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My Tempelhof Utopia

published on 2014-02-26 by Sara
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Tempelhof is nowadays nothing but a vast park. It contains a couple of things – urban gardens, rare birds, but most importantly the taxiways that give space for all sorts of spectacular urban sports like asphalt kite surfing or skating. All in all, on a mild day, you’ll think that the entire world could fit into this huge area. It seems that this possibility of room in an otherwise so densely packed city is fascinating in itself, without having to add anything to it.

I read a couple of theories about why Tempelhof is so popular among the citizens of Berlin. Rarely has anything stirred as much controversy as the discussion about whether to a) open up the field for everyone (back in 2010, the taxiway was finally released to the public) and b) what to do with it next. Why is everybody so involved? Surely Berlin is a big city, but aren’t there enough parks to compensate?


The symbolic worth of Tempelhof is much more than just about unused urban space. As a former airport, Tempelhof is a mysterious, usually very restricted site. The first-time experience on the runways was, to me, a once-in-a-lifetime feeling. It’s a unique selling point for Berlin, way beyond the typical landmarks of a city. The whole field is nothing but the promise of freedom and so starkly opposite the typical plans and structures of a metropolis. Using an airport as leisure hotspot, unbothered by commercial interference, that’s special. If you had to sum Berlin up by its parts, you’d definitely include this very experience in your list.

From the roof of the airport’s enormous, semi-circular complex, 1,230 meters (4,035 feet) from one end to the other, Berlin’s sea of buildings seems as if it were set in the middle of a vast prairie, the flatlands that postwar West Germany’s first chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, famously dubbed the beginnings of the Russian steppes. Other contemporaries had a considerably more romantic take on this unique sense of vastness. “The airport in Tempelhof unites the characteristics of an inland sea with the yearning for faraway places,” a delighted observer once said. Axel Schultes, the architect who designed the new Chancellery in the city’s Mitte district, even goes so far as to describe Tempelhof as an “icon of an airport.” – Spiegel Online

As for the monument protected building, things are a bit different. It’s much harder to open up an enclosed space like this for the whole public. Instead, it’s being rented out for big events such as the Berlin Festival or Bread & Butter fashion fair. Aside from that, the Berlin police has re-located some of its headquarters into the airport building offices. Some more private offices can be found. It seems a bit vain to put something as unremarkable in such a remarkable historical building, but personally, I can live with that. Renting out the building means the city has steady income. On the other hand, there are as many downsides using the building for commercial or private uses. In parasite ways, brands just use the already established myth of a historical site to enhance their image. A visitor of the Berlin Festival is not just impressed by the line up but also by the access to a usually very guarded building.

It’s important to understand why people are so interconnected with the symbolic image of Tempelhof. This airport was once built by the Nazis in an overwhelmingly megalomaniac fashion. The architecture of the building is signature 3rd Reich, but it was salvaged later when the WWII Allies used this very airport to fly over the East/West blockade to further maintain the security and health of the Berlin West citizens while they were cut off from the rest of the world. This transition of symbolic meaning is inherently connected to what Berliners might see today in Tempelhof: it’s a symbol of freedom, of democratic power, of the fight against political and cultural restrictions. Whatever Tempelhof may become, it will not lose its history.

Without the 100% Tempelhof Initiative that collected enough signatures to provoke a plebiscite, a good chunk of the Tempelhofer Feld would be a construction site today. The city is planning to build a huge library and housing estates as well as office buildings on the field. While it still wants to leave the middle of it a park, it would definitely change not only the character of the field but also its general worth. What, so this is just another place to build housing? All those marketing budgets, all these efforts to portray Berlin as a free and historically important city and now the government just wants to destroy everything — for what? For new housing? Apparently, there are about 5000 apartments planned on that space. Every year, more than 40.000 people are moving to Berlin. Irreversibly destroying the heritage of a city is not a solution to our housing-problem.

