Berlin: A historic airport reinvents itself

When a remarkable, historic airport closed, Berliners were challenged to preserve its past while finding a new function for it. They’ve invented numerous novel uses – including that of a Formula E racetrack.

It’s hard to imagine Berlin and not think of Tempelhof. First, it’s enormous. At three square kilometres, the site is twice the size of London’s Hyde Park and nearly that of New York City’s Central Park. Second, it is right in the middle of the city, a half-hour by bike or public transport, or 20 minutes by car from the magnificent mile known as the Kurfurstendamm. Third, Tempelhof is both infamous and famous– as a showcase airport of the Nazis and as a pillar of the Berlin Airlift.

Getting rid of Tempelhof would be akin to removing the Colosseum from Rome or razing the Kremlin in Moscow or erasing the Pyramids in Cairo – a no-go. But still, cities change, and Berlin has changed greatly since 1989, when its so-called ‘Antifascist Protection Rampart’ was breached. The city-divided-since-1945 reunited in 1990, its respective countries West Germany and East Germany reunified, and in 1999, Berlin was restored as capital of the entire country, which it had been up to the end of World War II.

In the three post-wall decades, Berlin’s global stature vaulted with the return of central government. Prosperity soared. West Berliners’ incomes doubled, while those of East Berliners nearly tripled. Most of all, two competing cities and regions became one. This prompted rethinks of all sorts, not least the configuration of regional airports.

Even before reunification, Tempelhof’s traffic had declined due to too-short runways and dated infrastructure. By the mid-1980s, most West Berlin flights flew in and out not of Tempelhof but Tegel, to the city’s west, and most East Berlin flights went to Schoenefeld to the southeast. Fall-of-the-wall opened an opportunity to consolidate all commercial flights in one place: the pick went to Schoenefeld. A 2008 referendum to keep Tempelhof running as a city airport was rejected by voters, so later that year, flight operations were shut down permanently. 

What now?
Suddenly, a huge, undivided, central plot was up for grabs. Various groups proposed various uses: park, arena for concerts or rallies, business incubator, museum, sports complex, vegetable garden and exhibition space. Rather than choosing one or a few, Berlin’s city government punted and in 2010 began opening Tempelhof to them all.

For the open space, a public-private partnership was set up to manage development and use. Dozens of projects have since been realised: urban farms, mini-golf courses, impromptu theatres, bicycle-repair workshops, grill and picnic zones, basketball courts, baseball diamonds, football pitches, dog runs and birdwatching niches. There is even the world’s first official playing field for Jugger – a mixture of rugby field hockey and quidditch. Former run- and taxiways are filled with sportspeople of many stripes: bikers, walkers, runners, skaters, dancers, BMXers and landsurfers.

Open to the public since 2010, Tempelhof Airport's tarmac, runways and surrounding fields offer Berliners three square kilometres of outdoor recreational space.

Especially on weekends, the open space takes on a festival feel. “Tempelhof has become a playground where you can experience the past and the future in a simultaneous, disorienting, thrilling rush,” writes novelist Nathaniel Rich in The Atlantic. “One chilly November afternoon, I found hundreds of Berliners strolling, running, and bicycling on the tarmac. Others flew kites, juggled, and gathered for picnics. A skateboarder holding a windsurfing sail glided by on the strength of the breeze. There is room for everything and everyone here.”

All well and good, but surely prime real estate such as this will ultimately be converted into offices, shops and flats, right? Actually, no. In 2014, despite the city’s affordable housing shortage, Berliners voted to protect the outdoor space in its current mixed use, rejecting a proposal that would have started redevelopment in 2021.

And the history?
At the same time, efforts were made to preserve Tempelhof’s past. On the field, a ‘history path’ of info markers tell its story over the centuries. Then there’s the terminal building itself, which bears witness to the history of Berlin – 1.2 kilometres long in the massive, muscular style favoured by its Nazi constructors. The terminal’s giant roof will house an interactive history gallery. And soon, the former air traffic control tower will reopen, offering visitors 360˚ views of the city.

Management of the buildings has been handed to another public-private partnership, which has recruited some 100 tenants. A former military officers’ hotel was converted into an incubator for IT firms. The gigantic arrivals and departures hall is used for galas, conferences and trade fairs. The annual Art Berlin show has moved to one of the former airplane hangars. Says one of the organisers, Maike Cruse: “The historic halls of Tempelhof create an international dialogue about Berlin’s art market.”

Art Berlin tempelhof
Art Berlin tempelhof

The indoor and outdoor spaces have also been repurposed for sporting events. The annual Berlin Marathon, with runners and hangers-on totalling 90 000, is based out of Tempelhof. Formula E electric racing has found a steady home: Tempelhof hosted races in four of the last five years, including the 2019 Berlin E-Prix in May.

It’s still a place of arrival and departure, so it’s a good metaphor for a city experiencing change.

Finally, there is a temporary use that fits none of the above categories. In 2016, parts of the terminal and hangars were repurposed to house refugees, mostly from Syria and Iraq, who poured into Europe in the wake of the Syrian civil war. Up to 7000 asylum seekers have taken shelter there in Spartan conditions – likened by one journalist to living in a train station. Their tenancy will end this year, reports the newspaper Berliner Morgenpost.

All Tempelhof refugees will move to a nearby former convalescence home, with better infrastructure to support daily life. So redevelopment has not gone in a straight line, but Tempelhof is en route to its next stage in history. “It’s still a place of arrival and departure,” says Thomas Oberender, director of one of Tempelhof’s public-private partnerships. “And so it’s a good metaphor for a city experiencing change.”

From past to present: A history of Tempelhof

If the ground could speak, that of Tempelhof would have a lot to say. References to the sprawling pitch date back to the 1300s, when it was used by crusaders (Knights Templar). When Berlin became the capital of Prussia in 1701, it hosted military manoeuvres and parades as well as a graveyard for fallen soldiers. When aviation emerged in the early 1900s, Tempelhof’s huge, flat surface proved ideal for takeoffs and landings.

A proper airport for Germany’s then leading city followed in 1923, and when the Nazis came to power a decade later, they upgraded it to a global showplace. Construction of the current airport buildings started in 1937, coming to a halt in 1939 due to the start of World War II. Though never fully completed, Tempelhof became an icon of Nazi architecture: huge austere buildings in totalitarian style, replete with imposing imperial eagles made of stone. More gruesome was the addition soon thereafter of a prison for use by the secret police (Gestapo) and, during World War II, a concentration camp for forced labourers who worked in the hangars and halls to make weapons.

Tempelhof is not just a masterwork of civil engineering; it’s a symbol of freedom.

In mid-1945, Tempelhof became part of the American Zone of West Berlin. The US military housed and trained troops there, but most notably used it as the receiving end of the Berlin Airlift. In 1948–9, some 300 000 Allied flights defied a Soviet Union land blockade to deliver food, clothes and life supplies to a besieged city – as the world watched. “Tempelhof is a not just a masterwork of civil engineering,” says Irina Dahne, a director of one of the management companies now running Tempelhof. “It’s a symbol of freedom.”

The airport’s prominence faded thereafter. From the 1950s to the 1980s, Tempelhof shifted its focus from military to civil, and even that wound down steadily. By the 1990s, it hosted only short- and mid-distance flights, and was shut down completely in 2008. Since then, it has seen mixed use – mainly as a park.

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