By MICHAEL KIMMELMAN - May 20, 2008
BERLIN — Sometimes you can read a city though a cultural landmark. Tempelhof Airport is Berlin’s open book.
On the eve of the 60th anniversary of the historic, American-led airlift to supply the besieged capital, the mayor is going ahead with plans to close the airport by year’s end. How sad. A last-minute campaign by his political opponents to save it through a citywide referendum late last month won a majority, but not enough Berliners turned out to make the vote official.
Now, talk about twists of fate, a big international air show opening here in a few days will celebrate the airlift’s anniversary — but not at Tempelhof. It will take place at Berlin-Schönefeld International Airport, in the former east Germany, whose pending expansion is the immediate cause of Tempelhof’s demise.
Once the site of a Prussian parade ground, where Orville Wright showed off his flying machines, “the mother of all airports,” as the architect Norman Foster has called Tempelhof, was one of the world’s first commercial airfields. During the 1930s, the architect Ernst Sagebiel expanded it for Adolf Hitler into what was then the largest building in Europe, a triumphal entryway into the new Germania, smack in the heart of Berlin.
And there it still is, a 15-minute taxi ride from the Brandenburg Gate, dozing in the spring sun, the finest work of Berlin architecture surviving from that era. A soaring, light-filled, surprisingly welcoming space, the main terminal now serves only a dozen or so short-haul commercial flights a day; it’s a glorious time capsule of mid-century, with towering windows, a 1950s neon sign for a defunct restaurant at one end, and a handful of somnolent employees slumped behind their desks, staring into the vastness or skimming the newspaper.
In the yawning silence, it was possible the other morning to hear the click-clack of a dog’s paws on the polished linoleum floor. An elderly resident of the neighborhood was taking his pet for a daily stroll through the empty terminal. Black-and-white snapshots, tacked to a wall, showed Gary Cooper and Errol Flynndebarking onto the tarmac, waving into flashbulbs. A rental-car clerk, with not a customer in sight, leaned back in his booth.
Most of the rest of the huge building, which stretches for blocks, is empty today. Tempelhof, in its limbo, is said to cost the city $15 million a year ($185 million in the last 10 years).
With America’s reputation currently in a nosedive here, the airport recalls better days. On June 26, 1948, in response to the Soviet blockade, C-47s began landing millions of tons of food, coal and other supplies in an operation centered at Tempelhof. At its peak, the airlift landed planes every 90 seconds in West Berlin, along the way dropping handkerchief parachutes of raisins and chocolate into the arms of children. Raisin bombers, they came to be called.
Over time, East Berlin and West Berlin developed their separate airports. Besides Tempelhof, Tegel grew in the former French sector. With reunification, it was decided to mothball both Tegel and Tempelhof and consolidate the city’s air traffic at a single site, Schönefeld. Tempelhof’s landmark building would be preserved for some use yet to be determined — a museum, offices (nothing was definite, in typical Berlin fashion). The goal was to attract more intercontinental flights and make Berlin more attractive to businesses. Both main political parties, the conservative Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, signed off on it.
Then delay followed delay in the way things do here. What a glorious city Berlin is, and what a mess. It is bankrupt and underpopulated. Big companies like Sony, Samsung and Mercedes, enticed after reunification by subsidies intended to boost business, took advantage of the offers then skipped town.
There’s no city plan worthy of a great capital, partly because of old, festering rivalries. Years ago it was decided to demolish the Palace of the Republic, a 1970s bronzed glass-and-steel behemoth at the center of the old East Berlin. West Berliners saw it as an eyesore that housed the loathed East German parliament.
East Berliners recalled it affectionately, because its clutch of theaters and bowling alleys and restaurants were where they could escape the drudgery of Communist life. It’s now to be replaced with a fake Baroque palace, a copy of the Hohenzollern schloss formerly on that site, which was bombed, then razed by the Communists — a forthcoming Potemkin village and a sad excuse for a showpiece in a city that prides itself on its cultural sophistication. Fortunately, Berlin is now too broke to finish demolition, which has already taken longer and cost more than the building did to put up.
