Grandiose Nazi airport becomes a wild and free park

When an airport that symbolized the sweep of 20th century German history shut down in the capital of this industrious nation two years ago, everyone had an idea about what to do with the colossal piece of prime real estate.

Turn it into a shopping center and amusement park, one famous architect urged. Nonsense, others scoffed — we need more affordable housing. Or how about a scientific research center with giant satellite dishes connecting Berlin to the heavens? Or maybe a giant artificial lake with a beach at one end?

Architects drew up plans. Politicians convened hearings. Editorialists wrote impassioned commentaries.

But in the end, the city’s plans for Tempelhof Airport, built under Adolf Hitler as a grandiose monument to Nazi ambitions and Berlin’s lifeline during a Cold War blockade that emotionally bound this nation to America, turned out to be in tune with the current laid-back, not to mention penny-pinching, zeitgeist of Germany.


It did nothing.

Oh, city workers painted some big white X’s on the mile-long runways so some absentminded pilot doesn’t land his 747 on them. Then Tempelhof reopened as a vast no-frills park, and grassy stretches that once bent back and forth with the ebb and flow of jet fuel exhaust now shelter flop-haired dreamers staring off into a blue sky dotted with kites.

“There are not many places where you can see the horizon in this city,” said Renee Heyer, an unemployed 43-year-old printer, strolling by himself through the park on a lazy Sunday afternoon. “They don’t have to build anything here. It’s perfect the way it is.”

Previously a testing ground for Orville Wright, Tempelhof Airport roughly traces Germany’s evolution from Nazi extremism and pomposity through the resilience, austerity and conservatism of the Cold War, to a time of postwar affluence; and then onward to today’s Germany, especially Berlin, where unemployment is high, expectations are low and cafes are full by early afternoon.

The park is almost completely flat and green, with a few clumps of trees connected by service roadways and a smattering of crisscrossing dirt trails.

On a recent afternoon, a woman on rollerblades pulled a bicycle along the park’s main runway. Nearby, a family played Hacky Sack on a grassy stretch. And everywhere groups of children played, their moms watching, but not too closely.

At a shaded, woodsy area once used by American military personnel and their families for recreation, young boys played basketball and pot-bellied men sat in plastic chairs watching sports on a television set up next to the park’s sole snack shop.

But mostly, Berliners wandered through the prairie-like fields of an oasis that at 950 acres is even bigger than New York’s Central Park and almost 50% larger than the historic Tiergarten, the elegantly landscaped 19th century park at the city center.


“I like the space, the wildness of it,” said Caspar Fischer, 29, an aspiring film and television producer. “I think it’s even too controlled. I think they should let it even be more relaxed. They shouldn’t have closing hours.”


Among the largest structures in the world, the old terminal building was designed not by Hitler’s top architect, Albert Speer, but almost worse, by a deputy who aspired to his pomposity. He created an ominous and imposing edifice, decorated with eagles that grasped swastikas which have long been scraped off. Today, it’s separated from the park by a fence.

For now the airport building, stretching nearly 4,000 feet, will be left as it is. Some space is occasionally rented out for fashion shows or conferences, but it lies mostly empty, a hulking monument to an era most would like to forget.


The Allied forces knew they would need the airport after the war, so they mostly spared it in bombing runs that scorched much of Berlin. They probably couldn’t have destroyed it easily even if they had wanted to: Nazi architecture tended to be as resilient as it was menacing. “He who builds bunkers throws bombs,” said the graffiti written on a fortress-like Berlin air raid shelter that withstood numerous attempts to tear it down into the mid-1990s.

Tempelhof, of course, was at the end of President Truman’s famous air bridge during the 1948-49 Soviet blockade of the Western-controlled section of the city. An abstract monument bearing the names of the 70 British and American “Candy Bombers” who died ferrying food and supplies to the city remains, its three fingers representing the three air routes stretching toward the sky.

As Cold War tensions eased, Tempelhof became a U.S. military base as well as the city’s main civilian air link. And even as traffic moved to the more modern Tegel and later Schoenefeld airports, it continued to serve private planes and high-end travelers from other European cities.

By the last decade, however, Tempelhof’s location in one of the most densely packed residential neighborhoods of Berlin made its continued use untenable. It shut its doors to all flights in 2008. A massive new international airport will draw all aviation outside the city by 2012.


For decades, Berlin’s bombed-out empty spaces have drawn ambitious architects from all over the world. For a while, the fall of the Berlin Wall only seemed to accelerate the construction of space-age corporate headquarters and neoclassical glass-and-steel towers. The 4-year-old main railway station, already the biggest and busiest in Europe, is a translucent palace of glass, a shimmering monument to the nation’s success and democratic values.

But Berlin just didn’t have the bucks or wherewithal do anything so inventive with Tempelhof. So it did some minimal landscaping and dispatched rent-a-cops on bikes to patrol the place, posting dawn-to-dusk hours in what has turned into a tranquil mecca for everything on two wheels or two feet.

All this is in tune with a nation that continues to move away from its stern militarism of the early 20th century and the prim, hard-working asceticism of the postwar years.

On any given day in a country that once defined the Protestant work ethic, Berlin’s youth flood flea markets where they while away entire days smoking hash, vegan-friendly restaurants are beginning to catch up with Imbiss snack shops selling sausage smothered in curry-flecked ketchup, and touchy-feely parents dote on their children.


The city says it plans to spend up to $70 million over the next few years to spruce up Tempelhof Park in preparation for a 2017 garden show. But who knows? Berlin is flat broke and the country is tightening its belt like never before. So says Chancellor Angela Merkel. Many say shelve any plans and just let the park be.

“It needn’t be turned into anything,” said Sarah Hartung, a 40-year-old psychologist and mother of two children, 2 and 4. “Just leave it! Just leave it as it is. And it doesn’t have to be such an organized thing. It’s a nice place to chill — a purpose-free environment.”