• Berlin
  • Tegel: chronicle of a death foretold


Tegel: chronicle of a death foretold

By November 1, 2011, Berlin’s favourite airport – beloved for its small scale and proximity to the inner city – will have shut down. As Tegel’s employees prepare for relocation, there is a fin-de-siècle atmosphere in the cosy hexagonal terminal.

Tegel Airport, circa February 2010
Photo by Nikolai Frank

By November 1, 2011, Berlin’s favourite airport – beloved for its small scale and proximity to the inner city – will have shut down. As Tegel’s employees prepare for relocation, there is a fin-de-siècle atmosphere in the cosy hexagonal terminal.

Amid all the attention lately lavished on Tempelhof Airport, it’s easy to forget that the reason for its closure is bringing about the demise of another Berlin landmark: Tegel. Both are falling victim to Germany’s new capital-city travel hub Berlin Brandenburg International (BBI), which is due to open in the autumn of 2011.

It’s plain to see why, of the two airports, it’s the downfall of Tempelhof that has caused a greater outcry. A paradigm of Nazi architectural hubris, it became West Berlin’s lifeline during the 10-and-a-half-month blockade by the Soviets in 1948-49. It is one of the largest buildings on earth and was the first airport to have its own underground-train station. The public demonstrations against its closure were testimony to its lasting celebrity and near-mythical status (the architect Lord Norman Foster has called it “the mother of all airports”). Tegel has yet to enflame such passions. Many budget-loving recent arrivals may never have even seen it – it serves traditional airlines with mainly business and long-distance passengers. But Tegel is another of Berlin’s eccentricities whose loss will permanently alter the city’s image.

Tegel took over as Berlin’s portal to the world with the opening of its hexagon-shaped terminal building in 1974. The original airstrip, which had been used for early experiments in aeronautics since the 1900s, was wrecked by Allied bombs in World War II. During the Berlin Airlift, the French (in whose sector Tegel was located) cleared the rubble and built a new airfield in 90 days.

Yet West Berlin’s pre-eminent airport remained Tempelhof until its landing strips – designed for the propeller age – proved too short for jet-engine aircraft. The competition to design a new airport at Tegel was won by the firm Gerkan, Marg & Partner (“gmp”), whose more recent work will be familiar to anyone who has visited Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof.

Berliners immediately took to the new Tegel: it was at once thoroughly modern and built on an intimate scale. Its six-sided shape and small dimensions mean passengers can check in and reach their gate within minutes. According to Hans Krause, an associate of David Chipperfield Architects in Berlin, “It’s a unique concept that avoids so much of what irritates people about other airports. It has a clear structure, extremely short walking distances and makes great use of daylight. As a concept, it works incredibly well.” Its inner-city location is another of Tegel’s defining qualities. When the Wall came down, many airlines that had previously landed at Schönefeld transferred to Tegel, attracted by its proximity to downtown Berlin as much as its international flight connections. Yet these qualities – its manageable size and its location – were also Tegel’s undoing. In 1996, when it was decided to merge the city’s three airports into one, Tegel was already beyond capacity and the space for expansion was too limited. More importantly, the noise pollution made it no longer viable (Tempelhof stood even less of a chance, for the same reasons).

The end is nigh

The sense of impending doom has bred a certain fin-de-siècle mood at Tegel. Many people’s livelihoods are on the line: despite its much larger size, the BBI won’t be able to take on everyone from Tegel and Schönefeld.

For now, employees are being kept in the dark about job cuts, and the uncertainty is agonising. Thorsten, a baggage handler, is preparing for the worst. “I’m pretty certain it’ll mean unemployment for us. And even if we are transferred to the BBI, it’ll a mean Brandenburg salary, not a Berlin salary.” He can’t see anything positive in the move. “I think it’s shit that Tegel’s closing. Many big cities have two or three airports, why can’t Berlin? It’ll be yet another empty building that has to be maintained at the taxpayers’ expense.”

There is a widespread feeling that by slimming down to one airport Berlin is becoming less cosmopolitan. Carolina, who works at Tegel’s Lost and Found desk, blames the politicians: “Berlin was the only city in Germany with three airports. [Mayor Klaus] Wowereit is messing everything up. He always shoves his nose where it least belongs.” Her resentment is complemented by deeply-entrenched West Berlin snootiness: “Schönefeld isn’t Berlin. It’s Brandenburg. It’s the East.”

Some are more resigned to their fate. Alain has worked as a member of Air France’s Berlin ground staff since 1982. He’s certain the French carrier will use the move to outsource check-in and other ground services to contractors such as Swissport. “Oh, I’ve had my fun. It’s time for me to move on,” he says.

Alain fondly reminisces about the Cold War days. “When the Allies were here, we at Air France could eat at the French army base up the road. Starter, first course, main course, cheese, dessert and as much wine as we wanted – for five deutschmarks!” The day the Berlin Wall fell is also etched in his memory. “There was an announcement over the main airport loudspeaker. I remember seeing a man in the departure hall drop his bags and jump up and shout with joy.”

Other employees display a distinct lack of sentimentality about Tegel’s closure. “The world’s changing and Berlin with it – and that’s not a bad thing,” says Maria, who has worked in one of Tegel’s souvenir shops for the past 10 years. “Berlin needs a large, modern airport. Look at Madrid or Barcelona: they have huge airports. Tegel doesn’t do justice to the capital of Germany.”

Still, no matter what the outcome for its employees, the airport’s closure marks another milestone on Berlin’s road to progress, sophistication – and uniformity. The benefits of the BBI are indisputable, but Tegel’s death signals the end of another quirky experience unique to this city.