The New Psychogeography of Tempelhof Airport, Once a Nazi Landmark

And what people do is: walk, lounge, barbecue, jog, bike, rave and dance, skate, play, flirt, scribble in chalk on the tarmac, cross-country ski, sunbathe. If this were a working airport, the fields would be subject to meticulous “grass management” regulations to ensure that the grasslands don’t grow higher than six inches (otherwise, birds begin to forage and pose bird strike hazards to aircraft). But here, no airplanes—so, no problem.

The runways themselves are the most fun, the most interesting place to be. You feel keenly aware of how you’re not supposed to be there, except . . . you are. And you’re not going to get hit by a plane—though if you’re not careful, you could get swiped by a bike, but that’s not too likely, because, again, there is so much room at Tempelhof: plenty of space for everyone to do his or her own thing.

There’s something cool and liberating about being where you’re not supposed to be: I’ve felt this walking through New York City’s High Line, a vertical park recycled from a disused elevated freight rail line, and in Paris’s earlier iteration of that concept, La Coulée Verte, or on a tour of the Paris sewers, or climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

People aren’t supposed to be perambulating through these places. Bridges, sewers, railways and airports are called “public works,” but generally they work only if the public is kept away. But at the Freiheit, everyone has free range of places humans aren’t supposed to inhabit. And the transgressive experience is more amazing than anywhere else because, as you walk outside the air palace meant to serve the glories of the Third Reich, you have the exhilarating feeling that you’re doing something Hitler wouldn’t have wanted you to do.

The airport has been inverted. It has become a destination in itself, rather than someplace people have to transit through to get somewhere else. Its grandiose interior sits empty, and the external landscape, designed for what was supposed to be simply the technical infrastructure of transportation, has blossomed into a playground of the human spirit. The war, the concentration camps, the mythos of lebensraum—all have been defused and cleansed by people using the space for the opposite of what it was meant to be used for.

Berlin is a city of palimpsests, and of fascinating tensions between the vital idealism of the present and the turbulent history of the recent past. Recycling and recreative projects like Tempelhofer Freiheit happen slowly, as they should—Berliners need to think carefully about the symbolism and the moral implications whenever they build, or tear down, or preserve, or commemorate anything. Elsewhere in Berlin, the oddly-named Topography of Terror is a new museum and memorial center built—after three decades of deliberations, plans started and abandoned and reconsidered—on the site of the Gestapo administration building. You can imagine how that project raised some hackles—reopening Gestapo Headquarters! Its sleek, modernist, gray-box design embodies everything the Nazis hated in architecture, which was a smart move, but the entire project underscores how charged public spaces can be in this city.

Everywhere in Berlin there are photographs—at cafés and stores, in the streets, in churches, at S-Bahn stations—of what the setting looked like in, say, 1890, and then again in 1942. There’s a ubiquitous determination to force citizens to consider every element of the cityscape before and during the war, which is clearly part of the process of figuring out what it should look like in the present moment: how it should feel, and how Berliners should remember the past in a way that will most intelligently inform how they will move forward into the future. At Tempelhof, they’ve achieved the task of transcending a bombastic fascist milieu by playing out on the lawn—making an insidiously overblown Nazi project both useful and harmless. Look how beautiful.

Telmpelhof’s pleasant beauty is a triumph of “psychogeography,” a term Guy Debord and the Situationist International (SI) movement coined to describe the effects of the geographical environment on people’s emotions and behavior. Tempelhof exemplifies what Debord called a constructed situation:  “A moment of life concretely and deliberately constructed by the collective organization of a unitary ambiance” that produces “a superior passional quality.” The SI lauded “any method of making one or more individuals critically analyze their everyday life, and to recognize and pursue their true desires in their lives,” and proclaimed that “situationist activity consists of setting up temporary environments that are favorable to the fulfillment of such desires.” Such is Tempelhofer Freiheit. “Beauty is in the street,” according to an SI slogan—and, I’d add, at the airport.

Debord celebrated the psychogeographic experience of dérive, or “drift”: “In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their usual motives for movement and action—their relations, their work and leisure activities—and let themselves be drawn in by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.” Tempelhof, in my humble opinion, provides the most effective dérive imaginable in our immediate moment. This free-place demonstrates the power of imaginative human determination to redress the mistakes of the past, however tragically egregious.


An ongoing series about the hidden lives of ordinary things
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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