by Hazel Anna Rogers for the Carl Kruse Blog
This thing is colossal, a sheer asymmetrical beast of stark adjoining structures.
Tempelhof Airport owes its asymmetry to its lack of completion; Ernst Sagebiel, who designed this place, couldn’t complete his vision due to the outbreak of war in 1939. Despite this, construction on the central terminal building, a 1.23-kilometre limestone quadrant, was finished in 1941 with the use of forced labor. The quadrant, a structure characteristic of neo-classical German fascist architecture, encircles a stunningly derelict 386-hectare airfield, which stretches out as far as the eye can see. The longitudinal entrance to the airport heads a 90-metre long grey-patterned concrete courtyard, within which there was to be an elaborate fountain erected, a plan which ended discarded later in the design process. This entrance hall, comparable perhaps to the flat-rooved Georgian manor blocks throughout north London, is framed with long, thin oblong windows, a feature that harkens to Albert Speer’s Lichtdom design for the Nuremberg rallies. The clearly observable unsupported steel skeleton, or canopy, which holds the terminal quadrant, is inarguably a feat of both technical brilliance and astounding beauty.
One of the entrances to Tempelhof Airport
Much Nazi architecture has not survived the tests of time or history. Hermann Göring’s residence, Carinhall, once situated in the Schorfheide forest, was destroyed by Göring’s order upon the advance of the allies, leaving only two lonely gate pillars to remind us of where the war criminal resided. Hitler’s Berlin bunker was completely demolished, and only a humble placard remains at the entrance to some modern apartment blocks which tells us that this place harbored the Führer at the point of his suicide. Surprisingly, the aforementioned Nuremberg rally grounds are still standing in their austere, majestic concrete splendor, and have been used over the years for various endeavors, including sports. Even today, Hitler’s Olympic Stadium, a ground he deemed essential for displaying Aryan superiority, is still considered one of the best stadiums in the world, and hosted matches for the 2006 World Cup.
How do we reason with the history of these remaining structures, a history which is carved into their walls, breathes within their floors, and speaks silently through their clean, meticulous form words of hate, violence, and death? How do we look at beautiful things made by terrible men?
I find this dilemma to be much akin to that which surrounds literature; what books should we teach? Should we allow the tainted personalities of authors and creatives, such as Roald Dahl, Ezra Pound, Walt Disney, Agatha Christie, and Alice Walker, to impede upon our desires to read their novels and enjoy their works? Many hundreds of popular writers, directors, painters, and other such artists have been found to hold, or to have held, problematic and offensive views on certain populations and minorities. But, realistically, what can we do about this? Should we, as Hitler himself did, burn their books, refuse to watch their films, and destroy their artworks? Is a culture of silence and censorship really the key to moving forwards towards acceptance and love for all? A better prospect would be to read these works with a watchful eye, to reframe them within the politics and opinions of their time, and ultimately to learn more about how we can simultaneously reject the racist, antisemitic, and misogynistic narratives of the past while still being able to enjoy the beauty that these works oftentimes offer us. Tempelhof Airport has done just that.
Where, once, between 1938 and 1939, over 90 flights were completed to and from Tempelhof Airport, and where, during WWII, thousands flocked to hear Adolf Hitler speak, there is now an enormous open park, which opened on the weekend of May 8th-9th 2010 to some 200,000 visitors, who used the grounds for running, cycling, ball games, kite-flying, picnicking, and other modes of recreation. The acres of flat pasture of the now named Tempelhofer Feld, the largest inner-city open space in the world, are verdant and fresh, and harbor within them a great multitude of red-listed wildlife, including the Eurasian skylark, which comes here to breed. This bountiful, welcoming expanse, whose dark history is being reshaped by the memories of its millions of yearly visitors, is here to stay. While numerous plans for industrial development have been touted for sections of Tempelhofer Feld, Berlin’s citizens have ceaselessly fought for this place to be a free haven for the people of Germany. In 2011, the citizen’s action group 100% Tempelhofer Feld was founded, whose petition for the referendum to preserve the grounds of the old Tempelhof Airport for the public and to reject any suggestions to build or repurpose any parts of the park garnered hundreds of thousands of signatures and passed with 64.3% votes in favor. I can but admire such ingenuity on the part of the German people. They have a pioneering, innovative spirit that I think is fairly unparalleled in the rest of the Western world. This park is testament to that.
I live very near to Hampstead Heath, where I go to swim through the year. But I have to pay to swim, and, in order to swim through winter, I have to: have a membership to the pond where I swim; agree never to let any non-members come in to swim; only swim between particular hours; never swim alone…the list goes on. Perhaps it is partly to do with me living in London, but I feel that, somehow, the United Kingdom has lost much of its free public space due to the forceful hands of councils, governments, and developers. Everything, here, must be paid for, or signed up to, and one must always abide by the rules for fear of sordid repercussions. The byelaws for Hampstead Heath itself are so astonishingly severe as to bring hilarity upon reading them. Here are a few brilliant ones:
- It’s a felony to pick a flower on the heath
- It’s criminal to train your dog on the heath
- It is illegal to swear on the heath
- It’s illegal to climb trees on the heath
- It’s illegal to sit on a bench or lie down in the fields of the heath if you’re dressed badly/are dirty
- You’re not allowed to sing or play music on the heath
- And here, in all its glory, ladies and gentlemen, Byelaw 41:
‘No person shall in any open space practise gymnastics, play or make preparation to play any game or take part in any sport, or entertainment or dance, bathe, fish, use any boat, or sail any model yacht without the consent of the Council in writing under the hand of its Clerk except on the parts or places respectively set apart therefor or infringe any regulation of the Council without respect to the use of any such part or place and the conduct of persons using the same or resorting thereto as may be specified in any notice from time to time exhibited on any such part or place.’
I suppose you’re wondering why I bring up any of this in relation to Tempelhofer Feld. I guess I’m trying to explain the significance of this park and how important it was that the people rise up and fight for it. Sacred, historic places such as this one are constantly being torn out from under us; new laws creep in unnoticed, developers build on our green spaces, and people are arrested, charged, and sometimes imprisoned for such minor offences as trespassing, playing music, and camping throughout Europe, but particularly in the UK. If we can learn one thing from the transformation of Tempelhof Airport, let it be that history can be rewritten, and perhaps also that our precious natural world and the green spaces within our towns and cities can only be saved from by the enduring fighting spirit of the people.
Note: The Carl Kruse Blog in conjunction with the Ivy Circle Berlin and the Wharton School Alumni of the University of Pennsylvania have organized a private tour of Tempelhof on Friday, February 24, 2023, beginning at 6:30pm. For more information see here.
Contact: carl AT carlkruse DOT com
Other articles by Hazel include an ode to cookbooks and a not so brief history on electronic music.
The blog’s last post was on ChatGPT.
The Carl Kruse Bio.