The Myth of Berlin's Tempelhof: The Mother of all Airports

By Reinhard Mohr

Flight pioneer Orville Wright flew over its grassy meadows, the first scheduled flight on Germany's national carrier Lufthansa took off from here and it was also the site of the Berlin Airlift. On Sunday, voters in Berlin will cast ballots on whether the city's decision to close Tempelhof Airport is the right one.

Candy Bombers: This photo is the view seen by American pilots as they took off on flights that brought urgently needed supplies to West Berlin, which had been completely cut off from the outside world by the Soviets.
AP

Candy Bombers: This photo is the view seen by American pilots as they took off on flights that brought urgently needed supplies to West Berlin, which had been completely cut off from the outside world by the Soviets.

This much is clear: Hardly any other capital in the world has an airport located practically in the middle of the city. It takes all of 15 minutes to get by bicycle from Berlin's Tempelhof Airport to the intersection of two of the city's most important thoroughfares, Friedrichstrasse and Unter den Linden, and 20 minutes to the Brandenburg Gate and the monumental Reichstag, which houses the German parliament.

From the roof of the airport's enormous, semi-circular complex, 1,230 meters (4,035 feet) from one end to the other, Berlin's sea of buildings seems as if it were set in the middle of a vast prairie, the flatlands that postwar West Germany's first chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, famously dubbed the beginnings of the Russian steppes. Other contemporaries had a considerably more romantic take on this unique sense of vastness. "The airport in Tempelhof unites the characteristics of an inland sea with the yearning for faraway places," a delighted observer once said. Axel Schultes, the architect who designed the new Chancellery in the city's Mitte district, even goes so far as to describe Tempelhof as an "icon of an airport."

On Sunday, Berliners will vote in a referendum on whether Tempelhof, which Sir Norman Foster called "the mother of all modern airports," should be closed at the end of the year or continue to exist as a commercial airport -- at least until the new Berlin-Brandenburg International (BBI) airport opens in 2013 in Schönefeld, a district located far from the city center.

In recent months, a dispute with the characteristics of a religious war erupted between proponents of keeping Tempelhof open and those who agree with the city's controversial decision to close it. All apparently rational arguments aside -- a host of legal, economic and environmental considerations as well as urban planning concerns -- the real issue is an idea, a myth and a legend surrounding a city that, over the past 100 years, has been remade more than once as a result of its harrowing history.

Two world wars and half a revolution in 1968, the "golden" twenties, Hitler and the Holocaust, the wreckage of the postwar period, the city's four-power occupying status imposed by the Allies and the legendary Berlin Airlift, when American "candy bombers" brought food and supplies to the city during the Soviet blockade of West Berlin in 1948, the construction of the Berlin Wall, the Stars and Stripes and the Cold War. For many, the Tempelhof question also touches on the identity of a city that changed rapidly after the Wall came down. It also raises issues of Berlin's future.

A Sheep Pasture in the Heart of the German Reich

At first, Tempelhof was nothing but a very large meadow on the southern edge of old Berlin, where shepherds brought their sheep to graze. It was known as Tempelhof Field, and it eventually became the site of military exercises for the Prussian army. Groups of decorated soldiers marched up and down Tempelhof, a parade ground for the army's infantry and cavalry units. Even Kaiser Wilhelm II would make the occasional appearance, as he did in the summer of 1896, when he toured the grounds on horseback, sporting an enormous plumed helmet.

Around the turn of the century, the 282-hectare (697-acre) site was still a popular destination for city dwellers on their Sunday strolls, as they left their gloomy rear courtyard dwellings behind for a day in search of bright sunlight, fresh air and distant views.

In August 1909, the American aviation pioneer Orville Wright rattled across the meadow in his home-made, consumptive flying machine, and accomplished the astonishing feat of remaining suspended in the air over Berlin for a full minute.

In 1926, after World War I had brought rapid advances in aircraft technology and a few other propeller desperadoes had completed their own adventurous flying experiments, the first scheduled flight of Deutsche Luft Hansa took off from Tempelhof Field, bound for Zürich. Indeed, the airline that eventually became today's German flag carrier Lufthansa was lifted from Tempelhof's baptismal font. Though already an airport at the time, Tempelhof consisted of only two small terminals and a makeshift runway. Zeppelins lifted off from Tempelhof, and the airport was already connected to Berlin's subway network by 1927.

Berlin was booming and about to replace Paris as Europe's key city. In his turn-of-the-century epic novel "Berlin Alexanderplatz," Alfred Döblin wrote that the cabarets and chorus lines on Friedrichstrasse were thriving, while the latest sports craze had taken off like wildfire. Faster, higher, farther -- those were the buzzwords of the new age. The wording in a 1929 advertising brochure for the World Advertising Convention reflected the expressionistic style of the day: "Life, pulsating life, is moving at breakneck speeds in Berlin, the heart of the Reich! Four million people on the go, one-fifteenth of the German people in quickstep! And while everything down on the ground is hurrying and pushing its way through the city, the motor sings from the skies! What a splendid sight: Tempelhof Airport!"

A Botched Nazi Creation with an American Imprint

The city's pulsating lifestyle came to an abrupt end in January 1933, when Hitler's storm troopers, or "brownshirts," marched through the streets of Berlin. In 1935, the Führer became personally involved in the plans for a "world airport" in his future capital, which would be renamed "Germania," and demanded that the new architecture be "eternal" and "overwhelming," even "crushing" and, most of all, that it attest to the "greatness of our faith."

The symmetrical complex, with its seemingly endless terminal, was constructed in record time, only two years, under the direction of Ernst Sagebiel, nicknamed the "Reich's Speedy Master Builder." When it was finished, the complex included 285,000 square meters (3,067,000 square feet) of space, divided among 49 buildings, 7 hangars and 9,000 offices. The results were impressive: surprisingly clean lines, with the narrow windows in the façade of the main building creating a rhythmic, cascade-like effect, combined with a touch of southern flair resulting from the generous use of shell limestone. It was a Teutonic bastion with Art Deco elements.

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