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Berlin's Tempelhof Airport
Main facade, Tempelhof Airport
Berlin, Germany
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Hugh Pearman
Lunch at Tempelhof
things 10
summer 1999
The restaurant is virtually empty, and verging on the crepuscular. Behind me in the tall rectangular departures hall, the sprinkling of staff at the check-in desks is doing its best to look engaged and occupied: a baggage conveyor clanks round and round, endlessly. Through the glass in front of me I look out across asphalt and grass, stretching to a mound in the middle distance. This view is overshadowed by a big external roof, a tough, column-free latticework of green-painted girders, curving round to a vanishing point on either side. It occurs to me that I could be in the director's box beneath the canopy of some enormous sports stadium, waiting for the match to begin. It turns out that the architect had much the same idea. I should have been here in 1948-9. This is Tempelhof Airport, and that was the Berlin Airlift: planes arriving and departing every few seconds, laden with supplies to the besieged Berliners. Such a flow of planes made an almost solid aerial connection: the German word for that extraordinary event, Luftbrücke, or Air Bridge, describes it pretty exactly. It was a road across the sky. I do not know if Tempelhof's architect was there to see it. There is very little I know about him. 

Or I should have been here in 1937, when the place was brand new and someone was carving the triumphal German eagles at the ends of the approach colonnades. Half-close your eyes as you walk up to the entrance facade of Tempelhof - all stripped-classical details hewn in limestone - and you can imagine the Nazi banners stretched across the front. There is a little pediment at the top which looks as if it should have supported a swastika, though I do not know if it ever did. It is idle curiosity, but you cannot help wondering: just as you do when you go to the Biennale gardens in Venice and encounter the more conventionally classical German Pavilion of the same period, and see the screw-holes in the centre of the pediment where something or other has been removed. 

Of the many fascinating things about Tempelhof, one is that juxtaposition of events, little more than a decade apart. The Airlift, lasting nearly a year, established it as a symbol of what used to be called the Free World, and today it is virtually a monument to that event. This effectively sanitised its earlier history as a triumphal example of Nazi-led technological innovation, opened just before the Second World War as a component of the Speer/Hitler plan for the rebuilding of Berlin. It was designed to last until the year 2000. Somewhat surprisingly, it has. It is the only major airport in the world to have remained virtually unchanged over more than 60 years. What can it teach us?

I have never yet flown into Tempelhof - there are no scheduled flights there from Britain - but when I am in Berlin, I try to go there. The food is excellent (not the schnitzel and beer you might expect - on my last visit I had thin slices of nicely underdone duck breast on a salad of mixed leaves, berries and pine nuts), the atmosphere wistful, the whole place is in good order but a little dingy. It should not really be here at all: a big airport, only two miles south of the city centre, and scarcely used. If more people knew about Tempelhof, they would demand to come here rather than the more distant Tegel. A few commuter planes hop in and hop out again - it is a domestic-flight sort of place, where most of the hardware on display has propellors. 

It is here by an accident of history. The landing-field was originally a Prussian military training-ground, first converted to an airport in 1923, when the Weimar Republic commissioned a handsome modern terminal by Paul and Klaus Enger. This was designed for expansion, but was demolished after ten years and replaced by the present building. The reason given was that it was in the wrong place, and it may have been. But it was also insufficiently grand, and in the wrong style, for the Third Reich.

Today, Tempelhof stands in the way of the new Berlin. It is a big open space in the map, the city wrapping round it. To the north, the frenzy of Berlin's reconstruction continues at a high level - new roads, new railways, the entire jigsaw of Potsdamer Platz being pieced together across what was the Death Zone of the Wall, a new government quarter being built, Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum finally opened, the Reichstag re-fettled and reopened with its glass dome by Sir Norman Foster

Down at Tempelhof, just south of the one-time Bohemian quarter of Kreuzberg, there is none of that. Not yet. Things are quiet. Buses serve it, but the metro system was never connected directly, meaning that you have to walk an inconvenient distance in the open from station to terminal. There are rumours that Tempelhof will be closed down and redeveloped. Arguments fly as to what, precisely, this redevelopment should be. In the meantime, it is there: a part of history that went on living, like a coelacanth

You will find it in very few books on architectural history. Perhaps this is because it is tainted by its style. Maybe the skin of the building is deemed to be all wrong for its function - airports, which are usually in a permanent state of rebuilding, are the one crucial building type of the 20th century, and are nearly exclusively modernist, almost never classical. Perhaps there is a lingering discomfort over the politics of its genesis: the feeling that nothing of merit should ever be found in Nazi-era architecture, that it must be put in the same box as kitsch Nazi-era paintings. These factors may have weighed in the balance in the past. But I think Tempelhof is little-known simply because it is overlooked, sidelined, off-pitch. It is enormous - I am told that, as an office complex, it is second in size only to the Pentagon, and it certainly looks that way on the map - but it is curiously invisible. 

