Last night I scrimmaged with a girl’s team that is part of a local league. They wanted to try playing on natural grass so they arranged to meet at Tempelhof, a giant airport in the middle of Berlin that has been transformed into a recreational area. It’s a bit like Floyd Bennet Field in Brooklyn, but literally in the middle of the city and the scale is off the charts. Bikers and rollerbladers speed by down the runways to never to be seen again. Small shapes in the sky mark the kite flying area which appears to be miles away and but is still in the park. A large stretch of grass is full of Turkish families grilling and filling the air with delicious smells. All this activity happens against the backdrop of the one-kilometer long terminal hall built by the Nazis. The whole thing feels impossibly massive, and yet the airport was closed in 2008 part because its runways are too short for the airplanes being built today.
The natural contour of the field did indeed prove to be a challenging surface -at least for me. After 15 minutes of playing “Storm,” I retreated red-faced and out of breath into goal. We played two 30 minute halves, finishing just as the sun began to set behind the sleek Nazi-architecture. We hung out for a while longer drinking beer on the grass. There were lots of people still hanging about enjoying the mild night -including a group reenacting a medieval battle, charging each other with spears and maces to the beat of a pagan-sounding drum.
This reenactment is apropos of the history of Templehof, named for the Knights of the Templar who were there until 1312 when they disbanded and Pope Clemens V took over. Thereafter, the area continued to be use for military training by the Prussians, the wide flat surface perfect for marching and drills. Its aviation history seems to have begun in 1909 when Orville Wright flew one of his homemade planes there and managed to stayed aloft for an entire minute. A crowd of ten thousand gathered, including the lady on the right who wore a giant bow on her hat for the occasion:
As air travel developed, Lufthansa had its first flight at Tempelhof and a makeshift airport began to develop. Zeppelins also floated and moored there and the subway connected to it to the city center in 1927. Then the Nazis came and rebuilt the airport in accordance of the important role it would lead in the capital of the Third Reich, Germania. The giant crescent structure was built in a Neoclassic but also Art Deco style, the slender windowed hall supported by fourteen towers in a delicate manner. The roof was meant to be a viewing platform for audiences at big Nazi events.
As WWII began, Tempelhof was not fully complete. When things started to look really bad for Hitler, the Reich’s film archive was put into the basement of the building for safe-keeping. Intense fighting with the Russian front led to the material catching fire and burning for days. Apparently the walls of those rooms are still blackened with soot. With the division of the city, the Americans took over the airport in 1945 and then perhaps Tempelhof’s most famous use came into play -the Berlin Airlift. When the Soviets blocked transport of food into West Berlin on the ground in 1948, the Allies delivered it by air to Tempelhof for an entire year. These planes became known as the Raisin Bombers and the airport became famous worldwide.
Tempelhof’s fame continued into and beyond the immediate post-war years, as many politicians and movie stars entered the walled city on its runways. Billy Wilder shot a scene there in his excellent, hilarious Cold-War film, “One, Two, Three:”
Tempelhof continued to be West Berlin’s main airport until 1975 when Tegel was built and was used up until 2008 when a city-wide vote backed the government’s decision to close it’s doors. East Berlin’s Schönefeld Airport had been chosen for the site of the reunified city’s new airport which after delay is set to open in March 2013 (it was supposed to open this June).
While the new recreational use of the airport’s fields and runways is amazing, it’s a bit unclear about how to access the building. I was there once in 2000 -not to take a flight but for an art-event: Brian Eno’s Music for Airports was being piped into the main hall which I remember looking like the picture below (in the 1960s, a raised floor was put in to make the interior more human-scaled). I would so much like to go inside again!