Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport: Community and Controversy
By Margarita Delcheva
BERLIN — A large rainbow-painted skeleton sculpture sits on a bench in the community gardens at the former Tempelhof airport, which Berliners are now enjoying as an open-field park. A tall young woman, in a teal dress with a fuchsia hem, carries a wicker basket wrapped in a Russian-style scarf, as if from another time.
“Would you like to buy some vegan cheesecake?” asks Lara Krumm, whose small business of homemade sweets funds her yoga studies. Krumm frequents these gardens and knows many of the local residents.
On sunny days Tempelhof is packed, Krumm says. This Friday, however, is cloudy and cold for July, so visitors sit on benches at the gardens for quiet contemplation. Kites fly over small garden plots where sunflowers surround improvised scarecrow dolls.
After a city-wide referendum, development of the vast field of Tempelhof has been staved off. Now Krumm and her neighbors can come together for outdoor games, sports, or weekend barbecuing.
What to do with the airport’s 1927 terminal building — considered one of the largest structures in the world — is still an open question and has been pre-occupying Berliners for more than a decade.
“Only the Pentagon in Washington and Ceausescu’s palace in Bucharest [are] bigger,” said Manfred Kühne, who heads Berlin’s planning department.
Tempelhof’s transformations over the years tell a story of horror, heroism, and neglect. The airport started in the mid 1920s as an important European air hub, and was central to Nazi architect Albert Speer’s plans for “Germania,” a vision of a fascist future. By the mid to late 1930s, Tempelhof had already been repurposed for the development of war plane technology by Hitler’s SS guard and the Luftwaffe air force, with the unwilling help of forced labor. They and political prisoners were held and tortured at Tempelhof from 1933 to 1936 at the Columbia concentration camp, a former military jail.
After World War II, Tempelhof housed refugees fleeing East Germany and was the site of the 1948–49 Berlin airlift through which the Allied powers supplied a besieged West Berlin. Then foreign air companies operated flights in and out of Tempelhof, as a popular “gateway to the world” for the isolated island of West Berlin. The airport welcomed international stars for the Berlin Film Festival during the Cold War and became a symbol of glamour and media attention.
But, as times changed, in 1975 the civilian airport ceased operation due to the affordability of alternate travel options. A partial reopening in 1985 saw flights resume but did not fully restore the renown of Tempelhof and soon after the fall of the 1989 Berlin Wall the newer Schönefeld airport on the outskirts of eastern Berlin was attracting customers from all over the region. A 2001 plane crash and ensuing doubts about airport safety in inner Berlin led to a referendum in 2008, which brought about the end of Tempelhof as a fly zone.
Numerous proposals have been put forward for the airfields and the vast terminal building, including constructing housing or the largest library in Europe — and two public referendums have been held.
“We feared it would become the largest garbage dump and drug dealing place in the globe,” said city planner Kühne. In 2010, the airfields finally opened as Tempelhofer Feld park, but the terminal building is still empty. In 2012 it was used as an events center, including hosting international automotive and design conventions and rock concerts. “Our mandate was not to spend public money,” Kühne said of the period when Berlin was facing bankruptcy.
Then came the refugee crisis of 2015 and Tempelhof was converted to the largest emergency refugee center in Europe, housing hundreds of migrants while they waited until their asylum claims could be processed. “It stopped everything we had started. It lasted until late 2018,” Kühne said. A total of 13,000 went through the makeshift tents in former airport hangars, which at their peak housed 2500 migrants.
Now that the city’s economy is booming again, officials are collaborating with resident groups to come up with a mixed-use complex. The site was considered as a solution to the shortage of administrative space for the local government, but when structural research was done on the buildiing it was found to be “half a ruin,” Kühne said, and those working on the premises have been flooded out, “a disaster.”
There were hopes that Tempelhof would be a role model among the city’s public-private-civilian partnerships for development. “We have a new obsession with functional and social use mixture,” he said. “We [in Berlin] are giving up the idea of every building having one premise of its own.” Kühne says the hope is to build 30 percent affordable housing in any largescale redevelopment to create “affordable housing in unaffordable cities.”
But plans at Tempelhof were again thwarted, this time by height and density restrictions. “Now we are in restart mode,” Kühne said. “We keep learning by failing.”
Meanwhile, as a park, the outdoor expanse of Tempelhof is a grand success and attracts residents and tourists alike. Walking or riding bicycles along the vast runways, one has a different experience of scale. What used to be a place for large machines is now a park for the weekend activities of families. Runway marker numbers still stand, alongside exhibit panels that recount Tempelhof’s history. (Orville Wright, the Graf Zeppelin, and Charles Lindbergh all flew here.)
Once a site of labor exploitation and torture under the Nazis, the current version of Tempelhof hosts fields of wild native vegetation and community food gardens — a place for roaming the open spaces. Here and there, mini-golf corners, beach volleyball fields, and scooter rental booths mark the vast geography of one of Berlin’s most cherished inner-city breathing spaces.
With reporting by Nomi Morris.
Margarita Delcheva is a UC Santa Barbara graduate student in Comparative Literature and a founding editor at Paperbag, an online poetry and art journal.
Nomi Morris is a journalist who teaches reporting and writing at UC Santa Barbara.