The Future of Tempelhof Airport

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A blanket of snow covers Tempelhof Airport

A blanket of snow covered the vast, flat runway – there would be no planes taking off today. Actually – there will be no planes taking off from Tempelhof airport ever again. The famous airport that was used during world wars and the cold war was shut down in 2008 – but it’s legacy lives on in various ways.

The uber traveler in me has always been intrigued by the thought of an abandoned airport. I had heard so many things about Tempelhof park in Berlin that I was quite excited to finally see it. I envisioned me running around the open, flat, empty runway – a unique experience any intrepid traveler would dream about. However when I woke up, looked out my window and saw Berlin blanketed in snow yet again – my visions of running down the runway were dashed. Maybe a snowman on the runway instead?

Looking forward – not backward.

You can easily learn about all of the fascinating history of Tempelhof - from its beginnings to WWII, to Cold War airlift, to commercial airport. However, instead of looking back I want to look forward into what the future holds for this vast structure and park. City development and infrastructure fascinate me – especially in Berlin – a city with so many abandoned and run down structures. I’ve spent a lot of time talking to people about Berlin’s gentrification and development issues during my month in Berlin. However I find Tempelhof to be the place with the most exciting potential in Berlin – and that’s why I want to look forward.

I was led around the airport by Martin, one of the PR people from Tempelhof Projekt – a company the Berlin parliament founded in 2010 to manage the urban development project. The Tempelhof Projekt has a big task ahead of them – repurposing the Tempelhof buildings and area for Berlin while trying to keep the public happy. As we all know, this is about impossible – but I was impressed with their plans and progress up to this point.

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Standing under the famous apron at Tempelhof.

Restaurant sign

Tempelhof main hall (arrivals and departures). Stuck in a time warp of design.

The Plan

The overall plan focuses on social, cultural and economic diversity in the development. Currently there are really two sections to this project – the Airport buildings and the Airport park/runways/green space. There are over 9,000 rooms in the various airport buildings as well as some large open spaces that are truly unique such as the Apron, the plane hangars, a basketball court , bowling alley, and the main hall. The buildings are already kept up and used for business trade shows, concerts, conventions, and fashion shows. This unique space is perfect for earning revenue and having some truly huge events.

Tempelhof Projekt has further plans to do new development around the edges of the runways/park adding some housing, business offices, a library, as well as a café on the roof which bring it back to the roof’s original purpose – a viewing area for the public. This work of course needs to be approved by the city and is still a few years from getting off the ground (no pun intended!) – it’s projected for 2016.

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Tempelhof building – an imposing structure

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Aircraft Hanger – used as an event space now

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A view of Tempelhof from the roof.  A nice place for a cafe?

The runway/park area is another story – it includes 360 hectares of land – a big space and a very flat, treeless space currently. The old runways are a focal point and no changes are intended to take away the airport feel – but instead enhance around the edges. They want to add aprox. 1,500 trees to the perimeter areas and add a few more walking paths that work with the current runways and open space. They are also planning to add a water basin that will collect the gallons of rainwater runoff and funnel it into the landscape. Some of these park projects have been approved to begin as soon as this year with some of the tree plantings and water basin.

I’m most excited about what they are planning with the park – as I looked over the snowy field – I tried to imagine such a vast space all green and filled with kite boarders, runners, walkers, families, and pets. Even on this snowy day there were a couple of kite surfers and walkers – I can only imagine the summer months!

The Opposition

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Tempelhof covered in snow

Of course not everyone thinks this plan for Tempelhof is a good one. Some Berliners are worried that the park will be overdeveloped and will drive the prices up around the area making it unaffordable to the long time residents of this community. Classic gentrification concerns. I too would hate to see any of that happen – however I do think that the some progress and change is necessary for the space to really thrive and make it a real community gathering place that honors the original structure and purpose of the land.

The proposed changes are going through the proper political hoops now so we’ll see where all of this urban planning really ends up in the next few years.

The Future

As I walked around in this massive empty structures – I felt like I was on a film set. I kept on imagining Borne Identity being filmed here, or Leo DiCaprio filming Catch Me If You Can. There’s something intriguing about big empty buildings – they make you realize how important people are to bring things to life.

Walking around the grounds and the buildings with Martin made me think about the success of the New York City High-Line and the years of indecision around it. Now many of the people in NYC embrace it as a wonderful green space and tourist landmark. These types of community projects that preserve the history are a win/win for everyone normally. I can’t wait to come back in a few years and see what type of progress happens at Tempelhof.

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Main Hall – check in counters…no lines at this airport any longer!

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Outdoor gates for arrivals and boarding

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Air traffic control – no one is in control any longer!

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Tempelhof building – a massive structure

And if you want to see what an empty airport looks like – then check out the daily tours that are run through the buildings here:

Public tours – www.tempelhoferfreiheit.de/en/visit/tours/building-tours/public-tours/

Development tours - www.tempelhoferfreiheit.de/en/visit/tours/building-tours/special-tours/

General Information – www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berlin_Tempelhof_Airport

Do you have any examples of old structures/land repurposed for public good in your part of the world? Please share in the comments.

During my stay in Berlin I was a guest of Go with Oh who furnished my apartment in Friedrichshain.  I was also a guest of Tempelhof Projekt Projekt for this Tempelhof tour.  However all of the opinions expressed here are my own.

Your Comments

7 Comments so far

  1. Templehof reminds me a bit of the Castellón Airport, but in the opposite way. The Spanish government built a huge complex southeast of Madrid to handle flow by the Olympic bids for 2016 and 2020, but the project has been lacking in funds and backers since the beginning of the financial meltdown. Article (one of many) from the NYT here: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/19/world/europe/in-spain-a-symbol-of-ruin-at-an-airport-to-nowhere.html?_r=0

  2. Went to see a music festival there. It was an unexpectedly emotional experience. Just thinking about the Berlin airlift while I was there. Broke down a few times.

    Great location.

  3. Jessica says:

    I visited the park in the spring and it was a really cool space. I loved how people were using the old runway as a path for biking and jogging. I love the idea of a cafe on the roof – I think the developments could definitely be a positive thing as long as the fun, free spirit that the park has right now can be maintained.

    • Sherry says:

      I would love to see it in the summer when everything is green and people are out. The people around Berlin are very proud of it!

  4. Doug Miller says:

    Your Tempelhof photos are absolutely gorgeous. As someone who was stationed there for three years in the late 60s, living in Hangar 2, you have captured the spirit of the place better than any I’ve seen. Partly because most of the posted photos are either military memorabilia or chamber of commerce type things shot in nice weather, but also because your photos are beautifully composed and show strong but subtle sense of color.

    Especially fine is the restaurant sign and clock. The terminal was a busy, humming place during that period. The narrow parking area outside the terminal was constantly filled with black Mercedes taxis, their idling diesel engines producing that characteristic clicking sound (and smell).

    The roof was a great place to catch some rays during the long, warm Berlin summer days (not as attractive as the many parks and lakes we could get to, however). You may have noticed that the tops of some of the towers still bear small defects caused (at least we were led to believe) by Allied bombing raids during the war.

    Shortly after my arrival in 1966, a Pan Am 727 crashed on approach to Tegel, the airport in the French sector, and the FAA assembled its wreckage in one of the Tempelhof hangars in an attempt to analyze the crash. Some of our barracks, on the inside of the huge building, overlooked the hangars and it was possible to observe that process, although I didn’t see much of it personally.

    Thanks so much for posting these.

    • Sherry says:

      Doug – thanks for sharing your additional info about what it was really like there! I can only imagine the hustle and bustle. It felt so eerie to be in it all empty.


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