It has been a long time coming, but Berlin’s historic Tempelhof Flughafen is about to go out of business. At the end of the day before Halloween, on Oct. 30, 2008, Tempelhof will close down for good.
The Tempelhof airport is one of the world’s oldest airports. Berliners often call it THE world’s oldest, but there were several commercial airports in operation before Tempelhof, including Königsberg in Prussia (1922, today’s Kaliningrad, Russia). Only the airport in Sydney, Australia (1920) keeps Tempelhof from being the world’s oldest (almost) continuously operating passenger airport (until October 30).
Although the airfield dates from 1923, the current terminal was completed in 1936. It was designed for Hitler and the Third Reich by the architect Ernst Sagebiel in monumental Nazi style. The Nazis wanted an air terminal that reflected the importance of the German capital. Tempelhof survived World War II pretty well, and became the key airport during the Berlin Airlift (die Luftbrücke, 1948-1949). This historical fact was the main reason many Berliners have been very reluctant to see Tempelhof shut down.
But the city-state of Berlin was going broke trying to keep the underused airport operating. History or no history, Tempelhof was costing the capital city millions of euros a year – for a commuter airport that was largely deserted most of the time. Ever since the new Berlin-Tegel airport opened in 1974, West Berliners have flown in and out of that new facility. Although commercial air traffic returned to Tempelhof in 1985, the inner-city airport was never a business success. In 1996 the German federal government, Berlin, and the state of Brandenburg agreed to convert the former East German airport at Schönefeld into Berlin’s badly needed new airport – and to close Tempelhof. Later, even Tegel is to be shut down, once the new Berlin Brandenburg International (BBI) airport goes into operation in 2011.
But many Berliners, particularly in the western part of the city, fought the closing of Tempelhof, saying it was too historic and that Berlin needed a city airport (ignoring the fact that Tempelhof had never been a successful airport at any time in the last 30 years). An April 2008 referendum to keep Tempelhof open went down to defeat. Most Berliners agreed with mayor Klaus Wowereit that the “poor but sexy” city just could not afford to finance the airport any more.
The Tempelhof architecture is under landmark protection, so the giant terminal, the third largest building in the world, will remain. The question is: What can the city do with the Tempelhof complex? Various proposals have been floated – from a giant health spa to a city park – but everything is still up in the air. Tempelhof will cease operations as an airport on October 30, but no one knows what is supposed to happen after that. Efforts to have Tempelhof declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, even if successful, won’t change that. In fact, Tempelhof is already one of three 1930s European airports declared historic and formerly vital elements of European air travel by the Raphael program of the European Commission in 1999, joining Speke airport in Liverpool and Le Bourget in Paris.
I think it is sad to see this “end of an era,” but Berlin needs to do more looking ahead and less looking back. With some imagination, the former airport could once again assume an important role in the life of the German capital. It just doesn’t work as an airport in 21st century Berlin.
Photos > Tempelhof Airport – from the German Way