Postcard from Berlin: Tempelhof
When your city is walled off inside a hostile country, the most important place in town is your local airport. And Berlin had one of the best. Opened in 1923, Tempelhof was perfectly placed to become the glamour destination of its age. The Nazis rebuilt its terminal as a sweeping limestone arc (in the shape of an eagle in flight) to create what was then one of the largest buildings in the world, and a grand gateway to Germania. Commercial flights continued throughout the war, after which Tempelhof found itself under new management in the American quarter of Berlin. Its two runways then became a lifeline to the population of West Berlin during an eleven month Soviet blockade, with food and all other supplies flown in via three narrow air corridors. The gradual opening up of other routes, and the growth of Tegel Airport on the opposite side of town, began a steady and inexorable decline in air traffic. Tempelhof's final commercial flight departed in 2008, after which the authorities opened up the airfield to the public as a vast tract of temporary parkland. Their long term plans were for mixed-use redevelopment, much as Boris has even longer-term plans for a city at Heathrow. But Berliners had other ideas and voted to keep their new inner city playground as is, which is great because it means anyone can drop in.
I dropped in on a perfect summer's evening, the temperature floating down from thirty degrees. The field's gated so it can be closed at sunset, but once you're through you have the entire 300 acres at your disposal. Several clusters of sunbathing youngsters had slumped within a few yards of the entrance, but most were here for some form of active exercise, generally on wheels. The two runways and surrounding oval taxiway provided ideal circuits for cycling, or for hiring a Segway from one opportunistic contractor based near the portaloos. Others had come to kitesurf, there being plenty of room on the Jumbo-sized asphalt, speeding past the numbered runway signs to the farthest end of the field. I crossed the grass (still growing tentatively through the apron) to approach the low-slung terminal building, seemingly unchanged but its interior spaces now hired out for a myriad of purposes. That's fenced off, but the remainder of this impromptu city park remains as a site for festivals and free recreation. Plans to create an urban quarter complete with university and state library lie quashed, and not one affordable apartment block will be allowed to taint Tempelhof's emerging eco-habitat. It'd never be allowed to happen in London, but Berlin is somewhere else.