I’ve always had a thing for airports, but coming to Berlin Tegel after experiencing a lifetime of travel from Frankfurt’s super-gigantic Fraport was like moving from the city-center of Tokyo to a Bulgarian monastery in the mountains: it’s eerily quiet, ascetic and a really outdated concept. There was nothing of the hustle and bustle of being in a non-place, where time, space and routine are suspended. As a kid of the 2000s, visiting Frankfurt Airport was already a journey in itself, like visiting an impressive metropole with international chatter, foreign faces and plenty of products, shops and restaurants.
But over the years, and many flights later, I’ve grown to love Berlin’s TXL. Its brutish, grey and moldy facade with the triumphing and edgy tower; the Ballardian system of entangled concrete roads that connect the highway to the ramps and eventually to the individual gates, leading right into the belly of the unique hexagon; the wilting plastic and the atmosphere of stale cigarette smoke that modernist buildings evoke. I cherish all of it. While nothing at Tegel is particularly inviting to stick around for longer than necessary – nothing at Tegel is designed to stick around, full stop – , it’s one of my favorite places in the city. Curiously, half of Berlin seems to think so, too.
Berliners and airports have an intense history to look back on: there was Hitlers megalomaniac, neoclassical vision of architectural violence that gave birth to the ‘mother of all airports‘, Tempelhof; there was the Luftbrücke during the Cold War, the closing (and subsequent public fight for) the airport Tempelhof in 2008, its re-opening as a public park, and the plan and eventual failure of Berlin-Brandenburg International.
Used frequently as symbol of West-Berlins history in the past, and political propaganda of the present, Tegel is not just a living testament to the visionary design of the architects, but also an icon of Berlins resilience against – or ignorance for – the practical changes the city had to endure over the past years. If Tempelhof was “Berlins gateway to the world” in the Cold War, then Tegel, today, surely is Berlin’s gateway to the past.
‘I <3 TXL’ – Resisting the change that is swooping over Berlin
In 1989, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the death warrant of airport Tegel (and officially named Otto Lilienthal Flughafen) was signed: now that the city was re-united, a new, much bigger airport called Berlin-Brandenburg International would have to be build. However, more than five years past its due date, Tegel is not only still there – its at peak efficiency. Built for a city of 2.5 million, the airport processed around 21 million travelers in 2016.
What was supposed to be a case of planned obsolescence for TXL has turned into a long and painful process, with different political agendas fighting over the future of the airport. In the 2016 senate state wide parliament elections, Berliners were asked in a referendum if they wanted to keep Tegel operating as an airport even after the prospected opening of BER, and as they had once before with Tempelhof, they voted yes – to the horrors of politicians, policy makers, and the residents of the district Reinickendorf, which have been plagued by the airport’s noise pollution.
But then it’s objectively easy to understand why Berliners love Tegel when comparing the airport to their only other option: the frightening, Soviet era airport Schönfeld, very aptly voted worst airport in the world. I have personally seen better equipped (not to mention aesthetically more pleasing) bus stations in Syria during the 90ies (it’s only fair to mention, however, that Tegel came in as 8th in the competition of worst airports, so make what you will of that).
Judging from my own reaction to the three-letter code of hell – SFX – I am not ashamed to say that choosing Tegel is also a matter of honor. Where SFX has become deeply associated with cheap airlines that carry the bulk of young party tourists coming to throw up on Warschauer Straße, Tegel signifies something else (Tegel’s original Terminal A, anyway, and not the lousily improvised Terminal B that was added as a temporary measure), or at the very least, it doesn’t emphasize the cheap tourist experience of Schönefeld. The inter-European business flights of Europe’s main airlines – Lufthansa, Swiss, KLM, and so on – are weekly, if not daily commutes for people who don’t care for choosing cheap flights; they ride on company money (nothing screams “I am a management consultant” like the suited-up crowd checking a Lufthansa flight to Munich at 7:30 AM on a Wednesday).
This may be subject to change in the future, as the demise of Berlin’s local airline AirBerlin has brought the hyenas upon Tegel: EasyJet, RyanAir and more have all expanded their business from SFX to TXL, bringing competition especially among those precious commuter flights and inter-German connections.
Business or not: people – even those who don’t travel on a regular basis – love Tegel. On my last trip, my cab driver told me how much he will miss the trip to Tegel. “I don’t understand why anyone wants to shut it down. It’s the one airport we haven’t fucked up or shutdown – and how do we honor it? By burial!”
To be fair: Tegel is overdue, not despite its popularity, but because of it. The airport has been overloaded for more than ten years. Building and planning a new airport meant that all necessary repair measures for the infrastructure have been fazed out. Doing a 180° turn on that decision would be a financial and political disaster that could even overshadow the issues of BER. That leaves only the most essential functions to the airport: getting people on and off a plane.
Coincidently, that tangible atmosphere of uncompromising austerity and pure functionality is where Tegel is at its best.
