Berlin’s Tempelhof: From Wartime Airport To People’s Park (On An Epic Scale)

You have a few days in Berlin, before your river cruise down the beautiful Elbe starts winding its way south. Meanwhile, the world’s most famous formerly-divided city, in all its renewed beauty, is all around you, and there’s too much to see.

Where to even start? The Brandenburg Gate? The poignant remains of the Wall? The beautiful, stately Reichstag building?

The Brandenburg Gate is an 18th-century neoclassical monument in Berlin, built on the orders of Prussian king Frederick William II
The Brandenburg Gate is an 18th-century neoclassical monument in Berlin, built on the orders of Prussian king Frederick William II

But you have a friend who lives here. He knows where the locals go in the late afternoons, to make the most of the evening sunshine. They go to an extraordinary place, a place that says “only in Berlin” in a way that makes the city proud.

A place that’s spent decades defying convention, thwarting logic, and fending off any practical, commercial, sensible attempts to redevelop it.

There is nothing sensible about Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport and its silent, empty runways.

It’s only when you’re walking down one of them that you realize how big Tempelhof is.

Runways are designed on an inhuman scale. If you’re an aircraft, they’re just long enough to claw yourself into the air.

This one, 9L/27R, is 2,094 metres long. It takes you 20 minutes of brisk walking to cover the distance a Boeing 747 would accelerate through in 60 seconds. This is clearly not a landscape built for feet.

Except, scratch that. You look around and there are people everywhere. Some, like you, are walking down the asphalt. Many more have taken to the grass, occasionally forming sociable huddles around a guitar, or the Berlin equivalent of a picnic basket.

The skyline of Berlin from the Tempelhof Airport
The skyline of Berlin from the Tempelhof Airport

It’s a decade after Tempelhof airport closed for the last time – after the last aircraft departed, an Antonov AN-2 delayed by bad weather – and now this is a place being reworked for a different scale of existence.

Before, everything needed to be colossal. This place is still vast – 100 acres larger than Manhattan’s Central Park – and in satellite photos it looks like a 400-hectare divot has been whacked out of Berlin by some continent-sized golf club.

On the ground, it’s so big that there’s little sense of being in a city park at all. You’re not in Berlin anymore – you’re in Tempelhof.

You’ve been told that the terminal building, once one of the 20 largest buildings in the world, is well worth seeing.

From this end of 27R it’s unimposing, a low dark silhouette perhaps a quarter-hour stroll away. Half an hour later you still haven’t reached it, and it has eaten the horizon.

This 4,000 foot long semicircle of hallways and hangers was designed to be the ultimate symbol of National Socialism – an eagle, stooping for a kill. Its roof was a mile long.

An eagle statue at the Tempelhof airport in Berlin
An eagle statue at the Tempelhof airport in Berlin

Today the terminal building is a mass of private offices and rental space, events that require a stage of epic proportions, and most recently a centre for refugees.

Someone once said that Tempelhof airport united “the characteristics of an inland sea with the yearning for faraway places.” The only thing you’re yearning for right now is a cold beer, but the contents of your water bottle will have to do. You sit on the runway’s grass verge and watch everyone else.

Most of them are clearly smarter than you, because they brought wheels: rollerblades, bicycles, skateboards and Segways.

The runways funnel the speedy, while everyone else is meandering, enjoying a succession of moments. Nobody is hurrying because there’s no point – everywhere here is too far away to arrive quickly.

You start to realize what you’ve been missing about this place. It’s not just about geography – it’s also about time.

In a city famous for never standing still, this park (its official name “Tempelhof Freedom”) is evolving into something much busier. Great strips of it are being put aside for formal parkland development, while others are being used in more organic ways, the most charming being the allotment shantytown of Stadtteilgarten Schillerkiez.

Here, wooden benches, pallets, boxes and barrels have been bolted together to form something excitingly ramshackle – a dab of Harry Potter, a sprinkle of Deadwood – and every container is filled with soil and sprouting plants (digging is forbidden, so this is the only way crops can be grown).

A historic sign at the Tempelhof Airport in Berlin
A historic sign at the Tempelhof Airport in Berlin

Nearby, poles hoist animal sculptures into the air at the edge of grassland where dogs must be kept on a leash because the wildlife, including several red-listed species, is making a comeback.

It looks like anyone could turn up and make something, and everything could be different in a week as it ebbs and flows across this vast canvas – a community art-space that will never run out of room.

However, it might run out of time.

In terms of city planning, Tempelhof is a place of indecision and heel-digging.

Legislation passed in 2014 banning commercial housing development on the site – but where there’s this much prime real estate, there will always be pressure, and not just for houses.

One plan has called for a 200-foot high hill capped with an angel – not the first time a local architect has suggest Tempelhof has its own mountain.

Other proposed developments include the relocation of the Central and Regional Library for Berlin to the park’s southwest edge, a wise move judging from the amount of people currently sat enjoying the afternoon sunlight with a book in their hands.

These are the Berliners who are enjoying Tempelhof as it is now – and they’re determined to keep it this way. So far, they’re winning.

You walk until your feet hurt, and you still get nowhere. So you turn around, and make your way back to the shallows, up the slope to the park gates at Oderstrasse (opened at 6am; closed at sunset).

Tempelhof Airport at sunset
Tempelhof Airport at sunset

This late in the day everyone is reluctantly heading back towards reality, lingering on the grass to watch the sun redden and slip behind the apartment blocks in the far distance, at the other side of the world.

Everything is in the pastel evening shades of moorland. A wild place, uncolonized but belonging to anyone who wants it.

How will it look the next time you visit?

You’re glad you saw it now, before it all changed once again. And now you really need that beer.

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