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

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.
Von Reinhard Mohr
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.

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.

Foto: AP

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.

A Backdrop for Dietrich and Monroe

The fact that the structure, which, next to the Pentagon in Washington and the monstrous parliament building in Bucharest, is one of the world's largest free-standing buildings, did not go down in history as a Nazi creation is due in part to its unquestionable esthetic quality and in part to American influences. The Americans were the ones who completed the departure terminal, a strangely fascinating building to this day, between 1959 and 1962. The Nazis, distracted by the war, had put the project on hold. They were more interested in assembling their bombers in an abandoned railroad tunnel in Tempelhof's vast catacombs.

When Soviet troops became the first to arrive at the airport in April 1945, they stormed the underground chambers. When they used hand grenades to blast open reinforced doors, the Wehrmacht's secret film and archive bunker went up in flames. The valuable celluloid burned for days, and the walls have remained blackened to this day.

After engaging in a power struggle with the Russians that lasted a few weeks, the US Armed Forces took over Tempelhof in July 1945 and expanded the complex, which even had its own power plant and hot water system, and used it as a base for decades. The last US troops were not withdrawn until 1993.

On the top floor of the building, where the Nazis had planned to build a large airport restaurant, the US Air Force installed a bowling alley and basketball court in a classic style that became a protected landmark long ago. The huge "Hall of Glory," as timeless as it was excessive, which the Nazi architects had originally designed as a five-story structure, was never completed. Hardly anyone today would imagine this Nazi "Hall of Glory" behind the simple lettering "Tempelhof Central Airport" above the entrance.

The 1960s were Tempelhof's heyday. Air travel was growing rapidly, and the stars and directors of the movies -- Marlene Dietrich, Billy Wilder, Gary Cooper, Marilyn Monroe, Romy Schneider -- were eager to use its grand scale as a backdrop for their public appearances.

The Beginning of the End

But the airport was also bursting at the seams, and Berlin's new Tegel Airport was opened in 1975. After that, things went downhill, slowly but surely, for Tempelhof. Passenger volume declined, partly because the runways were too short for the new, bigger jets. When Lufthansa finally moved all of its operations to Tegel in 1994, many other airlines followed suit. In 1996, the federal government, the city of Berlin and the surrounding state of Brandenburg reached their so-called consensus decision: Air traffic at Tempelhof would have to be cancelled as soon as the official approval of the plans for the city's new mega-airport, BBI, became law.

Construction of the new airport in Schönefeld has been underway for months, but the controversy over Tempelhof is still raging. Proponents want to see it preserved as a commercial airport, arguing that it is the ideal base for business and recreational aviation, as well as for special tasks with related service facilities. Opponents want to see Tempelhof turned into a museum, together with new residential buildings in a park-like setting.

There is one thing Tempelhof will continue to be, though: a monument from another time. Demolition is not in the cards for Tempelhof, which is protected as a historic landmark.

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