A Palimpsest of Contrasts – Tempelhof Airport

by Reka Holman

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When I saw this building for the very first time it was late at night and I was completely lost actually having no idea which part of the city I was in. I probably had one drink too much and I was also worried about missing my night bus when I arrived at the final station of my regular bus and all of a sudden the monumental building appeared right in front of me. Given the circumstances at first sight I thought the building was absolutely frightening. While I was looking for the bus stop where I could get on the night bus I only had a little time to briefly examine the building; what was quite clear to me from the beginning was that I was looking at Nazi architecture and as I was walking past the building I noticed the “Zentralflughafen” sign at the entrance and I suddenly realized that I was at Tempelhof. Of course I have heard of this place before, I also knew it was shut down and converted into a public park but finding an airport in the middle of the city which showed no sign of not being a functioning airport from the outside was still striking.

The first impression the building made on me evoked a strong feeling of unease, it was quite obvious that this building worked in a very powerful way and that the monumental façade had an ideological function, it was a tool used to demonstrate power and to show greatness. Demonstrating power always involves a comparison with other less powerful entities and the reign of the more powerful side over the weaker one. In the case of the main building of Tempelhof Airport the architecture seems to be out of scale at least related to the human proportion dominating all human beings who try to approach it; in this way its monumental size rather seems to represent an abstract ideal of governance and – due to the actual function of the building – maybe even aviation.

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On a theoretical level it also made me wonder whether the building has the characteristics of the sublime. The sublime can involve monumentality, a great example for this would be the Chinese Wall – although according to Edmund Burke, the great theorist of the sublime, the Great Wall lacks one of the most important characteristics of the sublime: uniformity. Tempelhof perfectly fits this criteria of uniformity, the rows of windows and the columns give the impression of endlessness which Burke also regards as a characteristic of the sublime. The towers breaking this uniformity also serve the sublime effect as they help in avoiding uniformity turn into boredom. The sublime can be frightening and breathtaking but it lifts up the soul instead of crushing the spectator, it might make us feel small compared to a great architectural creation but not oppressed; and although this building intended to be a gateway to Europe which would imply a kind of openness, the Tempelhof terminal is everything but inviting.

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My second meeting with the very same building was a completely different experience and it actually took me a while to come to terms with the fact that the façade of Tempelhof seen from the Platz der Luftbrücke is the same architectural entity seen from behind, from within Tempelhofer Feld which is now one of the largest public parks in Berlin. This space is most often referred to as Tempelhofer Freiheit, symbolizing freedom from the legacy of the Nazi past, which does not imply forgetting this past altogether. Tempelhof works as a kind of palimpsest integrating historical layers of space, negotiating memory and forgetting in an altogether extremely casual environment. What Tempelhof is today is a wonderfully democratic space, it is the kind of place that anyone can enter and use which is also not too commercialized – although the culture of capitalism isn’t completely absent – there aren’t too many food vendors and places selling drinks so most people simply bring what they want to consume for themselves which makes Tempelhof seem like a place accessible for everyone.

Architectural function is embedded into a new context and the initial ideological message is deconstructed at Tempelhof although the main building itself is not really integrated into this new function and its architecture rather serves as a counterpoint against the new park which turned out to be a perfect place for leisure activities. Under the fine contrast of the aviation tower with a sphere shape at the top and the minaret towers of the nearby mosque no architect could have designed better spatial structures for running, skating or cycling, not to mention all the other activities like grilling or simply chilling out at Tempelhof. The legacy of Nazi architecture is negotiated in a space that came to represent freedom already at the time of the Berlin blockade and now after the referendum it continues to be a harmonious space of contrasting architecture.

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