“They’re missing a trick here,” observed the professor, surveying the magnificent central hall at Tempelhof airport. “All these people are wandering around, trying to get a view of the airfield.” Indeed there were a few overheated, sandaled tourists listlessly circling the deserted hall, with nowhere to look but inwards at the forlorn travel agencies and small history exhibition.
We visitors easily outnumbered the handful of diplomats on their way to Brussels or Mannheim, practically the only commercial traffic Tempelhof sees these days, but the under-occupied officials were unrelenting: “Viewing galleries are only open to designated tours”.
Like mice running along closed walls, we eventually ended up in a tacky burger bar in the corner, but this also proved too mean to offer a view. Dissatisfaction took hold, and armed with a frisson of holiday adventure and my American companion’s patchwork German, we decided to explore this faded Nazi building to find a window onto one of the most historically significant airfields in the world.
This was, we reminded each other enthusiastically, the scene of an Orville Wright air-show in 1909, of zeppelin flights in the thirties, and in 1948 – 49, of the Berlin air-lift – when American and British “candy-bombers” landed and launched here every three minutes to save West Germany’s spiritual capital from Communist oblivion. It was the scene of Berlin’s Dunkirk. We damn well wanted to see it.
Now Tempelhof has fallen on uncertain times. It has recently been struck down by the apathy of the people of Berlin, who in an April referendum could not muster enough nostalgia to force the Berlin senate to reconsider its decision to close it down.
The senate’s plan is to redirect all business to the Berlin-Brandenburg International (BBI) mega-port that will, in the next few years, consume and replace Schönefeld on the south-eastern outskirts of town. Tegel, a very convenient and well-travelled airport to the north-west of the city, will also fall victim to this behemoth, though with a lot less protest. Tempelhof will probably be turned into a museum next to a huge, very flat park.
But despite the final defeat, Tempelhof’s demise has not come without a fight. The referendum was forced by a heroic street-initiative that collected 200,000 signatures. Only then did Merkel’s CDU realise there was electoral capital to be gained from the airport, and mobilised a heavy-duty advertising campaign and enlisted a host of B-List celebrities in aid of the threatened airport. In opinion polls, anything up to 75 percent of Berliners said they wanted to keep it open.
The CDU and Berlin’s tabloids lost no time in portraying the referendum as evidence of mayor Klaus Woworeit aloofness, even while they knew that the agreements that promised BBI, and the redevelopment of much of east Berlin had already been made years before. For a city in a mountain of debt, the financial drain that Tempelhof represented was simply unsustainable.
As the San Franciscan professor and I climbed an immense, disused stairwell just off the hall, he compared Tempelhof to the great pre-war railway stations of the US – Grand Central in New York and Union Station in Los Angeles. Like those Valhallan halls, Tempelhof was seen as a gateway to a continent that invested imperial grandeur into the technologies that would change the world. I remembered Sir Norman Foster, designer of the brand new and absurdly gigantic Terminal 3 of Beijing International, once describing Tempelhof as “the mother of all airports”.
Having gone as high as we could, but still on the wrong side of the building, we passed through a series of unlocked doors in deserted corridors and finally met a “Verboten” sign. We’d stumbled upon a German army radar facility, reminding me of one of the more harebrained loopholes that Merkel’s government had once suggested to wrongfoot Woworeit – declare the airport a military base and then leave it as a publicly-funded private airport for corporate businessmen.
There was an intercom, so we pressed it.
“Ist möglich ein Blick vom … er … airfield?”
“Nein. Try … die Polizei.”
Another intercom next to another Verboten door.
“Ist möglich ein Blick vom airfield?”
But there was another staircase, an unexpected new floor, and more doors that encouraged us with their lack of security. We found another whole corridor of disused offices – an abandoned world of brown carpet, chipboard-panelling and doors with quaint metal intercoms dating from the sixties. We thought this might have been a Cold-War control centre, and tried to envision the drastic logistics that must have buzzed through this corridor for those ten-and-a-half desperate months when a bastion of the free world hung by a thread.
We wandered further, trying doors intermittently until we hit an emergency exit that must have led to the roof. Padlocked. We sighed and looked down. Staring back up at us, placed neatly at the foot of an office door, was a real human poo. A wisp of tissue paper clung to its side as if in mockery of our futile adventure.
The metaphor was complete – when the referendum came round at the end of April, only 529,880 Berliners voted to keep the options open on Tempelhof, less than a quarter of the electorate, and therefore not enough. We were looking at Berlin’s collective turd.