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Famous Tempelhof Airport Remains Berlin's Playground

Famous Tempelhof Airport Remains Berlin's Playground

Oxford Dictionary defines “airport” as, “a complex of runways and buildings for the take-off, landing, and maintenance of civil aircraft, with facilities for passengers.” People have now been traveling by air for just over 100 years, thanks to the incredible minds of the Wright brothers. There are currently 43,983 airports in the world, according to the

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Oxford Dictionary defines “airport” as, “a complex of runways and buildings for the take-off, landing, and maintenance of civil aircraft, with facilities for passengers.” People have now been traveling by air for just over 100 years, thanks to the incredible minds of the Wright brothers. There are currently 43,983 airports in the world, according to the CIA World Fact Book, and Aviation analysts of Flight Ascend Consultancy found that the total number of aircraft currently in service – including passenger and cargo – is approximately 23,600, reports The Telegraph. With a multitude of airports and airplanes in the world, it’s obvious that people need to get to faraway places in the least amount of time. Nowadays, airports function primarily for this reason. However, Berlin, Germany’s Tempelhof Airport existence was never reduced to a singular purpose and continues to be utilized in diverse ways today.

The site of the airport was originally Knights Templar land during Berlin’s Medieval times. It was from this where the name Tempelhof originates. Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin flew one of his flying Luft-Züge (air-trains) above Tempelhof for Kaiser Wilhelm II and some 300,000 Berliners on Aug. 29, 1909, and five days later around 150,000 were treated to another aviation sensation when Orville Wright flew his “aeroplane” eight laps around the military installation. Tempelhof was officially designated an airport on October 8, 1923, and shortly after, Deutsche Luft Hansa was founded in Tempelhof on January 6, 1926. Even though Deutsche Luft Hansa was the forerunner of modern German airline Lufthansa (founded in 1953), there is no legal connection between the two.

Before the Nazis came to power, Tempelhof was used to test some of the world's first aircraft. This is where the Humboldt balloon was launched on March 1, 1893. However, when the Nazis seized Germany in 1933, they had their minds set to redesign all of Berlin to their liking. One of their main projects was replacing the existing airport with the larger building that sits there today.

Families riding their bicycles on the uneven surface of Tempelhof Feld

Adolf Hitler was very interested in Tempelhof's development because it was supposed to exemplify pure Nazi architecture and the Third Reich’s achievements in civil engineering. Albert Speer was Adolf Hitler's chief architect in charge of the reconstruction of Berlin during the Nazi era. He ordered architect, Ernst Sagebiel, to replace the old terminal with a new terminal building in 1934. Sagebiel introduced many features that are now seen in airports throughout the world, such as separate levels for passengers and luggage.

Additionally, the airport halls and the adjoining buildings were supposed to become the gateway to Europe — that is, a symbol of Hitler's "world capital" Germania. The airport remains one of the largest built worldwide and has been described by British architect Sir Norman Foster as "the mother of all airports. "Built between 1936 and 1941, the terminal building forms a 1.2-kilometre long quadrant from walls of shell limestone. The terminal is 322,9173 square feet (300,000 square meters), including the hangars. “By way of comparison, Monaco is 200 hectares (494 acres),” stated Sam Shead of Business Insider.

Tempelhof Airport is nestled between Neukölln and Tempelhof neighborhoods. It was advantageously placed in a central location, just minutes from the Berlin city center. This allowed for it to eventually become one of the world's busiest airports. Tempelhof had up to 52 foreign and 40 domestic flights that arrived and departed daily from the old terminal while the new one was being built.

Berlin-Tempelhof Airport shown on a sunny day at the biking, skating and running track

Accordingly, the new air terminal was the headquarters for Deutsche Luft Hansa, which was the German national airline at that time. As a precursor of today's modern airports, the airport was created with many innovative features, such as a giant arc-shaped aircraft hangars. The building complex was planned to resemble an eagle in flight with semicircular hangars forming the bird's spread wings. Norman Foster called Tempelhof "one of the really great buildings of the modern age.”

Paradoxically, the Nazis never actually utilized Tempelhof as an airport, and it was never fully completed because of World War II. During the war, the Nazis used it as a factory for building combat aircraft and weapons. Numerous Ju 87 "Stuka" dive bombers were built in the hangars. All of this was done by forced labor. The forced laborers were freed by the Red Army in 1945 as World War II came to an end. In July 1945, the Red Army handed the airport over to US forces. After undergoing considerable repairs, the airport resumed operations. The Americans occupied Tempelhof from 1945 to 1993.

From June 24, 1948, to May 1, 1949, the airport played a key role in the Berlin Airlift. At the end of World War II, the US, British, French, and Soviet military forces divided and occupied Germany. Berlin, which was also divided into occupation zones, was located inside Soviet-controlled eastern Germany because Berlin was the seat of the Allied Control Council.

