Born with the birth of flight
April 25, 2008 5:12 AM   Subscribe

With the grounds it was built on having hosted the first demonstration of airplane flight in 1909, Tempelhof International Airport, the world's second-oldest working commercial airport, was officially opened in 1923. Also known as City Airport, it takes its official name from the Tempelhof neighborhood of Berlin, itself named for the Knights Templar who owned its land in the Middle Ages.

The Nazi era saw a redesign by architect Ernst Sagebiel at the request of Albert Speer, widely hailed as one of the classic airport designs of the 20th century despite the darkness of its origins. In the postwar era, Tempelhof was the delivery site for the Berlin Airlift, when the Western allies kept West Berlin supplied with the necessities of life for 15 months via nonstop plane deliveries from the so-called Rosinenbomber or "Raisin Bombers", despite the Soviet blockade. There have been very few logistical feats to rival the Airlift since: at the height of the deliveries, flights were arriving every 3 minutes, around the clock, with an average of 8,000 tons of goods being flown in daily. The operation succeeded, but at the cost of 101 British, American and German lives. After the blockade was lifted, this sacrifice for West Berlin's survival was commemorated with the Luftbrückendenkmal, or Berlin Airlift Monument, which remains one of the few remaining loci of the extraordinary postwar relationship between the US and the former West Germany.

Nothing lasts forever. One of the big side-effects of the reunification of Berlin was that the city, formerly two cities, had multiples of everything: central train stations, operas, and a veritable embarrassment of airports. Plans were made for the BBI, a huge new consolidated airport to be placed just outside of the city in former-East Brandenburg, and these plans were made contingent on the closing of Tempelhof.

Former-West Berliners were shocked, and although American Ronald Lauder has twice offered to save Tempelhof by investing a half a billion Euros to turn it into an air-accessible health (or possibly beauty) center, he has been rebuffed both times. Things took on an air of inevitability: much like the decommissioning of Charlottenburg's Zoo train station in 2006, another West neighborhood was going to lose one of its anchors as the price of progress.

Oder? This winter, in a city of 3.4 million, over 175,000 Berliners signed a petition demanding a public binding refendum on whether to close Tempelhof, invoking a new procedural rule for allowing direct voting on a city policy for the first time ever. Soon, the fate of the airport will be decided: if 610,000 Berliners vote to keep it...

...well, that part isn't clear yet. Klaus Wowereit, Berlin's slightly-starstruck SPD mayor, has said that he will ignore the results of the vote and proceed with the closing plan. The conservative CDU party has made hay of this, accusing the Mayor of being anti-democratic. Even chancellor Angela Merkel has gotten into the local tussle, encouraging Berliners to get out and vote to keep Tempelhof, and referencing the Berlin Airlift in her entreaty. Did I mention that Ms. Merkel grew up in East Germany?

Despite its intention to ignore the results, the SPD has decide to hedge their bets by making use of the Ron Lauder offers to invoke a little bit of class warfare [pdf], with a construction worker saying "Ick zahl doch nicht für'n VIP-Flughafen!" ("I'm not paying for a VIP airport!" in a Berlin accent) on their thousands of posters. But however the vote goes this Sunday, Wowereit's stance may have set the stage for something otherwise-unimaginable: Berlin having a conservative local government in its future.

Tempelhof is the rare working airport which still manages to evoke the golden age of air travel, and I recommended that any former flight lover who has lost their faith in an age rife with humiliations make a pilgrimage to its graceful halls and rediscover their wonder. But don't wait too long to visit or you may miss your chance.
posted by Your Time Machine Sucks (36 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Sorry, forgotten context (if you can imagine such a thing after the novel I just wrote): SPD, CDU.
posted by Your Time Machine Sucks at 5:17 AM on April 25, 2008

This is one way to make a good MeFi post. Thanks, YTMS!
posted by AwkwardPause at 5:44 AM on April 25, 2008

Living around the corner from the airport, I've noticed that the 'Ja' or 'Nein!' sticker-war is really heating up -- now I can't decide how I should vote anymore. In regards to the actual buildings, unless they do indeed turn it into a spa or shopping mall, I don't think there will be much change after it closes since the halls already have the feeling of a museum. I took the photo about a month ago mid-day. The busiest counter seems to be the Rosinenbomber tour office..

