Although he originally wanted to become a mathematician when he was young, he ended up following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather and studied architecture instead. He studied under Heinrich Tessenow at the Institute of Technology in Berlin, eventually becoming Tessenow's assistant. After completing his studies in 1931, he married Margarete Weber. Later that year he was persuaded by some of his students to attend a Nazi Party rally, where he found himself mesmerized by the words of Adolf Hitler. Within weeks he was a member of the Party.
His first commission as a Party member came in 1933 when Joseph Goebbels asked him to renovate the Propaganda Ministry. Goebbels was impressed with his work and recommended him to Hitler, who assigned him to help Paul Troost renovate the Chancellery in Berlin. Speer's most notable work on this assignment was the addition of the famous balcony.
Troost died in 1934, and Speer was chosen to replace him as the Party's chief architect. One of his first commissions after his promotion was perhaps the most familiar of his designs: the Nuremberg parade grounds seen in Leni Riefenstahl's propaganda masterpiece, Triumph of the Will. The grounds were based on ancient Doric architecture of the Pergamum Altar in Turkey, but magnified to an enormous scale, capable of holding two hundred and forty thousand people. At the 1934 Party rally on the parade grounds, Speer surrounded the site with one hundred and fifty anti-aircraft searchlights. This created the effect of a "cathedral of light," as it was called by British Ambassador Sir Neville Henderson.
Nuremberg was also to be the site of many more official Nazi buildings, most of which were never built; for example, the German Stadium would have held another four hundred thousand spectators as the site of the Aryan Games, a proposed replacement for the Olympic Games. While planning these buildings, Speer invented the theory of "ruin value." According to this theory, enthusiastically supported by Hitler, all new buildings would be constructed in such a way that they would leave aesthetically pleasing ruins thousands of years in the future. Such ruins would be a testament to the greatness of the Third Reich, just as ancient Greek or Roman ruins were symbols of the greatness of their civilizations.
In 1937 Speer designed the German Pavilion for the World's Fair in Paris, France, which was located directly across the street from the Soviet Pavilion. It was designed to represent a massive defense against the onslaught of communism, although both pavilions were awarded gold medals for their designs.
Speer was also directed to make plans to rebuild Berlin, which was to become the capital of a supra-German state -- Germania. The first step in these plans was the Olympic Stadium for the 1936 Summer Olympics. Speer also designed a new Chancellery, which included a vast hall designed to be twice as long as the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles. Hitler wanted him to build a third, even larger Chancellery, although it was never begun. The second Chancellery was destroyed by the Soviet army in 1945.
Almost none of the other buildings planned for Berlin were ever built. Berlin was to be reorganized along a central three-mile long avenue. At the north end, Speer planned to build an enormous domed building, based on St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. The dome of the building would have been impractically large; it would be over seven hundred feet high and eight hundred feet in diamter, sixteen times larger than the dome of St. Peter's. At the southern end of the avenue would be an arch based on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, but again, much larger; it would be almost four hundred feet high, and the Arc de Triomphe would have been able to fit inside its opening. The outbreak of World War II in 1939 led to the abandonment of these plans.
Hitler supposedly had a weakness for the young and handsome Speer, whose designs were considered expressions of National Socialist principles. Hitler made him Minister of Armaments and War Production in 1942 to replace Fritz Todt, who had been killed in a plane crash.
He worked diligently to increase war production, often through the use of slave labour, even though it became more and more obvious that Germany was facing imminent defeat. However, he also became one of the few Nazi leaders to stand up to Hitler and his increasingly maniacal demands. Speer refused to carry out Hitler's scorched earth policy, and even planned an assassination attempt in 1945. Despite this, Hitler continued to consider Speer a friend, and Speer was one of the last people he spoke to before he committed suicide.
Speer pleaded guilty in the Nuremberg trials after the war and was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment in Spandau Prison, West Berlin, largely for his use of slave labour. His release from prison in 1966 was a world-wide media event. He published several semi-autobiographical books until his death in London on September 1, 1981 - exactly 42 years after World War II began. His books such as Inside the Third Reich provided a unique and personal look into the personalities of the Nazi era. However, many critics believe that his books understate his role in the atrocities of the era.
His son also became a successful architect and was responsible for the design of Expo 2000 - the world exposition that took place in Hanover in the year 2000. He also designed the Shanghai International Automobile City.