The New Psychogeography of Tempelhof Airport, Once a Nazi Landmark

"You have the exhilarating feeling that you’re doing something Hitler wouldn’t have wanted you to do."
Tempelhof, 1937 (Stockholm Transport Museum)

This week, millions will take to the airways for Christmas travel. As families slog through the mundane reality of contemporary air travel, we might pause to reflect on the ghosts of airports past, and how they can reinvent themselves in the present. Some ninety years ago, the original site of Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport was conceived. Today, Tempelhofer Freiheit (Tempelhof Freedom), is an airport turned inside out: a masterpiece of adaptive reuse and a powerful rebuke to the demons of Germany’s past.

Ernst Sagebiel began expanding an existing airfield in 1934 as the first architectural salvo in Hitler’s creation of Welthauptstadt Germania (World Capital Germania). A strong, clean, brash fascist style infuses the aesthetic of what was at the time the largest building in Europe. Indeed, it was much more spacious than it needed to be: only a small part of the facility was ever actually used.

The façade’s simple and powerful rows of limestone columns were intended to convey the regime’s purity and indestructible force. The terminal building features a 1,200-meter-long arc of hangars beneath a massive roof that seems magically cantilevered out over the landing bays, an innovation that protected embarking and disembarking passengers from the elements. The design was meant to suggest an eagle in flight, with the semicircular hangars representing the bird’s spread wings.

A breathtakingly massive entrance hall exemplifies the Third Reich’s aspirations of grandeur: “The mother of all modern airports,” Sir Norman Foster called it. Both symbolically and literally, this extravagantly preening complex embodied the Nazis’ most heinous iniquities. Columbia-Haus, the only SS concentration camp within Berlin, was located on Tempelhof’s edge. There, forced labor was conscripted to produce combat aircraft, including the Stuka dive bomber. After the war, though, Tempelhof became associated with liberation instead of tyranny: it became the main landing field for “Operation Vittles,” the 1948-49 Berlin airlift. The Western Allies countered the Soviet blockade with 200,000 shipments of fuel and food that kept the city alive—in a remarkably massive effort of efficient planning and coordination, C-54s took off and landed every 3 minutes. Dick Kramer’s 1987 mural commemorating Berlin’s heroic resistance and America’s Cold War machismo still hangs in Tempelhof.

Berlin’s Tegel Airport, also in the Western sector, opened in 1948 to provide extra capacity for the airlift. In the East, Schönefeld was East Germany’s airport. All three airports operated commercially until 1975, when Pan Am and British Airways abandoned Tempelhof for Tegel, which had longer runways and more modern facilities; Tempelhof remained active only as a U.S. military base. It reopened commercially for short commuter flights in 1981, but after the fall of the Berlin Wall, German aviation officials planned to close Tempelhof and Tegel, leaving only a single Berlin airport—appropriate to the newly unified city and country. A field just adjacent to Schönefeld was developed as Berlin Brandenberg Willy Brandt Airport (a project that has been plagued by inefficiencies and construction flaws and is, at this writing, already two years past its announced opening date). Tempelhof finally shut down in 2008.

Plans are underway, albeit at Berlin’s typically lugubrious pace, to develop Tempelhof’s interior space, perhaps into a center for tech start-ups or some similarly trendy urban renewal scheme. Various civic agencies already occupy a few offices. The lofty arrival hall is rented out for occasional gala banquets and trade fairs, though most of the foot traffic through the massive compound is comprised of people like me taking the fascinating “urban-exploration” tours. But for the moment, it is mostly in a state of vacant disuse, which seems like a perfect comeuppance to the fascist hubris of its beginnings. It is a big waste of space; its bloated monumentality founders.

But outside, Tempelhof tells a different story. The site is close to central Berlin—only a 15-minute bike ride from the Tiergarten. The airport grounds have become a park, a festival, a happening. Basketball courts, football (soccer) fields, and baseball diamonds host leagues of amateur sports teams and pick-up games.

A grillplatz (barbecue area) accommodates hundreds of families, emitting thick clouds of smoke that recall—at least for someone forcing a trenchant historical juxtaposition—the airplane exhaust from when it was a working airport, though these fumes are much less noxious and more inviting than jet emissions.

This smoke bears the aroma of a new Berlin: its odors are equal parts brats and kebabs; there’s a large Turkish mosque and cultural center right next to the airfield. I’ve never seen such a diverse mix of people anywhere else in Berlin; Turks, Asians (there’s a Hindu Temple down the street), and Western Europeans seem so comfortable together. Hitler would have hated it! It’s as if the newness of this space makes it a blank slate, so there are no traditions of exclusion here. Every single kid here is happy—how often can you say that at a “real” airport?

This is an immensely large space—which makes it all the more promising as a breeding-ground for the communities of the future. You could put a half-dozen more baseball fields in and still not make a dent in the footprint. Certainly you realize that an airport is a significant chunk of real estate when you’re on an airplane, pushing back from the gate and moving down the taxiway, onto the runway, and 6,000 feet later up into the air. But until you’ve been to Tempelhofer Freiheit you’ve almost certainly never experienced airport space on a human scale. There is enough room here to do just about anything..

Presented by

Randy Malamud

Randy Malamud is the Regents' Professor of English at Georgia State University. His most recent book is An Introduction to Animals and Visual Culture.

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