Nice post.
posted by romanb at 5:58 AM on April 25, 2008

Thanks guys! I know it's a little OTT, but there are so many historical threads in the backstory and current drama that I couldn't quite bring myself to shortchange any of it. I live in the Tempelhof flight path and there are still flyovers every day, but I agree, it is already significantly reduced from a few years ago.
posted by Your Time Machine Sucks at 6:06 AM on April 25, 2008

It should also be mentioned that the city of Berlin is still pretty broke.
posted by Slothrup at 6:08 AM on April 25, 2008

Tempelhof is a ridulously small and inefficient airport for a city like Berlin. Sort of like London with London City airport and now Heathrow.

Münich's Strauss airport.. now that's an airport.
posted by three blind mice at 6:20 AM on April 25, 2008

and now Heathrow.

and no Heathrow.

There I fixed that for me.
posted by three blind mice at 6:22 AM on April 25, 2008

I was thinking about going to vote for closing the airport just because of how much all the posters have been annoying me. I don't quite understand the issue though; on Ronald Lauder's plan the airport would still be closed, right? He wants to turn it into something else. So it sounds like the airport won't be an airport any longer one way or another. Is Wowereit determined to tear down the building? I suppose I'm in favor of maintaining old buildings, if that's all it comes down to.

Anyway, yeah, Berlin is broke, and if Wowereit says the airport costs too much I believe him. I'd rather see the money go to pretty much anything else -- fewer university cutbacks, for one. Or better integration services for the immigrant districts, or just a few decent basketball courts where you won't twist your ankle.

Nice post btw.
posted by creasy boy at 6:48 AM on April 25, 2008

I've flown in and out of Templehof, when I lived in Berlin. It really is sort of a timeless place, you can easily imagine yourself waiting for a DC-3, back in the days when newspaper reporters covered arrivals at the airport.

I'd love to see it preserved for its historical and architectural values, but I can certainly understand the City's position on this issue. Wish I could go back and see it one more time.
posted by pjern at 6:49 AM on April 25, 2008

Hmm, I see now in one of the links that Wowereit says he wants to make it into a park. That sounds fine to me. I love parks. As long as they keep the fucking Ordnungsamt out of that shit so we can all grill there in the summer. Maybe it'll even become the new Görlitzer Park after Görlitzer Park gets fully colonized by all the yuppies flocking to the Medienspree.
posted by creasy boy at 6:53 AM on April 25, 2008

tbm, I don't think anybody is proposing to keep Tempelhof only, just to keep it as an inner-city complement to the main airport, handling short-haul flights (like London City indeed). It sounds nice, but whether chronically broke Berlin can afford it is an entirely different matter.

Moreover, with soaring fuel costs and a good high-speed train connection nearby, I'd think that such an inner-city commuter airport should be doomed anyway. A pity, because Tempelhof is truly a monument.
posted by Skeptic at 6:54 AM on April 25, 2008

This being Germany however, although the pro-Tempelhof CDU/FDP campaign is running on a "YOU are the people YOU have the power" (which deliberately harks back to the fall of the Wall) ticket, as they have no actual facts to argue with, only German citizens can vote in this "popular, grass-roots" referendum anyway. So all the decades-old communities of Turkish, Arabic, Kurdish etc extraction, which make up a large part of the districts bordering Tempelhof, (and the bitter-as-hell British "expats", cough) are barred from making decisions about the city in which they live, work, raise families and pay taxes.

Germany nationality law

So much time and energy in Germany is spent on hand-wringing about the racist past, and so much ongoing racism is totally, and conveniently, ignored.....

So anyway, seeing as so many people who are actually affected by the environmental factors, i.e. having private jets buzzing your bedroom, are excluded from having a say, and so many people are pissed off at the CDU/FDP for stirring up this money-wasting non-issue, Tempelhof will probably be "saved" by a small number of people interested in a fly-by cosmetic surgery facility, and large numbers of people acting out of nostalgia for the Berlin Airlift and a sense of threatened Wessi identity.
posted by runincircles at 6:58 AM on April 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

posted by Your Time Machine Sucks

Oh if only your post wasn't so good, there'd be a legitimate eponysterical call in the works.

