Germany — Feb 26, 2015

Legends of Tempelhof

I crossed the icy tarmac toward a set of public bins, canvas bags squeaking with the weight of a winter’s worth of recycling. The only other humans in eyeshot were huddled around a makeshift tent pitched between two dumpsters. They were not squatters, but rather a group of friends having a cookout on a misty weekday morning. They offered me a beer and said lunch would be ready in about an hour.
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Welcome to Tempelhofer Park, Berlin’s abandoned airport-turned-recreation space. It’s my favorite place in a city teeming with abandoned and underground discoveries, and exactly the kind of place you might expect to find an impromptu pig roast.

When it’s not employed for questionable food safety practices and the weather is better, Tempelhof is a magical public park. Highlights include the former airport terminal, two runways, approach lighting systems, two dog runs, a skatepark, a mini-golf course, a community garden, stacks of hay bales, and decommissioned American airplanes. Young parents teach children to ride bicycles, lovers canoodle on picnic blankets, kite boarders sail six feet off the ground, and teams of rollerbladers sporting spandex do laps in perfect formation, hands tucked behind their backs.

In addition to airport paraphernalia, there are foxes and hawks and clusters of mushrooms. The sight of so many people spread out across a vast expanse of relatively ungroomed terrain is striking.

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Tempelhofer airport terminal seen to the left.

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Looking down one of the runways at dusk.

Photo by @klausvonbraun.

Kitesurfers setting up. Photo by @klausvonbraun.

In a travel guide published shortly after the fall of the Berlin wall in 1991, Andrew Gumbel offers a brief history of Tempelhof:

“Like most open spaces in Berlin, Tempelhof Airport was once a military drilling ground, established by King Friedrich Wilhelm I in the 1730s. After the Wright brothers used it to demonstrate their pioneer planes in 1908, it developed into Berlin’s main airport despite being so close to the centre of town. The Americans took it over as their air force base in 1945 and have kept it open for just a few civilian (mostly charter) flights.”

It also served less savory purposes, such as a rallying point for Hitler to address some one million Nazi supporters. After canceling the last of its limited air service in 2008, Tempelhof opened as a park in 2010.

The S-Bahn Ring line that encircles the city center provides a fantastic panorama of the southern side of the park. I filmed a time lapse of the stretch between Hermannstrasse and Tempelhof stations.

Over the course of my first six months in Berlin, Tempelhof’s evolving landscape has reflected the changing seasons and captured the city’s mood. I have visited the park dozens of times and photographed Berlin’s fabled summer days fading into a field of snow. Click through to see the transition:
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As I watch the men roasting pigs on a spit, I wonder whether their grilling venture will appear in the annals of German history. If future institutions develop on this increasingly valuable property, I’ll be ready with prints for their retrospectives. A coffee table book for Tempelhofer Luxury Condominiums? A pamphlet about Tempelhofer Military Base? Or a fan guide for Tempelhofer Football Stadium? I hope for none of the above.