Tempelhof Reborn

From the Nazi era to the Coldwar Airlift, Tempelhof airport has played its part in modern German history, now it is the most spellbinding park in Berlin.
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From the Nazi era to the Coldwar Airlift, Tempelhof airport has played its part in modern German history, now it is the most spellbinding park in Berlin.

In Berlin, sudden spaces in the urban sprawl can open up like gaps in a storied row of teeth. But even by the city’s standards, the latest spot returned to the wild is enormous: bigger than New York’s Central Park, larger than the Tiergarten. Quietly, it has grown in stature as increasing numbers of visitors have learned to enjoy its idiosyncrasies.

That space is the new park Tempelhofer Feld – or as you may better know it, the grounds of the recently closed Tempelhof airport, runways and all. It opened in May, but bears none of the normal signifiers of a park; rolling verdure, careful landscaping, ornament or edifice. It is an ersatz park – and all the more wonderful for it. Visitors have experimented to define it: A place which had no idea how to be a park.

It was originally designed by Albert Speer’s underling Ernst Sagebiel as the perfect gateway to Adolf Hitler’s Germania. The now iconic terminal building was constructed in 1934 and remains one of the biggest buildings in the world – and the longest in Europe, according to one chap I met wandering the runways. It is a vast, sweeping quadrant which from above looks like an eagle beating its wings and baring its talons. Fenced off from the rest of the park though, it is safe and serene and does not brood. The swastikas were chipped off it long ago and another episode in Berlin’s history tamed it.

That was the Berlin airlift – 320 days of standoff between East and West, when all routes into the divided island of Berlin were blockaded by the USSR in 1948. The western allies would not sacrifice the city and against all odds flew in coal, food and other supplies for the upkeep of West Berlin. It was a mighty effort and a defining eventin the nascent Cold War. Berliners have loved the place ever since.

The raisin bombers have given way to other vehicles now, and it is bikes, rollerblades, and all manner of kite-propelled craft that rule the Tempelhof tarmac. As knee-high children whiz past, the impulse to snatch them up to safety remains though, so alive do the runways feel, as if some thundering jumbo could swoop down on to them at any moment.

"Bigger than New York’s Central Park, larger than the Tiergarten. Quietly, it has grown in stature as increasing numbers of visitors have learned to enjoy its idiosyncrasies."

The vast stretches of road and runway lend an almost overwhelming geometry to Tempelhofer Feld, but it is precisely the subversion of the lines, angles and spaces created for machines that makes the natural activity at the park so thrilling. From the few scrubby trees that challenge the tyrannous horizontal vista, to the kestrels hunting in the headwinds, to the anarchy of humans at play; there is a wild and liberating force at work within the park’s chain-link boundaries.

“I love the feeling of freedom here,” says 34-year-old PE teacher Nosséro. “The way the place has sprung into life since closing. You really feel as free as a bird here.” Nosséro cycles 20 minutes to the park three times a week to train for marathons and scans the park wistfully as we talk. “It’s a place that’s great for the imagination,” she says. “A few weeks ago an artist left pianos on the runway for people to play. I find that fantastic.”

Sadly, it is not only artists whose imaginations have fired at the sight of so much wide-open real estate adjacent to central Berlin. Developers have floated schemes for housing, amusement parks, shopping centres and golf courses, but for now the skint German capital has been content to let the masses in. Frugality is flavour of the month after all, and long may it remain so: after years under a flight path local residents deserve to enjoy the sprawling wilderness sprung up on their doorsteps.

“You got used to the flights eventually,” says 68-year-old Hans Hoffmann, who has lived next to Tempelhofer Feld for 40 years. “This is much better though – to be able to come in here after all that time, and sit and watch people having fun on a sunny day. I brought my barrel organ down and played at the opening. It was such a wonderful occasion.

Both Hans and Nosséro are adamant the park should remain just as it is: a wonderful free amenity for the sometimes down-at-heel neighbourhoods bordering it. With more and more people visiting, the park will also hopefully open Berliners’ eyes to the immigrant populations of South Neukölln, too often maligned in an overwhelmingly white city. There is something inescapably egalitarian about a park so flat there is no hiding from one’s neighbour. Picnicking could yet prove integration’s ally.

The saying goes that Berlin is destined always to become and never to be, so spasmodic has been its development. An ex-Nazi airport turned vast playground seems to fit perfectly into the German capital’s story of convulsive re-invention. As Nosséro says, “Another of Berlin’s walls has come down here. Let’s enjoy it while lasts.”

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