As it is - great work! Very interesting...when I was there, I was so caught up in the 20th century historical significance of it all that I totally missed the Templar connection. For shame.

YTMS, I notice this is your first post - any other first-timers take note: 'it's my first FPP' is no longer an excuse to suck!
posted by cosmonik at 7:20 AM on April 25, 2008

Interesting post, YTMS.

Tempelhof is a ridulously small and inefficient airport for a city like Berlin. Sort of like London with London City airport and now Heathrow.

LCY is much newer—it opened in 1987. As far as I know, it is pretty efficient.
posted by grouse at 7:22 AM on April 25, 2008

"With the grounds it was built on having hosted the first demonstration of airplane flight in 1909"

Excuse me?
posted by mr_crash_davis at 7:28 AM on April 25, 2008

Sorry sorry, saw way too many Tempelhof-hype sites while pulling the links together and my eyes glazed. It was a much more modest yet nonetheless impressive [pdf, nytimes] demonstration.
posted by Your Time Machine Sucks at 7:41 AM on April 25, 2008

Now you can say it's eponysterical.
posted by Your Time Machine Sucks at 7:42 AM on April 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

All these words and no youtube? This is Metafilter, right?

Seriously, though, great post.
posted by space2k at 7:58 AM on April 25, 2008

Templehof is awesome. It has zeppelins and was built by Nazis, how do you beat that?
posted by Artw at 8:32 AM on April 25, 2008

tbm, I don't think anybody is proposing to keep Tempelhof only, just to keep it as an inner-city complement to the main airport, handling short-haul flights (like London City indeed).

Yeah I got that Skeptic. What I meant is that in the current situation there is just Tempelhof which is woefully inadequate for a city the size of Berlin. It is very charming.

Berlin is too big for Templehof, but maybe too small for a London type solution.
posted by three blind mice at 8:53 AM on April 25, 2008

I've only flown into Templehof via London City, on some kind of prop plane. I'd assumed it was the small commuter airport and the one out of town was the major one, just like London.
posted by Artw at 8:57 AM on April 25, 2008

Berlin currently has three airports inside city limits, of which Tempelhof is the only small (and the only fabulous) one.
posted by Your Time Machine Sucks at 9:00 AM on April 25, 2008

There are definitely three airports in Berlin. All the times I've flown to America and within Europe I've never heard of a flight leaving from Tempelhof, so that's partly why I'm confused as to why people want to save the airport so much.
posted by creasy boy at 9:13 AM on April 25, 2008

Wowereit isn't going to tear down the building itself. Just stop the flights, like the treaty to build the new international airport BBI demands.
I live right in the entry lane of Tempelhof, and my street ends with the fence of the airfield. I'd love a huge park there, or just anything else then a fenced no-go area. The notion to keep the airport strikes me as ridiculous, having note one actual argument besides the ridiculous "Ich Bin Ein Berliner".
I'm going to vote for closing it down.
posted by kolophon at 9:14 AM on April 25, 2008

(not one, I mean).
posted by kolophon at 9:15 AM on April 25, 2008

In my dreams: Zepplin only airport.
posted by Artw at 9:45 AM on April 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

I landed at this airport a few years ago. I was flying from NY and there were no direct flights to Berlin. The plane taxied under the gigantic metal awning and we disembarked from the small plane to the tarmac.

My friend rode a bicycle to the airport to meet me. She was the only person waiting for the flight. Walking through this almost empty building was one of my strangest experiences.
posted by bhnyc at 9:46 AM on April 25, 2008

For the correct effect you should hum the Imperial March. And wear a cape.
posted by Artw at 9:48 AM on April 25, 2008

With the grounds it was built on having hosted the first demonstration of airplane flight in 1909
This may have been a misinterpretation due to the ambiguous wording in the Wikipedia article on Templehof. The Wright brothers made their first powered airplane flight in 1903. The first flight demonstration in the Templehof area was in 1909.
posted by joaquim at 11:23 AM on April 25, 2008

The notion to keep the airport strikes me as ridiculous, having note one actual argument besides the ridiculous "Ich Bin Ein Berliner".