Airplanes being unloaded with food and supplies at Berlin-Tempelhof Airport to drop over East Berlin U.S. Navy Douglas R4D and U.S. Air Force C-47 aircraft unload at Tempelhof Airport during the Berlin Airlift. 1948, photograph. National Naval Aviation Museum, Florida.

On June 24, 1948, the Soviet forces broke their alliance between the Western Allies and blockaded rail, road, and water access to parts of Berlin that were controlled by the Western Allies. The United States and the United Kingdom responded by airlifting food and fuel to Berlin from Allied air bases in western Germany," the US Office of The Historian website says. "The crisis ended on May 12, 1949, when Soviet forces lifted the blockade on land access to western Berlin.”

Additionally, Tempelhof was used as the takeoff and landing site for the so-called “raisin bombers,” which provided the inhabitants of West Berlin with essential supplies, like food, coal, and medical supplies. They also used mini-parachutes to drop 22 tons of candy for the children of Berlin, which led to their becoming known as the "candy bombers." A plane landed every minute at Tempelhof, and about 2,535,316 US tons (2.3 million tonnes) of freight was flown into the divided city, according to The Guardian.

In 1951, the American forces released the airport for civil and freight traffic. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990, Tempelhof started to operate domestic flights once again.

In 1993, the US Air Force gave Tempelhof to the Berliner Flughafengesellschaft, and it was used on-and-off for commercial purposes until it closed in November 2008 to pave the way for Berlin’s new airport, which has yet to open. It was supposed to open June 2012; however, due to safety issues, it’s opening day has been postponed three times and has doubled the cost of the airport to 5 billion dollars, stated Bloomberg Businessweek.

Berlin-Tempelhof Airport shown on a sunny day with green grass surrounding one of its famous terminals

In 2011, Berlin city planners wanted to build commercial areas and offices, 4,700 homes, and a large public library, according to The Guardian; the planners said they wouldn’t take more than 25% of the site and emphasized that there would be a focus on social housing, while also leaving 568 acres (230 hectares) of open space in the middle. Yet locals were unconvinced, and the 100% Tempelhofer Feld Initiative gained enough signatures to force the city to hold a referendum on this matter. After years of fighting, in May 2014, 64.3% of eligible voters chose to keep the Tempelhof site unchanged.

The Tempelhof Conservation Act forbids construction anywhere on the former airfield and ensures only limited development. Though the buildings and the airfield remain largely unaltered, more than 100 businesses are currently based out of Tempelhof. The main tenant is the Polizei, or police. “They occupy approximately 46,000 square meters (about 15% of the total) and have been renting since 1951, which is when the US military began leasing out parts of the building. In addition to the Polizei, the airport is also home to a kindergarten and a dance school,” stated Shead.

White tents on the old airplane terminal at Berlin-Tempelhof Airport that helped house thousands of refugees

Tempelhof is currently home to Germany's largest refugee shelter. There were 3,000 refugees from different countries, such as Iraq and Syria living in the airport at one point; however, that number has fallen to about 600, according to Shead, because German authorities have relocated many of them to other cities and others have decided to return home. Shead states, “there is enough space in the hangar for 7,000 refugees. The shelter is closed to the public, but there is a refugee cafe in Hanger 1 so the public can visit and provide German lessons.” Also, “some refugees are being moved into modular homes just outside the hangar. The white tent on the airfield is being used as a school for refugee children, who are encouraged to take part in sports and other activities.” Check out these photos by VICE to see the refugees living conditions at the famous airport.

Aside from its eventful past, there is a lot of life still blooming at the Tempelhof Airport, thanks to the Stadtteilgarten Schillerkiez, that hosts a community garden called Allmende-Kontor; founded by 13 garden activists in 2011. According to Green Liga, “The name “Allmende” is taken from the American idea of reclaiming the commons by urging the government to maintain common lands as open space for gardens that serve refugees, new migrants, and those without means.” The garden is free to access and open to the public. It provides a friendly space to meet people, read, partake in any number of events, and even grow your own vegetables. The airfield, in general, has no entrance fee, which welcomes kite surfers, rollerbladers, artists, gardeners, cyclists, joggers, cyclists and families keen for picnics. The airport has also caught Hollywood’s attention, and has been the setting for many movies, such as "The Hunger Games," "The Bourne Supremacy," and "Bridge of Spies.” Although Tempelhof Airport is not an operating terminal, it remains an active part of Berlin.

Are there any out-of-service airports in your city? If so, how are they being utilized? Share your thoughts and your city’s stories in the comments area below.

Credits: Images by Brittany Garcia. Data linked to sources.

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Urban Planning Blogger

Brittany is a Berlin-based graduate student with a penchant for environmental sustainability and urban planning. Her research focus centers on how urban agriculture revitalizes local economies. Follow her to discover why Germany's capital is a gritty...

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