Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Between iconic architecture and roles in the city’s tumultuous 20th-century history, Tempelhof, Tegel, Schönefeld, and Brandenburg are emotionally charged spaces.
If one city proves the importance of a good airport, it might be the European capital with two, three, or four of them, depending on how you count. This is Berlin, where the tumultuous 20th century scattered a trail of three flughaefen from east to west.
Technically, Berlin has only two functioning destinations for air travel—that’s Tegel and Schönefeld, two ill-fitting sky harbors on opposite ends of town. But two others hold outsize space in the Berlin imagination. There’s Tempelhof, the Nazi airfield in the heart of the city that was shuttered in 2008; it has since morphed into a freeform park and an unlikely site for refugee housing. And finally there’s Berlin Brandenburg, the ambitious post-unification effort to consolidate the above three airports into a single modern facility that better fits the aspirations of Germany’s current cosmopolitan center. Originally set to open in 2011, its long-delayed construction process has turned into a clusterfuck of epic proportions.
The city’s history can be told through these infrastructures.
Tempelhof: Nazi air terminal to refugee hub
On a recent evening of unseasonable warmth, rollerbladers, skateboarders, and cyclists wheeled around a sprawling tarmac cuddled up Kreuzberg’s southern edge. In the foreground: the enormous terminal of Berlin Tempelhof, an icon of fascist design and one of the largest buildings in the world when it was built by the Nazi government the 1930s. Tempelhof remained open through World War II and the city’s postwar division, playing a vital role receiving life-giving deliveries for West Berlin during the Berlin Airlift. But modern jets outgrew its runways, and with the city in such close proximity, it never made economic sense for the tarmac itself to expand. After weathering decades of declining commercial air traffic, it closed in 2008, despite an extensive public protest and a referendum to keep it open.
But since then, Tempelhof has transformed into a super-popular, prairie-like park for the public’s freeform use. Very little has been done to “activate” the space for recreation, to use planner’s parlance. A DIY community garden sprouts in one corner; families grill sausages in another; the tarmac is stage to all manner of recreation. Whether the airport will forever remain a “masterpiece of adaptive reuse” remains to be seen, given local housing pressures. More recently, Tempelhof has doubled down as a rebuke to Germany’s ugly past, and as an assertion of the country’s progressive leadership in an increasingly closed-off West: The terminal and some of the grounds provide temporary housing to hundreds of refugee families. (For many, however, living conditions have been dirty and cramped.)
Schönefeld: The Soviet experience
Built as the airport of Soviet Berlin after Germany’s postwar split, Schönefeld shares the impermanent and somewhat haphazard aesthetic of much East Berlin’s architecture. It’s held onto a portion of Berlin’s air traffic all these years, and the city’s troubled replacement airport, Berlin Brandenburg, is right next door. The new terminal’s glassy facade is visible to travelers taking off here, after they pass through Schönefeld’s cramped corridors, less-than-welcoming seating areas (described as “old and metal” by the travel site Sleeping in Airports), and general absence of amenities. The authentically Soviet travel experience led another travel website to declare Schönefeld the worst airport in the world.
Weirdly, it won’t get shut down when Brandenburg opens, even though the new facility is next door. At least not right away. In fact, Schönefeld is getting its own expansion to hold more passengers while its neighbor lurches to the finish line. By then, flight demand is expected to have outgrown Brandenburg’s capacity, so Schönefeld could stick around for the long haul.
Tegel: A stylish survivor
Tegel serves most of the air traffic that comes through Berlin, so if you’ve ever visited, it’s likely the one you flew into. But if you don’t really remember if, then this little flughafen performed to the standard to which it was built: pure function.
Built in just 90 days to serve the city’s western side during the Berlin Airlift, the vaguely Brutalist, hexagonal air fortress is famous for moving travelers between plane and taxi in minutes on low-traffic days. Check-in desks and luggage scanners are clustered just steps from the entrance, and the airport itself is close to the city. Like Schönefeld, there’s little room to dally inside; duty-free shoppers and gastronomes should look to Frankfurt. A lot of locals love it for all of those reasons—plus, nostalgia.
But austere Tegel tends to get bad reviews from out-of-towners, whose numbers have boomed with Berlin’s popularity as a European weekend destination. It is also stretched far over capacity: built for a city of 2.5 million, the airport processed some 21 million travelers in 2016. Yet Tegel will have to make do until Brandenburg opens, at which point it will shutter—unless the people of Berlin get their way. A non-binding referendum at the end of September had a majority of citizens voting to keep the space open. That’s created a headache for government officials. But as with Tempelhof, legal and financial challenges may be too overwhelming to keep Tegel flying.
Brandenburg: “No one intends to open an airport”
Berlin’s outdated airports have inflicted economic suffering on the city, which has about half the air traffic of much smaller Frankfurt, Germany’s postwar financial capital. According to one 2015 study, airports alone are responsible for more than four percent of total European GDP, so that’s a lot of lost euros. (Despite this, or perhaps in part because of it, Berlin has had no trouble becoming a culture capital anyway: For decades, low rent and open space drew artists and created some of the wildest nightlife in Europe. That’s begun to change.)
Talk of consolidating Tempelhof, Tegel, and Schönefeld to create a airport fit for the 21st century started after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Site planning began in earnest in the late 1990s, and a project was officially announced in 2006. Berlin Brandenburg would be large enough handle a projected 27 million annual passengers—plenty for the 18 million Berlin received that year—at the cost of two billion euros.
But there were problems from the start, problems that have mounted into a Kafka-esque pileup of error, as my colleague Feargus O’Sullivan reported earlier this year. It looks ready to receive passengers—the building itself has been complete since 2011. But then came the ventilation issues that stopped fire inspectors from certifying the building. Then there was an inexplicable shortage of check-in desks and luggage belts, a faulty cooling system, and wiring that had to be relaid. The latest setback: 1,200 automatic doors that wouldn’t open. By now, the airport will be stretched over capacity by the time it finally opens—which is now supposed to be sometime in 2018. Berliners aren’t holding their breath, but they are tracking the mounting cost, about triple the original budget.
How did a country famed for its fine engineering and love of efficiency stumble so spectacularly? Blame it on mind-boggling and persistent levels of incompetence and corruption. German chancellor Angela Merkel has described Brandenburg’s status as a poor advertisement for the whole country—not a great look for a city trying to position itself as a stronger economic player. “No one intends to build a wall,” said Walter Ulbricht, the 1960s leader of East Germany, months before doing exactly that. Nowadays tongue-in-cheek postcards hanging in Berlin souvenir stands read: “No one intends to open an airport.” Not all taxpayers are laughing.
Today, Berlin feels like an island of relative affordability and progressivism in 21st century Europe. In large part that’s due to the fact that for decades the city was a kind of island, with large swaths cordoned off from the West because of its fractured political status. It was a special city in the world—and its assortment of airports are some of the clearest, still-functioning artifacts of its resilience in the face of Cold War isolation.
In other words, its airports mark emotional terrain—which is bound to shift. Despite the tragi-comic budget overruns, Brandenburg is not likely be abandoned at this stage: It’s an enormous sunk cost, and German law requires Tegel to close in order to open it. Meanwhile, Berlin’s housing shortage puts Tempelhof’s status as a freeform public space into question. This curious landscape of airports-as-texts for the city’s history won’t last forever. Book a flight now if you care to see them. Just don’t expect a great food court.