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  • Writer's pictureAnna Dorothea Ker, MA

A Brief History of Tempelhofer Feld in Berlin

What is Tempelhofer Feld?

Tempelhofer Feld is a public park on the site of a former airport whose symbolic meaning has changed radically over the decades.

Tempelhofer Feld tree at dusk

Tempelhofer Feld History

‘Monumental’ is no exaggeration when it comes to the vast, sweeping building of Tempelhof Airport. Designed by Ernst Sagebiel on the commission from Hitler, Tempelhof was intended as the flagship transport hub of ‘World Capital Germania’, the epicentre envisaged by the Führer for his supposedly never-ending Reich. Built between 1936 and 1941, the airport consists of a series of buildings – more than a kilometre long – curving around an elliptical airfield, and it would remain the largest in Europe until Paris’s Charles de Gaulle Airport was opened in 1974.

Tempelhofer Feld runways from above

With its limestone façade, cantilevered roof and winged symmetry, the architecture exemplifies the Nazi taste for Neoclassical style on gargantuan scale; Sagebiel’s design attempts to downplay the connection to the Modernism of the Neues Bauen movement – Modernism, of course, represented to the Nazis the decadent culture of the 1920s they scapegoated for Germany’s failures. The intention was to construct a unified, grand forecourt but this, like much of the entire structure, was never fully finished. In 1941, the Second World War punctuated the construction process, and the airport became a site of forced labour, with bombers constructed in its hangars.

Between 1948 and 1949, Tempelhof changed suddenly in meaning, and became a symbol of freedom as the site of the famed Berlin Airlift. After the war, Soviet Russia took the newly formed state of East Germany into its sphere of influence – in which the Allied-occupied West Berlin was a precarious enclave. The Soviet government initiated a blockade of West Berlin in an attempt to force Britain, France and the United States out of the city; the western Allies responded by initiating the Berlin Airlift to supply the citizens of Western-occupied Berlin with essential provisions. The initiative lasted for over a year, transporting a total of 2.3 million tons of goods across nearly 300,000 flights – meaning a supply plane took off or landed in West Berlin twice a minute throughout the entire airlift.

skateboarding on the old runways at Tempelhofer Feld

Following the airport’s closure in 2008, life has been a lot quieter at what has since become known as Tempelhofer Feld (or Tempelhof Park), which is now open to the public as a vast and largely treeless recreation area. On any given day, whatever the season, cyclists, skateboarders, and rollerbladers of all ages glide down the generous runways. Later in the day, picnickers cluster on grassy slopes to clink beers as the city’s finest sunsets stretch the sky out in deep, engrossing hues. Across the airfield, the terminal buildings can be experienced up close through guided, pre-booked tours that lead visitors through the monument’s physical and ideological architecture. Born in a reign of terror, transformed into a fortress of freedom, and today beloved and protected by locals: there are few places that more intensely embody the twists and turns of the city’s past than this ghost of an airport.

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