A bold transformation of Berlin Tempelhof airport is now taking shape, allowing visitors to take historic tours and play on its redundant runways.
How many keys does it take to run an airport? In the case of Berlin Tempelhof, 44,000. That’s how many keys were handed to city officials when this gargantuan complex closed in 2008. Constructed by the Nazis in 1936-41 (and never finished) it remains one of the largest buildings in the world, stretching for 1.2km with 7,266 rooms, 300 air raid shelters and 70,000 power sockets.
These are the thought-provoking stats that await on a guided tour of this richly historic airport, which pre-pandemic attracted 70,000 visitors a year. A 20-minute U-Bahn ride from the city centre, Tempelhof has a revered place in the birth of flying – US aviator Orville Wright made experimental flights here and in 1909 300,000 Berliners turned out to watch a pioneering Zeppelin cruise overhead. Deutsche Luft Hansa, the precursor of Lufthansa, started scheduled services from the airfield in 1926 and within six years was operating a global network with a fleet of 155 aircraft.
Dominating Tempelhof’s north-west corner is a colossal curved terminal that was the epitome of Nazi pomp with austere façades that are still decorated with haughty eagles. The dark side to this story can’t be ignored – in the 1930s this was the site of a military prison and concentration camp, and during the war fighter planes were built here using forced labour.
At the same time, Berlin Tempelhof is celebrated as a landmark in airport design with its dedicated areas for arrivals, departures and cargo plus attendant hotels, restaurants and congress centre. Sir Norman Foster, the prolific British architect who designed London Stansted and Hong Kong airports, has described Tempelhof as “one of the really great buildings of the modern age”, praising its cantilevered structure as “engineering that really lifts the spirit”.
A field of experimentation
But now what? This is the challenge facing Tempelhof Projekt, the organisation charged with repurposing a massive, ageing building in which everything from a basketball court installed by the US Air Force to the parking lots are listed. “Our goal is to give something back to the city,” explains Aljoscha Hofmann, a member of its development team. “A third of the buildings are now in use,” he reports, and some 80 businesses and institutions have taken space including musicians, digital agencies and the Berlin Police. The terminal has also been used as a film location, appearing in hits such as Indiana Jones and The Hunger Games. Avgeeks touring the departures hall can have fun deciding if the airline names hanging over check-in desks are real or fictional. Anyone flown Cirrus Airlines, SkyFly or Air Bourbon?
By next spring visitors will be able to ascend the air traffic control tower and there are plans to turn some of its mammoth hangars into cultural attractions. These include the relocation of Berlin’s Allied Museum in Dahlem which documents the history of the Western powers in the city, including the vital role Tempelhof played in the Berlin Airlift of 1948-49 when up to 1,000 military planes were landing daily.
Now known as Tempelhofer Feld, the airfield has become a vast, level recreational area where bees and butterflies thrive and there is a meadow with endangered Skudde sheep. Slightly larger than New York’s Central Park, it is best explored by bike although it feels strangely naughty to go pedalling along the broad runways. Passing the merry cavalcade of dog walkers, joggers, rollerbladers and mad adventurers windsurfing on skateboards, it is undoubtedly a blessing that Berliners rejected plans to develop the site and instead created “a field of experimentation for renewed harmony”. It is a bold transformation that heeds the Biblical call to turn swords into ploughshares; and that’s a message that’s as important as ever.
For tours and information see thf-berlin.de
Words: Nigel Tisdall