Berlin’s Tempelhof airport has been closed since 2007, but the contrast between its tumultuous history and current use is like a metaphor for the entire city, its dark past turning it into one of the most inclusive cities around the world today.
Tempelhof was officially opened as an airport in 1923, although the Wright brothers had already organised an air show on site in 1909.
As part of Albert Speer’s plan for the reconstruction of Berlin during the Nazi era, Ernst Sagebiel was ordered to replace the old terminal with a new terminal building in 1934. The airport halls and the adjoining buildings, intended to become the gateway to Europe and a symbol of Hitler’s “world capital” Germania, are still known as one of the largest built entities worldwide and have been described by British architect Sir Norman Foster as “the mother of all airports”.
Having the advantage of a central location, just minutes from the Berlin city centre, Tempelhof-Berlin quickly became one of the world’s busiest airports. It saw its greatest pre-war days during 1938–1939, when up to 52 foreign and 40 domestic flights arrived and departed daily from the old terminal while the new one was still under construction.
During World War II, the airport served as an assembly ground for bomber planes. After the war, it was used for the Berlin Airlift to bring food and supplies to the people of West Berlin, which had been cut off from the rest of the world by the Soviets.
Tempelhof was used for commercial purposes until it finally closed down in 2007. Only one plane in front of the terminal building is reminiscent of the airport’s old function.
2. Leisure hotspot
Nowadays, the airport has transformed into a leisure hotspot in Berlin. On the 8 and 9 May, an unlikely coincidental date, 2010 the former airport was festively opened as Berlin’s largest public park, over 200,000 people having attended the celebrations.
The entire 300 hectares area is now a place for everyone to enjoy a day out, with basketball and tennis courts and green fields for family picnics. The tarmac serves as practice grounds for roller skating, skateboarding and kite skating, with dancers and street performers also finding their place for rehearsals.
Guided tours are organised on a daily basis so visitors can explore the interior of the building, taking an in-depth look at the historical and architectural background of the former airport. The interior has not changed much over the past decades, still showcasing a retro style, while the tours sometimes also include a visit to some of the multi layered basements.
Tempelhof is also used as an asylum centre, welcoming no less than 13,000 migrants during the refugee crisis of 2015. During the pandemic, a vaccination centre was set up here, while hundreds of Ukrainian refugees found a place at the former airport after fleeing from the war.