Behind closed doors - Tempelhof Airport

It seems like ages ago that I last visited Platz der Luftbrücke, back in November 2009. It's the perfect time to return though, because interesting things are happening at Tempelhof...

The entrance to Tempelhof airport

The building was designed by Ernst Sagebiel in 1934, a suitably monumental structure to form part of Hitler and Albert Speer's plans for the rebuilding of Berlin. The shape, when seen from the air, is reminiscent of the Nazi Reichsadler (eagle of the empire) - the area which is now Platz der Luftbrücke was originally intended to be completely encircled by buildings, forming an equivalent to the Nazi Reichsadler's wreath (Wikimedia Commons has a decent image if you don't know the eagle I'm talking about).

Construction began in 1937 and a topping out ceremony was held in 1939, marking the completion of the building's frame. A celebration was held for the workers in the Deutschlandhalle, where 5000 portions of Eisbein - a boiled, cured ham hock - were served (there are more fascinating facts on its history in this letter from Ernst Sagebiel on the website of the Berlin Island Association).

It still wasn't ready for use in 1945, when war ended. During the war, flights continued from the old airport buildings on the site, which were destroyed in the war.
The airport found itself in the American zone and it was under American control that the new airport building became functional, the completed facilities opening in 1962. It continued to serve as a major US military airfield right through the cold war, as well as accepting commercial flights up until 1975, when Pan Am and British Airways transferred their remaining flights to the newly built terminal at Tegel. It opened again to civilian traffic in 1985, accepting mainly short haul and private aircraft, as the length of its runways limited the size of aircraft which could land there when fully laden (Pan Am 747s were twice brought to the airport for open days, but without passengers or cargo to shorten their stopping and take off distances).

Its crucial role in the Berlin airlift of 1948-49 earned Tempelhof a special place in the affections of many Berliners. This led to some controversy when it was closed in 2008 in a rationalisation of Berlin's airport facilities in preparation for the opening of Berlin Brandenburg International (scheduled for autumn 2011).

As I walk up to the main entrance though, it looks like the doors are open and people are going in. I stand for a moment to see whether the security guards on the door are checking for passes of any kind, but no, it doesn't look like it. I think it's time to have a look inside...

The entrance hall

This entrance hall was planned by Sagebiel to be the full height of the tall windows at the front of the building. A false ceiling was installed in the 1950s building phase, reducing the monumental scale of the hall but also, I suspect, making it quite a bit darker than intended.

A pair of young women peer round from a doorway as I'm taking the picture. They look at me and giggle, waiting for me to take it, before disappearing again. Well, ladies, if you're out there, you've achieved fame here on (well...sort of).

The check in hall

It turns out there's a design festival taking place inside. I don't have the time to look at the festival, but I do have the time to wander around the check-in hall a bit.

Like a lot of buildings of the era, its proportions are quite classical, but the lines are far more stark and modern. The shell limestone used in the building's construction is also quite typical for the period. Like in the entrance hall, the ceiling here is a 1950s addition.

It hasn't really changed an awful lot since the 1960s, though the small shop and the seating for waiting passengers has been removed. The luggage conveyor (a more recent addition) is now the only place left to sit.

Visitors sitting on the disused luggage conveyor

Compared to airports in a lot of major cities, Tempelhof is incredibly close to the city centre (roughly 5km as the crow flies to either Alexanderplatz or Zoologischer Garten). Its closure means a massive unused space (some 300 hectares) in central Berlin...or at least it did...

A cyclist on one of Tempelhof's taxiways

The airfield has been open as a park since May this year and now counts as the biggest park in Berlin. It would be wrong to expect a park in the traditional sense, though. While a small amount of work has been done to make the park ready for use by the public (some things have been fenced off, signs have been put up, a café has been put in and an area has been mown to be used as a barbecue area), it's still a disused airport and not carefully manicured parkland, or even idyllic wilderness. There is a certain feel of wilderness to it though, just more of the post-apocalyptic kind.

It's slightly unnerving to see just how close some of the nearby blocks of flats are to the ends of the runways. Apparently pilots got a clear view into the flats on the way in, which no doubt left the residents feeling glad they'd had blinds installed...

The park seems particularly popular with cyclists, who seem to enjoy riding round the taxiway that runs around the edge of the near-oval-shaped field and along the airport's two runways.

A cyclist relaxing on the grass

It's a bizarre windswept landscape, but a completely fascinating one, and one that's worth seeing before anything gets done to it - there's been talk of both re-landscaping and of building flats. The main entrance is on Tempelhofer Damm, opposite Tempelhof S-Bahn station.

Platz der Luftbrücke (U6) - for the main building
Tempelhof (U6) - for the park's main entrance
Tempelhof (S41, S42, S46, S47) - for the park's main entrance
Tempelhof Airport (disused)
Platz der Luftbrücke
12101 Berlin
Tempelhofer Feld Park main entrance˙
Tempelhofer Damm
12099 Berlin

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