The architect was not Speer, but one Ernst Sagebiel. Sagebiel had run the office of one of the great pioneering modernists, Erich Mendelsohn (1887-1953), who was based in Berlin until the advent of the Nazis in 1933, whereupon he moved first to Britain, then Palestine, and finally in 1941 to the United States. But as early as 1914, Mendelsohn had speculatively designed what he called an aerodrome. He envisaged a huge building, 1300 to 1500 feet long. He imagined a curving plan, with a tall central hall to handle six airships, and low hangars for aeroplanes and workshops to either side. He was never commissioned to build an airport. 

But his ex-employee Sagebiel was. Clearly he was a fine architect, and when he had to adopt the classical mode favoured by his new masters, he did so in an austere manner reminiscent of the earlier work of Sweden's Gunnar Asplund. Tempelhof's tall hooded stone window surrounds were later spotted by the architect James Stirling, an Asplund enthusiast, who copied them on his Berlin Science Centre (Wissenschaftszentrum) in the mid 1980s. But for all that, Tempelhof is Mendelsohn's Expressionist/Futurist 1914 aerodrome design in disguise. The tall central hall is there, only for people rather than airships. The curving wings with their configuration of hangars and workshops are there. Its proportions are different, and the style is wholly different, but Sagebiel had learned well from his old boss. Do not be fooled by the surface appearance: this is a very modern, efficient building, just as the Gothic fantasy of Sir George Gilbert Scott's St. Pancras Station in London (1868-74) conceals an ideal plan for a rail terminus. 

It did not surprise me to learn that the architect Lord Foster (Norman Foster), who flies his own planes, considers Tempelhof to be one of the world's great airports. It is said in his office that it was a big influence on Foster's own first airport, Stansted. Not in its surface styling, of course - Foster is not yet so conservative as that - but in its plan, which is near-perfect. You arrive at the front, you traverse the departures hall, and you walk out the back onto your plane, which is drawn up under that huge canopy. Nothing could be simpler or more direct. No travelators, no piers, no being extruded along tubes, no miles to walk. The bulk of the complex's office space forms the colossally grand approach. The hangars curve a very long way round on either side, embracing the oval airfield. But the main activity - arrival, process, departure - is kept within that tight, perfect central diagram. 

There is no doubt that Sagebiel owed his later livelihood to the Third Reich even if, unlike Speer, he remained an architect rather than moving into a political role. After the Mendelsohn office closed, he worked for Goering's Air Ministry, and spent the years 1933 to 1936 designing and building a vast new headquarters for the organisation in the city centre (still there, now being converted to German government use again after its spell under communist rule). He also designed airports at Stuttgart and Munich, both long superseded. Tempelhof, however, had an importance beyond its function. Hitler was personally involved in the project: Tempelhof was to form the conclusion of Speer's grandiose (and never built) north-south axis. Hitler went on record in 1934 defending the stupendous size of the projected construction on the grounds that it was necessary for national prestige. As late as 1939, expert commentators in America saw Tempelhof merely as a way of allowing for an anticipated explosion in civil air travel: ironically, it was the occupying American forces, in the late 1940s, who repaired and largely completed Sagebiel's design. 

Largely, but not entirely: Sagebiel had envisaged a raised stand for 65,000 spectators on the roof, and built 14 staircases to serve it before the war stopped work. Spectators for what, exactly? And what became of Sagebiel, this highly competent architect to the Reich, doomed forever to be eclipsed by Speer? Well-known prominent Jewish architects, including Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, Mendelsohn himself, and the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner, had emigrated and did not return in the post-war years. There were architects of note who remained, but dissented from the official style. Hans Scharoun, one of these, had little work in the late 1930s as a consequence, but received his reward by being made Berlin's city architect for the reconstruction, and built the masterly Philharmonie concert hall (1956-63). But Sagebiel? I do not know, and it irks me. I realise that I know almost nothing about him apart from a couple of buildings, one of which is a masterpiece. Sagebiel's was not the kind of history that people have wanted to write over the past half-century: he was associated with the wrong crowd, and how. What else did he build, if anything? When did he die? Did he and his former master Mendelsohn ever correspond? Silence. 

But Tempelhof is there. Its airside frontage runs in a continuous concave curve of 3870 feet. Its canopy is 40 feet high, and cantilevers out 170 feet for that entire distance. On the landside, it is a complex of buildings forming an entire city district. The fat stone eagles on the facade are as crisply detailed as the day they were cut. It represents so much that is contradictory. And it is a bathetic gesture, but it is all that I can do  I go there, sit and have lunch, and think about it. If I am lucky, a plane arrives and a few people get out. The last time I was there, even that did not happen. It is not dead yet, this airport-coelacanth, this living fossil, but its death is surely close: exactly the lifespan that Sagebiel envisaged.



Visit Hugh Pearman's website here.


things 10, summer 1999

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