Repurposing Tempelhof
An article from the Wallstreet Journal - August 25, 2011
By A. J. Goldman

The German art historian Karl Scheffler wrote in 1910 that Berlin is a city "doomed always to become and never be."   Today, his words are truer than ever.  There hasn't been a day since the Berlin Wall fell nearly 22 years ago that the frantic pace of change has slackened.  Now Berlin is facing its largest-scale project yet, the redevelopment of the Tempelhof Airport site, two miles south of the city's center, as a public park three times the size of Berlin's more centrally located Tiergarten and larger than New York's Central Park by 100 acres.  Tempelhof, with its many layers of history, can be seen as a metaphor for contemporary Berlin -- a vast laboratory for cultural production and modern urban planning, largely built on the debris of European culture.

Dubbed by architect Norman Foster as "the mother of all airports," Tempelhof was one of the oldest in Europe, and before it closed to air traffic in 2008 it served as a testing ground for the Wright Brothers, the nerve command of the Nazi Luftwaffe and the base of the U.S.-led Berlin Airlift, West Berlin's life-lineduring the Soviet-led Blockade of 1948-1949.  The name Tempelhof comes from the Knights Templar, who encamped hre in the 13th century.   Later the field served as the Prussian Army's exercise ground.

Everone in Berlin (and beyond) seemed to have an idea of what to do with the 950-acre, eye-shaped hole left in the city by the airport's closure.  Suggestions ranged from luxury condos to an ice-skating rink.  It was rumored the U.S. businessman Ronald Lauder had expressed interest in developing the field.  In the summer of 2009, thousands of demonstrators tried to occupy the airfield to protest the rumored privatization of the public space, but the crowds were diverted along the airport's norther border and few arrests were made.

Instead of becoming a shopping center, luxury condo development or artificial Riviera, Tempelhof reopened in May 2010 as a vast, flat, no-frills park that is open during daylight hours.   Thanks to unusually heavy snowfalls this past December and January, the park was filled with cross-country skiers.  And on warmer days the runways are used by joggers, cyclists and rollerbladers.  The only aircraft one sees are the kites that proliferate on breezy days.  The park has been a hit with residents.  It is estimated that as many as 50,000 Berliners visit on weekends.

The main terminal building, once among the world's largest structures, stands mostly disused, save for the occasional conference or event.  The 4,000-foot wing-shaped edifice riddled with bullet holes from the Battle of Berlin and flanked by imposing Reichsadler (Eagles of the German Empire).  Behind it families barbecue, children play, anarchists walk their dogs and couples lounge in beach chairs at a single uninspiring Biergarten.

In May, the Edinburgh-based architecture firm Gross Max won a 60 million Euros ($86.5 million) contract to redesign the airfield.  Its proposal calls for retaining Tempelhof's flatness to create "a contemporary prairie for the urban cowboy."  Until the firms victory, there were no definite answers about Tempelhof' Park's future design or use, besides the 70 million Euros that will be pumped into the site for the 201? International Garden Show.

"The openness is completely intertwined with the history of the site," said Eelco Hooftman, one of Gross Max's founders.   "When you look at our design, it still remains a big, open space.  That has not changed.  What has changed is some of the articulation of that openness."

The most striking aspect of the plan is an artificial 197-foot high mountain called the Humboldt Monument, which will be capped by a statue of the angel from the Wim Wenders film "Wings of Desire."  The other large structure is a pavilion that the architects hope will become a community center for the surrounding neighborhoods.

Mr. Hooftman contended that the old models that guided the construction of the great urban parks of the 19th century no longer make sense.  "We need a new typology of park," he explained, adding that the old park no longer fits our contemporary needs.  "The old parks, especially in Berlin, were all about the masses, Das Volk.  Now it's much more about the person.  Society has become much more individualistic," the 50-year-old architect added, "It's about reutilitzing old land and making it do something new," he continued, comparing the project to New York's new  High Line Park.

Financial limitations have also influenced the project's design.  Though the city has ear-marked 60 million Euros for the project, that sum that works out to 25.32 Euros per square foot.  This reality hs led the architects to think creatively.

If you really want to make Tempelhof special, you need to lift it in a different league.  You need to program the park like you program a museum.  So we literally proposed to the city that they should think about appointing each year a curator for the park," Mr. Hooftman said.  He hopes that the first curator will be Mr. Wenders (a good way to get permission for building the Humboldt monument).  Other contenders he mentioned included Al Gore, Stephen Hawking and Dolce & Gabbana.

In the drama surrounding Tempelhof, you find a microcosm of contemporary life in the three Berlin districts that border the site.  Mathias Gille, press spokesman for the Berlin State Senate Department of Urban Development, explained that each Borough hs its own priorities for the partk's future use and design.  He said that working-class Neukolln, to the east, wants space for picknicking and is afraid of development driving up rents.  Kreuzberg the fashionable, nouveau-riche borough to the north and east, wants more "sports options and leisure-time facilities," while the family-oriented and sleepy southern district, also called Tempelhof, fears an increase in traffic.

Daniel Rieser, 36, project leader at Gross Max, said the park's first year of operation has shown him what's now missing and whatresidents would like to see.  "Our role is to negotiate all those issues and try and accommodate them," he explained.

Mr. Hooftman thinks it's possible for the park to be both an international attraction and a neighborhood asset, an "outdoor living room" that can unite Berlin's districts.  He says it is only logical that a project of this size should invite such a range of opinions and debates in such a vibrant and temperamental city.  The same qualities that make Berlin unique also contribute to the difficulty of this venture.  "Because people are creative, a bit anarchistic, they are extreme," Mr. Hooftman explains.  They go into the weirdest nightclubs in Europe and then they march at political demonstations.  It's just full of extremes.  And of course the project itself will reflect this.  It won't be easy, but if it were different, it would be a boring city.

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