Berlin’s Abandoned Tempelhof Airport Becomes a Vast Park

I first wrote about Tempelhof Airport when I was living in Berlin, just before the air terminal shut down in 2008. In fact, my post about Tempelhof’s closing (now deleted) was one of the very first German Way Expat Blog posts. Berliners’ “nein” vote in an April 2008 referendum had sealed the historic airfield’s fate. It ceased operations as an airport at the end of October 2008. But, as with most things in Berlin, the decision on what to do with the now-idle airport remained in limbo for some time. Proposals ranged from developing the large site and using it to provide badly needed affordable housing, to leaving the grounds largely untouched as a park. (Thankfully, the airport terminal building is landmark protected and can’t be torn down. Guided tours are offered for individuals and groups.)

Tempelhof field aerial view

Tempelhof Field covers 386 hectares (954 acres, 1.5 sq. miles) including the terminal structure (303 ha without the buildings). PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

Tempelhofer Feld
For a long time after its closing Tempelhof’s huge airfield was fenced off and unavailable to the public. But today Tempelhofer Feld (Tempelhof Field) is a popular park that attracts Berlin families and people of all sorts to its expansive, open environment on the grounds of what was once Berlin’s only commercial airport until the new Tegel airport opened in 1974.

Tempelhof gates

The boarding area of the Tempelhof terminal in 2007, just before the airport closed down. PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

Before Tempelhof Field first became an airport in the 1923, the area was a military parade ground. When the parades ended, Berliners took over the field as a park on weekends and holidays. Today the former parade ground and airport has been returned to its function as a park. The vast Tempelhof park now features six kilometers (4 miles) of asphalt-paved former runways and taxiways for recreational use. Where aircraft once took off and landed, visitors today can walk, jog, bike, skateboard, and rollerblade. The grass-covered fields around the former runways and taxiways are now popular for picnics, sunbathing, kite-flying and other leisure pursuits. (Also see Chloë’s post about Three Great Berlin Buildings That Used to be Something Very Different.)

Old Tempelhof runway

The former runways at Tempelhofer Feld park today serve as a recreational area for bike riders, joggers, and anyone who wants to enjoy the famed “Berliner Luft” (Berlin air). PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

The Tempelhof Field park is so large it can take 20-30 minutes just to walk from one end to the other. That’s why many people prefer to ride a bike or use something else with wheels (skateboards, scooters, etc., but nothing motorized) to navigate the vast field. It usually requires several visits over time to visit the entire area of the park, not counting the terminal complex.

Tempelhof’s heritage-protected terminal building complex stands largely empty today, but parts of it now are used to house offices for Berlin’s police department, the Berlin traffic control authority, a kindergarten, a dance school, a stage theater, and various other agencies. More recently, in October 2015, the hangar area became home to about 1,000 refugees – first housed “temporarily” in tents and now in cubicles. (Berlin’s refugee housing policies have come under heavy criticism, quite justly.) At its peak, Tempelhof’s hangars housed about 2,500 refugees. In February 2017, the city announced that 600 remaining refugees would move out of Tempelhof by the summer, with all of them rehoused by the early fall. As with any announcement by Berlin officials, one should be skeptical, but for the refugees’ sake let’s hope it’s true. Even after all refugees leave, Hangar 5 at Tempelhof will continue to serve as a refugee intake center (Ankunftszentrum). A new and controversial “container village” on the Tempelhof grounds is supposed to remain there only for two years.

Tempelhof entrance

The main entrance to the “Zentral Flughafen” remains pretty much the way it looked in the 1930s, when the Tempelhof terminal was built following the designs of architect Ernst Sagebiel. PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

Some Tempelhof History
Until its closure in 2008, Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport was one of the world’s oldest operating airports. Berliners often called 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) kept Tempelhof from being the world’s oldest (almost) continuously operating passenger airport until October 30, 2008.

C-47s airlift

American C-47 aircraft unload their cargo at Tempelhof during the Berlin Airlift (die Luftbrücke), 1948-1949. PHOTO: U.S. Air Force (Wikimedia Commons)

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 were 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 flew 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, some six years after the Berlin Wall fell, the German federal government, Berlin, and the state of Brandenburg agreed to construct a brand new, modern airport near the former East German airport at Schönefeld to the south of the city. Reunified Berlin badly needed a new, bigger airport.

A sign advocating a “no” vote in the April 2008 referendum to keep Tempelhof operating as a commuter airport. Voters agreed, and the airport closed at the end of October 2008. PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

The original plan was to shut Tegel and Schönefeld down when the new Berlin Brandenburg International (BBI) airport, better known by its BER airport code, began operation in 2011. But as we all know, following bungling delay after delay, in 2017 both Tegel and the old Schönefeld airport are still running, and the new BER airport has yet to open. It has become an embarrassing symbol of the Berlin city government’s incompetence. If and when the BER terminal ever opens, it will already be too small for Berlin’s existing air passenger traffic.

Despite the financial burden, 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 commercial airport at any time in the previous 30 years. An April 2008 referendum to keep Tempelhof Airport 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.

Tempelhof Field Park Today
The good news is that Berlin now has a wonderful park that arose out of the abandonment of an outdated airport. Let’s hope that it stays that way, and the Berlin government can resist pressure to fill this huge patch of green with housing and other other development. So far the people have held sway and created a new Berlin park for all to enjoy.