Book excerpt: Instant ruins at Tempelhof

The following is an excerpt from Berlin- matter of memory

Tempelhof has a short but dynamic history. The airport has symbolized several distinctly different things to Berlin, changing radically every twenty years or so. It was constructed in the 1930’s as one of the world’s first commercial airports and as a symbol of the National Socialist Party. For Hitler, it was an integral part of Germania, his new World Capital. It formed part of the Southern end of the North-South axis of Speer’s urban plan. Tempelhof was also one of the few projects of Germania which was actually realised, and it gives a sense of the scale in which Germania was planned: covering some 200 000 square meters, the main airport building is still one of the world’s largest buildings.

After the war, the airport ended up in the Western Zone, which eventually became West Berlin. The relationship between the Soviets and the West soon became frosty and paranoid. In an attempt to gain control over the isolated West Berlin, the Soviet Union closed all overland lines of supply to the city. All supplies had to be flown in to Tempelhof airport and for almost a year, during the Berlin Blockade, roughly 200 000 flights landed primarily in Tempelhof. Eventually, the Soviets reopened the overland supply corridors, but Tempelhof became a symbol of the connection to the free world and of a triumph over Soviet oppression.

After the Cold War, Tempelhof remained active as one of the city’s three airports. West Berlin had developed the larger Tegel airport in the 1960’s and East Berlin used the former military airport Schönefeld. Both of these had longer runways and were located in less residential areas, and as a result, Tempelhof was only used for short-haul domestic flights. The only international flight was a weekly run to Brussels, used primarily by commuting Members of the European Parliament, lending Tempelhof the reputation of an airport for the rich. In a referendum in 2009, the vote to close the historic airport was approved by a small margin.

When Tempelhof shut down, there were still no plans as to what to do with the site. Under most circumstances, 200 hectares of prime real estate in the middle of a large European city usually means big money. Berlin, however, is different. Land is quite cheap as it is, and the city already has a surplus of land and housing. The historic nature of the airport, primarily focusing on its role during the Berlin Blockade, renders it a central historic relic that cannot be tampered with without massive protests. So far, at least two architectural competitions have been held, trying to find a feasible solution for the combination of a massive relic, profitable development and a park that will make everybody happy.

The most recent competition focused on the interesting task of merging Tempelhof with the city while conserving its historical aspects. It is most likely that the airport will gradually be absorbed by the urban fabric, but by preserving certain features, such as the taxi-ring and the two runways, the hope is that the relic will merge with the city in a way which will not only encourage the area’s development, but also carry Tempelhof over in the future urban fibre as remaining readable traces. The same approach has been taken with the remains of the Berlin Wall, but with less successful results – although the rapid disappearance of traces of the Wall is admittedly almost certainly due to the fact that the structure is burdened with heavy negative associations.
The process of historical relics being absorbed and yet having their shape preserved is by no means unique to Berlin. This type of evolution and preservation of form is common to most old cities. Take for instance central London, a good example since London is a city with a long continuous history. Almost any straight road in London is Roman in origin, while most other roads demarcate the former borders between farmers’ fields from the 8th Century.

Thus, you can read a 1300 year-old farm landscape in the pattern of today’s urban fabric. Normally, the process is the result of an ad hoc development over centuries, where the replacement of components is gradual and organic. As a city without historical continuity, Berlin is currently using this process to artificially manufacture one. The plan is for Tempelhof to weave itself into the urban fabric, to seamlessly merge and make an imprint on the layout of the future Berlin. It is a kind of hyper-real image of Berlin’s history. History in the former airfield will speed up, and the process of assimilation into the urban fabric that previously took centuries will now take years or decades at most.

It is a case of selective history, a case of controlled decay; it is also uncomfortably close to Speer’s theories on ruin value. Tempelhof as a structure has a diverse history. And that is perhaps what will allow it to become a neutral relic; in a way Tempelhof is a relic of the entire 20th century, good and bad.

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