It always surprises me that history buffs visiting Berlin miss the haunting Berlin Wall Memorial. However, it always disappoints me when I hear that those interested in history—or aviation—miss the opportunity to tour the former Tempelhof Airport. Closed in 2008, Tempelhof was once called “the mother of all airports” by architect Sir Norman Foster, and you can catch snippets of the vast womb on a variety of two-hour tours offered by Tempelhofer Freiheit—“Tempelhof Freedom.” Though it may seem silly to tour a vacant airport, especially one that is now surrounded by a popular, well-maintained park, the Tempelhof Airport serves as a complex symbol of Germany’s past and an incredible field of possibility for the future of Berlin.
The original terminal of the Tempelhof Airport was constructed on parade grounds in 1927. The new terminal came about as part of Albert Speer’s Nazi-era plan for Berlin’s reconstruction, and was built by a forced labor crew from 1936 through 1941. There were labor camps on the airport grounds. It might be easy to look at the shell limestone façade as a symbol of oppression if this airport weren’t also the site of the Berlin Airlift. For 11 months starting in 1948, Berlin’s 2.5 million residents were sustained by food, coal, and other necessities flown into the city by the United States and Great Britain. The airport continued to be a source of life during the Cold War, as there were many other issues accessing West Berlin by both land and air. Tempelhof served as the base for American military transport aircraft until 1994, after the reunification of Germany.
Though some Germans, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, fought to keep Tempelhof active, the decision was initially made to close the airport in 1996. Due to declining air traffic, the final decision was reached to close the airport in 2007. Since its official closure in 2008, many plans for the future of the site have surfaced, and the airfields were reincarnated as a public park in 2010.
What to See
The public park on the former parade grounds has been kept preserved by strict hours that vary according to the season. Kite flying is a popular activity for both visitors and locals, or enjoying a walk (with an on-leash dog, if you have access to one!) Certain areas of the park are protected for the sake of wildlife, so please respect that. Park tours are available if you don’t feel up to biking around on your own (or shooting a skateboard video on one of the former runways!) Don’t miss the new trail displaying information on the Tempelhofer Feld—it encapsulates the site’s varied and complicated history.
As for the airport itself, many music festivals and fashion shows have found their form in the enormous building that now also houses office space. While these events are spectacular, I highly recommend the tours offered by Tempelhofer Freiheit, the new name for the former airport and the developments occurring on its grounds. On the public tour, you will, of course, see the main building, the largest listed monument in all of Europe. You get to experience everything from the stunning rooftop terrace, which provides an incomparable view of Berlin, to the soot of the burnt-down film bunker, initially designed to preserve celluloid. My favorite parts of the tour, which varies according to room availability, involved peeks at dusty spaces that had not been trod on for years. Look for these as you ascend the stairs. Special tours that focus on urban development are also available, and give those interested a glimpse into the plan for the future of the former airport.
Peering Into the Future
Like in many larger cities, Berlin boasts a growing anti-gentrification movement. Berlin is particularly hostile to tourists and has made more than a fuss about the future of this site. Though locals have the opportunity to enjoy the park on the grounds, British design firm GROSS. MAX. may turn the perimeter into the “crappy capitalist luxury project” that some activists feared. The terminal building will remain intact and will continue to feature community-fueled urban gardens. In the next five years, Berlin’s residents will see the construction of a library, as well as some new housing and transportation options on the grounds. In the future, there are plans for a school to be built and updated railway stations. Some locals are upset by this community planned for the park’s edges, and especially by developments that are supposed to sprout at the center of the park, such as a fake mountain peak. Appropriately enough, some archeologists were granted permission to dig before it was too late, and found many artifacts of Tempelhof’s Nazi past.
What is now Tempelhofer Freiheit has been repurposed again and again—from a death camp to a lifesource to a commercial airport to a practical park and it is a rare treat to see this monument mid-flux. If you are interested in what Berlin was and how Berlin’s planners see this city in the future, set aside a day for a barbecue and a tour. Tempelhof certainly won’t be the same the next time you visit.
Alan Carr is an avid aviation aficionado learning about the aspects of the flying world from the business to the technical, while also frequently writing on what he finds. He currently works with globalair.com to provide resources on aircraft related information.