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image from http://www.the-berg.de

The following is an excerpt from the book Berlin-matter of memory

Once in a while, the vision for a structure becomes so engrained in the collective mind that its virtual existence can almost be mistaken for concrete. This is the case of the Tempelhof Berg; the image has become a virtual relic, even available as postcards and prints.

During the debate on the future of Tempelhof, an illustration where Tempelhof has been transformed into a 1000 m tall mountain suddenly started appearing everywhere. The creation of architect Jakob Tigges, the mountain was entered into – and quickly eliminated from – an idea competition as a politically critical, tongue-in-cheek proposal. Nonetheless, the strong illustrations found their way into newspapers, into the minds of Berliners, and on to the postcard pictured below. It can be found in the strangest of places: I recently saw it hanging framed in a bar among photos of historic images of the city. The idea simply resonated very well with Berliners, and it was viewed by many as an ideal solution for the old disused airport.

The only problem is its construction; the newspaper Tagesspiegel calculated that in order to construct the mountain, 47 000 trucks would need to deliver 20 tonnes of construction debris daily for a period of over five years in order to build the enormous mass. And then there’s the question of whether the notoriously unstable ground could take such an enormous weight. Even so, the traffic of trucks would clog the Berlin traffic apparatus for years, release untold amounts of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere and create endless problems for the city and the planet. Not to mention the costs for a city so famous for its empty coffers that for a long while the city slogan, coined by former mayor Klaus Wowereit was: “arm aber sexy”, poor but sexy. The mountain is a pipe dream, and everybody is well aware of this.

Relics often have a place in the collective mind even if they no longer exist; Crystal Palace is one such relic. Planned, future relics can occupy a similar position in people’s minds. The Tempelhof Mountain, however, is a strictly virtual relic with no relationship to physical reality. It is the virtual world blurring the borders with the physical world.

The virtual relic is a product of digital culture. Photomontages and other credible visual evidence can easily be manufactured. Computers and digital culture also make it possible to disseminate convincing illustrations into the collective mind. By presenting that illustration in various ways, it starts to inhabit the mind, much in the same way effective advertisement places products in our minds. The digital culture allows the collective mind to separate from the physical world and enter the virtual world. The virtual world of our collective mind then interlaces with the physical world, creating images in our minds of things that never were, producing entirely virtual relics.

The connection between the virtual and the collective mind allows the virtual to seep into reality in unexpected ways. It creates a situation where the virtual and the physical approach each other and merge. When the virtual leaks into the physical world, we are seeing something entirely new. In a way, it is as if the collective mind of Berlin created its avatar, the digital alter ego that is all Berlin wishes it was, and that avatar then started showing up on postcards and walls.

The collective mind has previously produced hyper-realities, which have then been realized into physical forms. Hyper-reality is the authentic fake, as Umberto Eco put it – the collective image of times past, for instance. Often this image bears little resemblance to what’s beyond the surface.

In a sense, the postcards are from a new Berlin, where physical reality and the virtual reality are interlaced. It is not only the physical reality that merges into the virtual reality, but also the virtual invading the physical space.

The future of Tempelhof is still open, but it should be interesting to see for how long the virtual history will run parallel to the actual history, at which point these again will be detached from each other and the mountain reduced to the relics of the dream in forgotten images and dead pixels.

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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.