Lawn and Order: The Many Moods of Tempelhof

Instagram backdrop, skatepark, sanctuary — Tempelhof is defined by its boundless versatility, but it hasn’t always been used for good.

The story of Tempelhof Airport is as vast and rambling as the grounds themselves, which makes it a hard one to tackle in its entirety. But, to write of it today without writing about its formative history would be akin to only watching Terminator 4. Especially for a site so beloved and pivotal, it’s incredible how much of its colourful past is only known in threadbare scraps. So, if only to improve your awkward Tinder banter, a brief history is in order.

Speaking of Order…

Long before Tempelhof became synonymous with the airport-turned-park-of-the-people, in the 13th century, it was a piece of land belonging to those white-robed, dark horses — the Order of the Temple of Solomon or, to their friends, the Knights Templar. When party-pooper Pope Clement V disbanded the uncomfortably powerful Temple Order a century later, Tempelhof and the adjoining villages of Mariendorf, Marienfelde and Rixdorf were entrusted to the Knights of Saint John and ultimately sold back to the city of Berlin as sedate farmland. But the name stuck.

First Military Leanings

Several years passed before Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm I cast his gleaming eye over the field now strewn with rollerbladers, and in 1722 declared it the parade ground for his sprawling Prussian army. He set what turned out to be lingering military theme, as the field went on to become the official exercise ground for the Berlin garrison, with the construction of barracks and transport networks ensuing.

Tempelhof’s big bones proved perfectly proportioned and placed to become a fulltime airport, which it did in 1923

The establishment of the German army’s airship division here cemented its significance as a site, as it became the testing ground for an assortment of aviation hijinks, including a record-breaking demonstration of the motorised aeroplane by Orville Wright (of the Wright Bros fame) in 1909.
With the increasing use of aeroplanes and the according need for more accommodating runways, Tempelhof’s big bones proved perfectly proportioned and placed to become a fulltime airport, which it did in 1923 — and the busiest in Europe by 1930.

The Dark Period

When the Nazis came to power, architect Ernst Sagebiel was commissioned to replace the old terminal building with one befitting the ambitious Nazi vision of Germania, mania being the operative word here.
Conceived as an eagle in flight, Sagebiel designed the unique arc-shaped aircraft hangars to resemble wings, with an impressive span of over 1km.

the mother of all modern airports

In the lead up to World War II, remodelling was suspended as the Tempelhof Feld had the dubious honour of being Berlin’s first makeshift concentration camp, a particularly ugly chapter in its existence. When the camp was closed in 1936, the prisoners were moved to an even more chilling site of inhumanity, Sachsenhausen, and construction of Tempelhof’s iconic new terminal commenced. Famously declared by Sir Norman Foster to be “the mother of all modern airports”, although never completed, the severe and imposing structure once ranked among the largest buildings in the world — serving, however fleetingly, as a monument to Nazi Germany’s skewed vision and might.

Bad boy turned good

Following Germany’s defeat in World War II, the airport was given to the American forces by their old frenemies, the USSR, as part of their occupation booty. When their flimsy relationship soured and the Soviets enforced a blockade that restricted transport between the eastern and western sectors, Tempelhof Airport reinvented itself to become West Berlin’s lifeline as the site of the famous Berlin Airlift. In total, over 2.3 million tonnes of supplies were delivered by American and British planes to the isolated West Berliners via Tempelhof.

Three stray Antonov An-2 aeroplanes were the last craft to shimmy down its runway before the segways arrived

Although restrictions were lifted in 1949, the Cold War had begun and, with it, the passive aggressive military flexing that would continue between the two superpowers for the next four decades. During this time, Tempelhof Airport gradually returned to form as a commercial flight hub while remaining the primary terminal for American military aircraft entering West Berlin. By the end of the Cold War in the early ‘90s, Tempelhof had entered the winter of its lofty airport days, with first the Americans, and then slowly all other aircraft leaving its capacious grounds for greener pastures over the next decade.

On 24 November 2008, three stray Antonov An-2 aeroplanes were the last craft to shimmy down its runway. Before the segways arrived, that is.


The Hedonistic Years

In May 2010, in a hugely generous albeit slightly absent-minded gesture, Tempelhofer Feld’s 300 hectares of lawn and runway were handed over to the public as a park — the largest and arguably the sparsest in Berlin. The panorama of unadorned flatness might be an unusual take on the normal, pruned park model, but its very matter-of-fact landscape and scale is what appealed particularly to the German sense of personal boundaries, comfortably accommodating a music festival, or one of those perplexing jugger matches, without encroaching on the frisbee domain or the wedding party. Its value is just uncompromised, sprawling s p a c e.

Tempelhofer Feld was representative of the contemporary Berlin spirit

Which is incidentally also what developers and politicians thought when they sought to reclaim the land for their own glossy visions shortly after it was gifted to the public. Leaflets and placards with sleek 3D renderings of happy people in the planned buildings abounded, but the Berlin public remained spectacularly unmoved by the shiny proposals. As throughout its history, Tempelhofer Feld was representative of the contemporary Berlin spirit — a spirit that decries commercialism and uncomfortable shoes — and the plans to build on the land were seen as an affront to those very ideals. So, when the debate culminated in a referendum in 2014, in a gloriously Berlin moment, the public swatted what it deemed to be insincere promises and — perhaps more astoundingly — was heeded.


Existential Crisis

True to Tempelhof, this sticking-it-to-the-man triumph wasn’t the last transformation it would undergo. Most recently, the location’s tacit stance of hippie goodwill, coupled with its sheer capacity, made it a natural choice as an emergency shelter for the most recent influx of refugees to Berlin. While the fascist architecture isn’t a vision of cosiness, the iconic hangars have already been transformed into a makeshift home for several thousand refugees and are set to become Germany’s largest refugee shelter.

Tempelhof continues to be an astounding microcosm of Berlin

The incongruity between this situation of stark and desperate reality alongside the carefree vision of picnicking families, skateboarders, committed joggers, urban gardeners and rat walkers (yes, a person who walks a rat), is just another example of the complexities wrought by this mammoth piece of land and its manifold occupations. From concentration camp to refugee camp, Tempelhof continues to be an astounding microcosm of Berlin: haphazard, conflicted, evolving, and, like the hipster hairstyles seen on its grassy plains, just plain ironic.

Gabriella Seemann is a South African-raised, Berlin-based art director, and writer. She values good banter and bacon.