How would it be if Rome’s mayor turned the Coliseum into a shopping mall? Or Athenian city councillors rented out the Acropolis for a fashion show? Or Stonehenge was designated as a business park? No doubt residents and foreigners alike would be outraged. So what’s going on with Tempelhof?
Tempelhof airport is the world’s most stunning example of fascist monumental architecture (closely followed by Berlin’s Olympic Stadium). It’s a former Royal Prussian parade ground, the spot where hot air balloons, Orville Wright and zeppelins once flew. It’s the airfield where the majority of American and British ‘candy-bombers’ landed during the Berlin air-lift, defeating Stalin’s attempt to starve the city into submission. It is the vast ‘mother of all airports’ – according to architect Norman Foster -- with façades of shell limestone and a 1.2 kilometre-long terminal building which features an enormous overhanging canopy that sheltered passengers disembarking from Junkers G-38 and Douglas DC-3s. There is no building like it anywhere, and Berlin’s leaders can’t agree on what to do with it.
It’s not an easy question to answer. Tempelhof’s runways and aprons cover an area equivalent to 525 football fields. The buildings are hugely expensive to maintain. The airport was closed to traffic late last year when apathetic residents couldn’t be bothered to vote for its continued operation. Since then the city government has rejected a promising proposal to turn the site into film studio, grasping instead at temporary, headline-grabbing solutions such as using it as the venue for the prestigious Bread and Butter fashion event next week.
This official intransigence has sparked real unease, especially among young Berliners who don’t want to see the city create another showcase for consumerism (like the uninteresting Potsdamer Platz and Alexa developments). Their fear is that the site will be turned into a wearisome and exclusive high-end shopping mall surrounded by luxurious housing developments and yet more sports complexes. Over the weekend these legitimate concerns were hijacked by left-wing activists who staged a ‘Squat Tempelhof’ demonstration where over 2,000 protesters tried to break-through the razor-wire-topped perimeter fence.
Today Berlin has the chance to learn from a similar opportunity squandered by Toronto. In the late 1970s the Canadian city acquired vast tracts of lakeshore land which had been owned by the railways. But rather than develop it as public and parkland, Toronto City Hall was seduced by the promise of tax revenue and crowded the shoreline with dozens of condominiums and apartment blocks. As a result the city lost much of its distinctiveness and – to some observers – became indistinguishable from Chicago, Milwaukee and other Great Lakes conurbations.
So will the Berlin Senat also be unable to resist the lure of lolly? Or will it have the political will to sustain Tempelhof’s importance for a new generation? For me, the answer is in imaginative mixed usage of the property. The bulk of the land could be maintained as a commons open to all, with a landscaped peace park and – say -- a world-class aviation museum, drawing together the Allied Museum and Luftwaffe Museum (now cast adrift respectively in Zehlendorf and Gatow) along with the aviation department of the Deutsches Technikmuseum. To generate income the airport’s offices could be modernised for rental, while the terminal building itself could be used as an intimate alternative to the sensationally-ugly Messe Berlin exhibition halls near Theodor-Heuss-Platz.
Don’t like that idea? Then post your suggestions here. I’ll forward them to Berlin’s determined and charming (or so I’m told) mayor Klaus Wowereit. Wowereit started his political career in 1984 as a councillor for the Tempelhof borough, so I trust he’ll respond…with imagination.