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Tempelhof airport has become the site of a battle for freedom from development

Owen Hatherley
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The eerie unused space of Tempelhof field is increasingly scarce in Berlin, writes Owen Hatherley

Berlin’s Tempelhof field is not like the average public space. Larger than the principality of Monaco, it lacks tree cover, benches, bandstands, or more recent accoutrements like abstract water features or backless granite seating. It’s an immense wasteland, its flatness broken only by allotments and some tents for barbecues, framing a disused airport and a skyline view of power stations, office blocks and the back ends of tenements, a space unlike any other public park in Europe. Last month, a referendum decided that it will stay this way in perpetuity, defeating the Berlin mayor’s proposal to built flats and a library on the site. So what has caused such enthusiasm for this empty airfield?

The site last hit the news in 2008, when another referendum was taken over whether it should remain as a working airport. This had the support of a strange coalition of Berlin rabble-rousers, Angela Merkel and Norman Foster but, despite a majority for retention, the turnout was too low to be valid. The main piece of architecture on the site is the original Tempelhof airport, built in 1936-9 to the designs of Ernst Sagebiel, as part of the main axis of Albert Speer’s Germania. There is no Nazi-era building so popular as Tempelhof, which is peculiar, as its provenance is obvious. The sculpted eagles, the stripped travertine columns, the monumental symmetry, a middlebrow neo-Georgian that has become militarised, abstracted and blown right out of scale, the attempt to combine a severe, heavy, eternal classicism with the repetition and reduction of modernity, all are inescapable products of the Third Reich’s aesthetics. Not all Nazi-era buildings have Tempelhof’s sinister suaveness, and few would be likely to be praised fulsomely by someone like Foster, who called it ‘the mother of all modern airports’, but since its closure in 2008, the airport and its runways have become something rather less authoritarian.

It’s remarkable just how much can grow on a disused airfield in less than six years. The density of undergrowth has even led to demands that it be preserved on account of the flora and fauna. This was part of the rationale for the successful ‘Tempelhof 100%’ anti-development campaign. But perhaps a bigger motivation is indicated by the official name of the new park: ‘Tempelhof Freedom’. This refers to one of the better-remembered parts of a mostly ugly history. Information points inform walkers that the site doubled as a concentration camp during the war, but more attention is given to its role in the airlift of 1948 - the airport was the conduit through which the western allies brought supplies when the Soviets blockaded Berlin. But the ‘freedom’ being fought for now is a subtler one.

The wartime destruction of Berlin and its division by the Wall - with its large, overgrown ‘death strip’ - meant that, by 1990, the new German capital had far more empty, open space than any city of comparable size. The post-reunification reorientation, led by planner Hans Stimmann - whose edicts promoting an austere, stripped classicism had some unfortunate historical associations - unsurprisingly aimed to densify, remaking the city’s holes into ‘normal’, built-up 19th century streetblock-and-courtyard urbanism. As a result, one of the city’s formerly most dominant features, its eerie, unused space, is increasingly scarce. After comprehensively beating proposals to build flats here, Berlin’s activists may soon find themselves contending with the proposals for the new park - Sutherland Hussey and Gross.Max won a competition in 2011. They may find that the icy aesthetic of contemporary public space, as represented by London’s Queen Elizabeth II Park, stands in the way of that free, open waste.

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