None of the leading government parties want to support the importance of having a place such as Tempelhof. All of them – ALL of them – are in favor of building new housing on Tempelhof (and all of them want to keep some park space). Now, don’t get me wrong: I wouldn’t mind more housing. But this can’t be the way to go. Berlin, a city that is built love for freedom and multiculturalism. Berlin, a city that attracts young and new visitors, many of which are here to stay, many of which contribute to the economic healing of the city, is now going to cannibalize itself by killing the very elements that made it attractive in the first place. It’s not just Tempelhof; Mediaspree was another project doomed to kill the romance of the city (hey, why not build social housing on the Spree? Oh, only the highest bidder wins?).

Two world wars and half a revolution in 1968, the “golden” twenties, Hitler and the Holocaust, the wreckage of the postwar period, the city’s four-power occupying status imposed by the Allies and the legendary Berlin Airlift, when American “candy bombers” brought food and supplies to the city during the Soviet blockade of West Berlin in 1948, the construction of the Berlin Wall, the Stars and Stripes and the Cold War. For many, the Tempelhof question also touches on the identity of a city that changed rapidly after the Wall came down. It also raises issues of Berlin’s future. – Spiegel Online

There’s enough space in Berlin – it was just there a moment ago. But I can only see new investors coming and taking over, renovating, pressuring the market, and oh what is this, still no rent cap on housing? And “affordable” housing on Tempelhof is suggested to start at 8 € per square meter? How is that price affordable anyway (heating and electricity are not included)? Only half of the planned apartments are supposed to be social housing. Now, the general assumption is that the other apartments and houses then will be taken by those who can afford the steeper price, and in return, they’ll free up the cheaper flats in the surrounding areas. This is fictional – every apartment that gets freed up is seeing a rise and there’s no political intervention at all to regulate the market, nor is one intended.

You can’t tell me that building on Tempelhof takes anything away from the current situation. But government isn’t intending on finding long term solutions. Next elections are due, they have to show some results until then.

Berlin Festival 2011

The problem with mixing two issues at hand – Tempelhof and rising costs of living – is that people should actually fight for affordable housing city-wide, NOT for keeping Tempelhof untouched.

This political distraction is a clever tactic. Lobbying for more affordable housing (a subject most Berliners can relate to by now), combining it with something that everybody appreciates (at least everyone who’s enjoyed an amazing day on Tempelhof), and making it a yes-or-no decision for either choice. So clever. I’ll spell it out for you again: you can either chose to live in an affordable place or you can chose to spend some quality time on a vast and empty park with two strips of tarmac. You can’t have both. Most people would answer the question “please give me affordable housing, it’s more important than an old airport.” But the question is a matter of perspective. It’s misleading because those two things have nothing to do with each other and yet dirty lobbying ultimately sacrifices one for the other. And although we’re rarely political on here, I am frustrated.

Tempelhof is an utopia, it’s something that should not exist, but it does. How can the significance of this site be transferred into the collective mind in twenty or thirty years if most of it is covered by real estate? And I have no trust in the architecture and design of the planners: it will have this horribly colonized feeling to it. And why stop there, either? I’m sure Berlin will grow even bigger. Why should the same arguments for building on the runways not hold up in the next round?

I’d rather see Tempelhof re-instated as airport than as communal neighborhood. Not out of spite, but out of concern for the symbolic worth of a historical site. To build on Tempelhof sends a message to every and any relict of the past, similar to destroying pieces of the East Side Gallery or having Bar25 closed down for office buildings.

Berliners still have a chance to weigh in on this issue. In May, the people will decide whether they choose the Senates propositions or if they want to keep Tempelhof the way it is. 25% of Berliners will have to vote for the Initiatives draft bill that you can look up here (it basically says: do not change anything and keep Tempelhof safe for the generations to come). It would be amazing if the referendum could be held at the same time of the general European elections on 25th May, but we will update you on the subject.

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