Form follows function: Tegel’s successful design
Tegel was conceived as genius vision of efficiency for modern travel. Although it has disastrously changed in aesthetics (the red and yellow color pattern has all but vanished, the tiles on the floor changed into cheap alternatives), its overall architecture is the backbone of its unique sensibility for time-stressed and tired travelers. The famous hexagonal ring connects the doors immediately to the individual check-in, the security counters and the final boarding gate. If you time it right, you can get from car to plane within a maximum of half an hour.
Imagine doing that at Heathrow, Fraport or JFK, where the walk from baggage-drop to security can sometimes require a bus transfer, a bottle of water for the exhausting jog, and a map of the building. Hell, even in the minuscule Schönefeld airport it can seem a lot longer to get to your required destination.
That doesn’t mean that Tegel is perfect. Brutalism is back in style again, especially in Berlin, but its infrastructure and up-keep are anything but sustainable. And as much as the average traveler may feel empowered by the quick processing system: wheelchair-bound people and mothers with strollers probably curse the 1950’s men who constructed the claustrophobic restrooms.
For what it’s worth, the architects‘ vision of good travel performance still matters today at Tegel. Its simple structure may be confusing, but it won’t get newcomers lost. More importantly: there is no more retail space than absolutely necessary. I dare you to find more than one lousy souvenir shop and a pharmacy. The Starbucks, hidden on the first floor, isn’t worth hauling luggage up the stairs, and if you’ve been looking for the Lufthansa business lounge, well, you’re probably on the wrong side of the ring.
It’s hilariously refreshing. Whether in Shiphol, Franz Josef Strauß or Frankfurt, most travelers end up slaloming through airports that are in fact malls, with all the same repetitive products in overpriced duty free shops, from Sydney to Dubai. At Tegel, there are no flashy cars on churning pedestals, branded smoking lounges or other signs of the hyper-consumerism that has entered a symbiotic relationship with the contemporary conception of airports (and all major travel hubs, really). The New York Times calls them “the cathedrals of the 21st century: centers of communication, travel, family and commerce”, and follows up their description with the poignant question: ‘but where is God in that cathedral’?
There are no ‘centerpieces’, fashionable color patterns, trippy acoustics, light performances or electronic adverts flashing across mega-screens at TXL. On my last trip – January 2018 -, massive AirBerlin posters were still welcoming guests to Berlin. The airline filed bankruptcy in August 2017. That’s how up-to-date Tegel is.
Berlins main airport may seem like the prototype of a spaceship with its edgy cut and the ring-system, but it’s definitely not conceptually challenging to the average traveller. Meanwhile, other airports manage to navigate the passenger through a plethora of interior designs, soundscapes, art installations, adverts, retail stores and restaurants. It’s like riding the Venga Bus, and everyone’s wearing Desigual. By the time you’ve made it to the plane, you’re keyed.
What a relieve to be spared the ‘landscapes’ and ‘ecosystems’ that plague the travel-structures of our times. Not everything has to be innovated, colorful and bamboozling. Ironically, Tegel’s role as antagonist adds to its allure. Even the occasional tourists have started showing their love for simpleton Tegel by wearing “I <3 TXL” tote bags and other souvenir crap.
Culturally, Tegel is ancient. It was designed for a society that doesn’t capsize airplanes. But efficiency, aesthetics and a low-key anti-capitalistic interpretation of its design don’t hide the fact that TXL, as well as many contemporary airports worldwide, is also incredibly uncomfortable. No chairs to splurge on, a tight waiting space at the gates, and a bleak, grey facade to keep you company on layovers… being at the airport – any airport, really – is never exactly a visit to the spa (unless you actually visit the airport’s spa). But at least the discomfort of modern travel can be left behind and forgotten rather quickly on arrival at Tegel: grab your bags and go.
BER is good but Berlin was better
Still, I can’t help but feel that there’s more to Tegel’s popularity. When asking people, they’re usually dead-set on their opinion: TXL must stay open, even after BER is resuscitated. My cab driver is convinced that Berliners love their airports because, in so many different abstract and practical ways, they brought them liberty. When I ask him how that applies to Tegel, he sneers. “Na is doch klar“, he explains, “they come to Berlin for a good time, no fuss – kein Scheiss – and that’s what they get: cheap booze and party.”
Although I’m sure Schönefeld is the traditional party hub, I think he touches on a valid point. Indeed, Tegel – old, weary and on its last breath – is the last representative of the fading “poor, but sexy“-Berlin; the city in its rowdy years, free from the burden of work, retail, office spaces, skyscrapers and housing issues. In many ways and for many people, the short code TXL became their entry stamp to a new home outside of the norm – far away from airports that looked like malls, and cities that looked like you couldn’t afford to live in them. That mentality of “anything goes” that once adorned Berlin and its residents’ lifestyles is now being pushed aside by (and with) all that money that seems to rule the rest of the world.
No wonder, then, people tend to be amused about the hiccups of BER (as opposed to be enraged) – the longer the opening of new airport stays in limbo, the longer we get to hold on to an ancient vision of our Berlin utopia: a nice, somewhat provincial place, perhaps a little ugly, truly efficient, doesn’t cost much, doesn’t sell you crap, gets you where you want to go.