inside, the houses were rotten. That's your European romanticism.' It is a mistake, Speer insists, to look at the restructuring of Chinese cities from a western perspective. 'This is really something different here,' he says. 'Shanghai is not Paris. And it's not trying to be, either.' That said, there is a lot that can be learned from Chinese architectural traditions, he adds. Since he started working in China Speer has done a good deal of research into Chinese urban history. One finding was that the imperial capitals were all designed according to a rectangular grid pattern - the chessboard of roads and blocks that is still apparent in cities such as Beijing. Less obviously, he learned most cities were constructed using the same unit of measurement: the li. The accepted length of one li has varied considerably down the centuries, but it has now been standardised at 500 metres. Speer frequently uses the li as a measurement for basic planning units in his Chinese developments. 'In the centres of these blocks there will be quiet, high-quality living areas, where you can reintroduce the neighbourhood parks, the old shop roads and so forth,' Speer says. At first, the idea raised eyebrows among his Chinese clients, he recalls, but little by little it is being recognised that this approach makes sense economically and ecologically. 'You see, it makes no sense to copy old styles,' says Speer, 'but sometimes you can translate them into a contemporary language.'