That is only true if you accept it as a matter of faith that there is no way to run it profitably and therefore as a net job gain for its part of the city (apparently Ron Lauder didn't think that was a correct assumption). Making a better outcome would be a project for a good thinker on the subjects of urban planning and commerce, who might take the fact that billionaires are repeatedly cold-calling as a hint that he could make his own plan that had nothing to do with plastic surgery and find investors for it, like rainmakers in other cities do.

Also, parks are great, but I've noticed that we don't exactly have a lack of them (creasy, you'd have to go all the way through the Hasenheide before you got to Tempelhof!). I bet there are a lot of people in Tempelhof (likely not expats) who would rather the neighborhood's economy get some attention. In my estimation there are Wessis who aren't crazy for feeling a bit whiny.

BTW, I know it's insufficiently cynical and Berlinisch, but I don't find "Ich Bin Ein Berliner" ridiculous and I don't think it's strange that the history of West Berlin is in play in a debate about a feature of the former West Berlin.

This may have been a misinterpretation due to the ambiguous wording in the Wikipedia article on Templehof.

Yup, there and also on a bunch of sites specifically about Tempelhof history. When I was in Sydney a few years ago, the news was constantly full of stories like "Australian Scientist Discovers (some useful little detail about a potential new form of) Renewable Energy!" and I think it's a similar phenomenon.
posted by Your Time Machine Sucks at 12:00 PM on April 25, 2008

Nice post! Nice Links!

It's kind of hard to wrap one's brain around how big and how central Tempelhof is. On one side of the airport you are a ten-fifteen minute cab ride from the center of the city, from the other side it's a little more than a half hour. I once drove around the whole airport (kid only sleeps in moving car, etc.) and was the vastness of it is really hard to convey.

In the "Zitty" there was a joke piece (it was a joke piece, wasn't it?) about what to do and one of the suggestions was turn it into a Formula One race track! (and you thought living next to an airport for private jets was bad!) Only slightly less odd than a fly-in medical clinic.
posted by From Bklyn at 1:53 PM on April 25, 2008

As I bike to work I pass these Nein posters with the populist slogans, and I don't know, I find the populist slogans a little distasteful and naive, and I don't like what they are appealing to. "I fly from Berlin, but never from Templehof", for instance, says to me that the reason to close something down something is that you're not the one using it.

Closing down a functional airport is obviously going to have an effect. The flights into Templehof are going to have to land somewhere else, and what is that going to do to prices? And the busyness of Tegel and Schönefeld? You would not close down london city because it's expensive to fly out of, even if it is an airport for the "super rich", because Heathrow is already too full.

It doesn't seem like Berlin actually has an airport problem. So what is the actual point of this plan to have a giant airport out in Brandenburg anyway?
posted by cotterpin at 4:41 AM on April 26, 2008

Well, BBI is an extension of Schönefeld airport, which is on the Berlin-Brandenburg border, while the new big build is a hitch farther down the road into Brandenburg. So for one of the three airports, the business won't be decreasing, just moving down the road. Tegel is also going to be shut down in 2012, which is going to be a very harsh blow to that neighborhood, whose big employers are the airport and a prison.

To answer your question, I personally don't see the big gain with BBI; we've had direct-to-US flights withdrawn a bunch of times due to lack of interest, so it seems like there was already more capacity than fliers. Having a couple of smaller airports means that the transport systems which serve them are less pressured, and the burden of the environmental impact and the economic benefits are shared by more than one neighborhood, and to look at London, there are apparently different roles for multiple airports to profitably fill. I suppose that there are probably upsides and downsides to both approaches.

We'll see what happens tomorrow...
posted by Your Time Machine Sucks at 3:04 PM on April 26, 2008

From the Berliner Zeitung:

Erster Volksentscheid in Berlin ohne Erfolg / Ältester Flughafen der Stadt kann im Oktober geschlossen werden

von Jan Thomsen

Berlin - Der Volksentscheid zur Offenhaltung des innerstädtischen Flughafens Berlin-Tempelhof ist gescheitert. Laut dem ersten Zwischenstand nach Schließung der Wahllokale haben zwar 60 Prozent der Teilnehmer mit Ja gestimmt - und damit eine klare Mehrheit. Das laut Verfassung nötige Ja-Quorum von 25 Prozent aller Wahlberechtigten (das wären exakt 609 509 Stimmen für den Weiterbetrieb) wurde jedoch mit 20,5 Prozent nicht erreicht. Dies teilte Landeswahlleiter Andreas Schmidt von Puskas am Sonntagabend gegen 19.40 Uhr mit. Die Wahlbeteiligung lag bei 34,2 Prozent und damit um fast 24 Prozentpunkte niedriger als bei der Abgeordnetenhauswahl von 2006 .

