City of Change – Tempelhof Freedom

Berlin is often called a city of change; it has seen so much over the last century, has constantly adapted and redeveloped to cope with the times. There are many great examples of the city’s changing nature; Tempelhof Airport is just one of them. This week the monumental building just south of the city centre has seen over 100,000 visitors as host to Europe’s biggest street and urban fashion show – Bread & Butter. But this is just one of the multiple functions that the airport has served over the last 70 years.

The current building was built between 1936 and 1941, but the site had been a centre of aviation long before that. In the late 19th century the Prussian military used the field to experiment with gas balloons and in 1909 Count Zeppelin himself demonstrated his famed airship. A few days later Orville Wright flew his ‘aeroplane’ (or motorised ‘box kite’) on eight laps around the Tempelhof field. With the First World War making vast leaps in aviation development, air travel soon became a very popular venture. As the Treaty of Versailles called on Germany to dissolve all its military forces, the field became free for commercial use and the first flight took off from a somewhat improvised “Tempelhof Field Airport” on 8th October 1923. Remains of this first airport can still be seen today at the “Alte Hafen” (Old Harbour) in the north-east section of the field.

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(Picture www.tempelhoferfreihet.de)

The airport was rebuilt and expanded hugely under the National Socialist regime. As part of Hitler’s plans to create the ‘world capital’ Germania, Ernst Sagebiel was commissioned to design the new building. The result is a 1.2km arch of huge limestone facades, typical grandiose Nazi architecture that still makes an impact today. At the time of construction it was the largest building in the world, overtaken by the Pentagon just two years later. It was planned to open up on to a round plaza with a boulevard leading up to Schinkel’s Kreuzberg monument, the breakout of the Second World War meant that this was not completed, although models can be seen.

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(The planned plaza in front of the airport. Picture www.tempelhoferfreiheit.de)

However, during the war this did not just act as an airport. With a huge viewing platform on the roof, military parades were carried out below. The complex also houses underground bunkers (the contents of which were destroyed in a fire by Russian victors so we will never know what secrets they held), air raid shelters, a munitions and aircraft construction factory and a direct link to the underground railway system.

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(The forecourt of the airport with hanger sweeping away to the north. Picture Sarah Fisher)

It was after World War II that the building really came into its own as the focal point of the Berlin Air Lift. With Soviets cutting off the transport routes to West Berlin, the Western powers were forced to fly in all supplies to the city. From 16th June 1948 to 6th October 1949 nearly 2.3 million tonnes of basic supplies (food, coal etc.) were flown in to Tempelhof and Tegel airports. This hugely complex logistical operation was a great boost for American and British troops; just a few years previous they had been cast as the ‘enemies’ invading the city and now the people were welcoming these ‘raisin bombers’ who were keeping them fed and warm. In memory of this the square in front of the airport and its underground station have been renamed ‘Platz der Luftbrücke’ and a monument has been erected.

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(A monument to the Berlin Air Lift inside the terminal building. Picture Sarah Fisher)

Tempelhof then became a more conventional commercial airport. In 1926 the company ‘Deutsche Luft Hansa’ was founded in Berlin. This was the start for today’s Lufthansa, now the biggest airline in Europe. At its peak in the 1970s the airport would see over 5 million civilian passengers per year. The airport has a very central location, directly connected to the city’s U-Bahn network it was a very popular and convenient place to fly from. However, this central location also meant that further expansion was not possible unlike at the city’s other airports Schönefeld and Tegel which are situated further out of the city. With plans being made to make Schönefeld the single hub of Berlin (not as soon as people would like, we are still waiting for Berlin Brandenburg!), it was decided to close Tempelhof for good. Although there were protests and appeals against this plan, the last flight – an American Douglas DC-3 and a German Junkers Ju-52 – took off from the airport on 30th October 2008.

But closure does not mean the end, especially not in Berlin. In July 2009 the Bread & Butter fashion show came to Tempelhof, returning to Berlin after a brief move to Barcelona. This tradeshow is held twice a year and attracts visitors from all over the world. Following this success, the field was opened to the general public in May 2010, now fittingly called ‘Tempelhofer Freiheit’ (Tempelhof Freedom). Over the last two years it has become one of the most popular places to hang out in the city. The wide runways are great for running, cycling, rollerblading, skating and kite-flying (or a combination of these). There are also areas for barbecues and areas for letting your dogs run free. At certain times of the year some areas are restricted to protect the natural wildlife and their breeding seasons. A number of local initiatives can also be seen, from the recent ‘World Exhibition’ month-long art project to Segway hire to unicycling and minigolf to neighbourhood gardens and school projects.

There are a huge number of plans for the future of the Tempelhof field. These involve creating a water feature for water sports, a rock climbing cliff, more trees and pathways and a new S Bahn station. In 2017 the International Garden Exhibition will be held on the site – who knows what the park will look like by then?!

You can find out more about the building with a guided tour or just explore the park by yourself – there are plenty of old remnants of the former airport and the American forces who stayed here to be found. On the weekends the former dance hall of the American troops, Silverwings opens up and you dance away to rock n roll music all night long.

Maybe it’s just the massive open green field, or maybe it’s the impressive huge building in the distance or maybe it’s the air of history and what has gone on here before, but for me, it’s hard to find such a huge sense of space and freedom anywhere else in the city.

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(Sunset over the terminal building. Picture Sarah Fisher)

Sarah Fisher

Find out more here

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