Templehof is one of Europe’s most famous and intriguing airports. It’s perhaps best known for its role in the Berlin Airlift at the height of the Cold War.
Closed since 2008, this historic airport is soon to get a 21st Century makeover.
There are plans to make a big cultural splash with an attraction to rival the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Tate Modern in London.
Two competing schemes have been unveiled which propose a cultural centre with galleries, event spaces, restaurants and a public library surrounded by housing.
One of the designs has been compared to a “concrete spaceship” whilst the other looks rather like a crystal glass snow dome.
Every contemporary city, it seems, has to have its own big architectural ‘statement’ building, from Bilbao’s Guggenheim to the Louvre Annexe Museum in Lens.
But Templehof’s grand designs have raised more than a few eyebrows with Berliners who, since its closure, have embraced the large empty spaces around the former airport as a massive recreation park.
The old airport runaways are popular with urban skaters, cyclists, dog walkers and picnicking families.
Some have signed a petition to keep the big, shiny new development away. Others have dubbed the ambitious scheme a “vanity project”.
We’ll have to wait seven years to see the realisation of the £225 million vision for Templehof which is due to start construction in 2016.
Having visited Templehof when it was an airport, I wonder how this grand cultural scheme will be received by Berliners and international tourists?
Personally, I prefer designs that are sympathetic to the original style of the old Templehof rather than a space age vision.
I would have liked a bigger nod to the airport’s aviation history, perhaps in the form of a museum. But perhaps Berlin needs a new library and gallery more than another aircraft museum?
Templehof’s place in history
I remember flying in to Templehof on my first trip to Berlin in 1991, a few short years after the Wall was torn down in 1989.
There was a huge sense of history as I walked across its marbled floors and through its arrivals lounge for the first time. In fact, I’ve rarely felt such a strong sense of an airport as a historic monument.
Templehof was a stark contrast to Brussels Airport from where I’d embarked on my short city-to-city flight.
The first thing that struck me was the airport’s massive size. Even today it remains one of the world’s largest buildings.
My second thought was how much the architectural style reminded me of Hitler’s Nazi architecture with its rows of classical columns, huge hallways and a symbolic design that looked like an eagle in flight from above.
It was like turning back the clock to a time when Hitler was in control of Germany during the 1940s with its mix of classical architecture and monumentalism.
In reality the airport dates back much earlier. Templehof was one of Europe’s first city airports, originally constructed in 1927.
The original airport terminal became the first in the world served by an underground railway.
But Templehof really took off when Hitler’s government began a massive reconstruction in the mid-1930s.
The airport was part of Albert Speer’s plan for the reconstruction of Berlin under the Nazis. Architect Ernst Sagebiel was given the job of replacing the old terminal with a new building in 1934.
The airport was designed to be the gateway to Europe and a symbol of Hitler’s “world capital” – Germania.
The bold design was to make a big architectural statement about Hitler’s ideology and Germany’s status as a world power.
The Nazis also established Berlin’s only official SS concentration camp in the grounds of Templehof.
It was here that forced labourers from German-occupied countries were put to work building and servicing combat aircraft.
I’d never read anything about this little known piece of Templehof’s history until this year, a chilling story that should not be forgotten.
It’s shocking to imagine that there were around 450 prisoners at the concentration camp in 1934 living in cramped cells. Prisoners were intimidated, abused, and tortured, and some were murdered.
By 1944, more than 2,000 foreign workers were being used as forced labour at Tempelhof Airport.
The Cold War
Perhaps Templehof’s biggest claim to fame came during the Berlin Airlift of 1948 during the Cold War.
After the Second World War the Potsdam Agreement in 1945 divided Berlin into four occupation sectors – American, British, Russian and French.
But as the Cold War intensified, tensions ran high between the East and West powers. West Berlin became stranded, an island in the centre of the Soviet’s zone of occupation.
West Berlin was thrown a lifeline by the Allies who decided to use Templehof Airport to break the Soviet’s blockade of the city.
During the airlift, ‘Raisin Bombers’ flew in every 90 seconds to deliver 2 million tonnes of food, coal and essential supplies. It was a hugely important support operation for people living in West Berlin.
Throughout the Cold War, Tempelhof was the main terminal for American military transport aircraft accessing West Berlin.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, everything changed. Germany was reunified and Berlin’s two halves were united for the first time in over 40 years.
Templehof continued as an airport but eventually lost out to more modern complexes like Tegel and Schonefeld. The old airport closed in 1991 and eventually became home to trade fairs, special events and exhibitions.
Outside, where planes once flew in and out to worldwide destinations, the old runways have been replaced by recreation areas.
Today all I have is one small postcard of this remarkable historic airport which brings back a flood of memories (see above).
There is no escaping from the historic importance of Templehof which the British architect Sir Norman Foster describes as “the mother of all airports”.
As for the future, I wonder if Templehof’s grand designs will make their mark on history?
Travel guide to Templehof today
Look out for public tours of the main Templehof Airport building in Berlin. There is an admission charge.
The two hour tour takes in the following locations:
- The entrance hall designed in a monumental style by architect Ernst Sagebiel. This is an impressive sight which you won’t want to miss.
- The 18 metre-high and 100 metre-long check-in hall with the counters where airline passengers checked-in when the airport was still operational. Its striking design and sheer size made a big impression on me in 1991.
- The so-called “Ballsaal” (“ballroom”) located above the check-in hall where the Americans set up sport facilities including a sport hall after 1945.
- The rooftop terrace where visitors can get a spectacular panoramic view over vast parts of Berlin, Tempelhof Park and the large, arching airport hangars.
- The railway tunnel features a decommissioned railway track that runs along the entire building and crosses under the terminal building.
- The air-raid shelter contains several cellar rooms that were used as shelters during World War II.
- The film bunker where highly flammable material such as celluloid film was stored in secrecy. The bunker burned down and remains unchanged in its charred state today.
Admission to the Tempelhofer Freiheit Recreation Park is free. Opening hours run from early morning to sunset (winter), later in summer.
Tempelhofer Freiheit is one of the largest urban projects in Berlin. When complete, the urban park will be as big as Hyde Park in London.
The nearest U-Bahn and S-Bahn stations are Tempelhof in Berlin. For a full list of public transport, go to the park’s website.
This interactive map gives a great information about the history of the Templehof Airport and the former air field.
This video provides a brief tour of Templehof Airport today with shots of the interiors and a guide to the complex.
Credits: Images of Templehof Airport and recreation park are copyright and courtesy of Tempelhofer Freiheit.