I'll translate (be gentle, this is off the top of my head):

Berlin's first referendum unsuccessful / Oldest airport in the city can be closed this October

by Jan Thomsen

Berlin - The referendum in favor of keeping urban airport Berlin-Tempelhof open has failed. According to early counts since the polls have closed, 60 percent of participating voters voted yes on keeping the airport open, achieving a clear majority. The required 25% of all registered voters (which would be exactly 609,509 votes in favor of continuing operations at Tempelhof) was nonetheless not secured, with 20.5% of registered voters voting to keep the airport working. This was reported on Sunday evening at 7:40pm by state election official Andreas Schmidt von Puskas. 34.2% of voters participated in the vote, 24% fewer than participated in the parliamentary elections in 2006.
posted by Your Time Machine Sucks at 12:26 PM on April 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Die Tempelhof-Frage hat die Stadt gespalten.

Damit hat sich bestätigt, was sich bereits während des Wahlkampfs abzeichnete: Tempelhof ist vor allem ein Thema, das die West-Berliner emotional berührt. Nicht zuletzt wegen der Luftbrücke ist für sie der Flughafen ein Wahrzeichen der Stadt. In Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf, Spandau, Steglitz-Zehlendorf, im Flughafen-Nachbarbezirk Neukölln und in Tempelhof-Schöneberg selbst lag die Zustimmung durchweg über der 70-Prozent-Marke. Den höchsten Zuspruch gab es in Reinickendorf mit 77 Prozent Ja-Stimmen. In diesen Bezirken waren auch die meisten Briefwahlanträge gestellt worden. Aber nicht nur die Zustimmung ist in den West-Bezirken hoch, sondern auch die Wahlbeteiligung. In Steglitz-Zehlendorf ging jeder zweite Wahlberechtigte (50,9 Prozent) zur Abstimmung.

In den fünf West-Bezirken wurde auch das 25-Prozent-Quorum erfüllt, das heißt, mindestens ein Viertel aller Wahlberechtigten in den Bezirk votierte für den Erhalt des Flughafens Tempelhof.

The Tempelhof question has divided the city.

It confirmed what was already looming during the campaign: Tempelhof is, more than anything else, an emotionally moving subject for West Berliners. For them it is a symbol of the city, not the least reason being the Airlift. In [West neighborhoods] Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf, Spandau, Steglitz-Zehlendorf, airport-neighbor Neukölln and in Tempelhof-Schöneberg itself, over 70% of the voting was in favor of keeping Tempelhof. The highest percentage of voting in favor of the referendum was in Reinickendorf, with 77% voting yes. These were are also the neighborhoods which sent the highest numbers of mail-in votes in favor of the referendum. But the yes votes weren't the only thing high in the West neighborhoods, also the participation rate. In Steglitz-Zehlendorf, every second registered voter (50.9%) appeared to vote.

The 25% in favor voting requirement was fulfilled in the five West neighborhoods, i.e., at least a quarter of all registered voters turned out and voted to keep Tempelhof operating.
posted by Your Time Machine Sucks at 5:57 PM on April 27, 2008

From a NYT slideshow:
Tegel is the most efficient and wonderful airport in Europe; Tempelhof, the most beautiful. Even homely Schönefeld works. Quiet, efficient, cheap, humane and perfect for flying around the continent, they collectively improve the culture of Berlin in ways immeasurable by accountants and politicians.

By contrast, Berlin's dated vision to construct, at Schönefeld, what is to be called Berlin-Brandenburg International — the city's answer to Frankfurt, London, New York and Paris, where air travel is utterly appalling — betrays provincial megalomania. It's one of Berlin's notorious charms and weaknesses. In this case, it is leading the city toward its own version of the demolition of Penn Station. In the name of progress, a metropolis becomes less, not more, cosmopolitan.
posted by grouse at 2:21 PM on May 20, 2008

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