As for Tempelhof, the city’s popular mayor, Klaus Wowereit, led the push to shut it immediately and not wait for Schönefeld’s expansion. This partly explains why Conservative opponents in town changed course and vigorously campaigned to save it. They rallied nostalgic West Berliners. The conservative Springer newspapers joined in. So did Chancellor Angela Merkel. America, with its shaky standing, became a subtle undercurrent in the debate.
But, through it all, neither side offered anything approaching a concrete plan for what actually to do with Tempelhof, whether it’s kept open or closed. An offer by the American billionaire Ronald S. Lauder to invest $500 million to turn it into a big health center, with its airport to serve wealthy patients, was shot down, never mind that the city is desperate for outside investment.
In the event, referendum voters, splitting along the old cold war lines, endorsed keeping it open by a 3 to 2 ratio, but only 22 percent of eligible Berliners cast ballots in favor of doing so, shy of the 25 percent required. Mr. Wowereit may have kept turnout low by saying beforehand that he wouldn’t even abide by a yes vote, the referendum being nonbinding.
He and his allies had leaned on the argument that Tempelhof was bad for the environment and the neighborhood. Those living nearby turned out to cast the largest percentage of votes in favor of saving the airport. A Tempelhof resident appeared on German television, standing in her little public allotment garden beside the airfield’s barbed wire fence, straining to make herself heard over the roar of a Lear jet. “It is so comfortable here,” she said. She wasn’t being ironic.
Having seen that woman on television, the architecture writer Gerhard Matzig, in The Süddeutsche Zeitung explained that “there are residents of Tempelhof who can understandably imagine a life without aircraft noise and danger, but the much more interesting phenomenon is the string: aircraft — noise — barbed wire — coziness.”
Exactly. Certain places, like certain works of music and love affairs, inspire bonds of affection that transcend logic and can’t be expressed in profit and loss. It doesn’t matter whether they’re great cultural monuments or civic symbols. Tempelhof also happens to be those things. Mr. Matzig went on to point out that repurposing it, as a museum, or whatever, won’t really spare it. Such places tend to “lose their strength and magic,” he wrote.
Even with few flights, Tempelhof remains magical. Berlin’s a mess but glorious because, being bankrupt, it is more affordable than other major capitals, which makes it attractive to singles, artists, students, immigrants, people on the dole and dreamers. Its airports cater to this population of discount passengers. Tegel is the most efficient and wonderful airport in Europe; Tempelhof, the most beautiful. Even homely Schönefeld works. Quiet, efficient, cheap, humane and perfect for flying around the continent, they collectively improve Berlin in ways immeasurable by accountants and politicians.
By contrast, Berlin’s dated vision to construct, at Schönefeld, what is to be called Berlin-Brandenburg International — the city’s answer to Frankfurt, London, New York and Paris, where air travel is utterly appalling — betrays provincial megalomania. It’s one of Berlin’s notorious charms and weaknesses. In this case, it is leading the city toward its own version of the demolition of Penn Station. In the name of progress, a metropolis becomes less, not more, cosmopolitan.
A few days ago, the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel published several broadsheet pages about the latest multimillion-dollar pipe dreams for Tempelhof: turning the runways into a “roller-skaters’ paradise”; making the airfield a park; devising an entertainment palace, a high-tech industrial center, apartments for 4,600 people, a flight museum, movie studios, a Formula 1 track.
The book of Berlin turns out to be “Don Quixote.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: May 23, 2008
The Abroad column on Tuesday, about the future of Tempelhof Airport in Berlin, misstated the percentage of Berliners who voted in a nonbinding referendum on whether to keep the airport open, and misstated a requirement for the proposal’s approval. About 36 percent of eligible voters took part, not 22 percent. Approval required a “yes” vote from at least 25 percent of eligible voters, not a turnout of 25 percent of eligible voters. (While a large majority of those taking part, as the column noted, voted to keep it open, those votes came from only about 22 percent of eligible voters, short of the requirement.)
The column also misidentified the site of another airport that serves Berlin, Schönefeld. While it is in the former East Germany, and its full name is Berlin-Schönefeld International Airport, it is just outside the Berlin city limits in Schönefeld, not in the former East Berlin.