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Tempelhof: Don’t fence me in!

The city of Berlin has certainly touched a nerve with its plans to build on the city's unique open field. On May 25 the 100% Tempelhofer Feld initiative, which would keep the Feld wild, is put to a vote. Dan Borden explores what's at stake.

Image for Tempelhof: Don’t fence me in!
Photo by Veronica Jonsson

May 25 is Tempelhof’s D-day. Alongside the EU parliamentary elections, Berliners will vote on the 100% Tempelhofer Feld referendum. If it passes, the ex-airport stays a wild, untamed park. If not, it gets a wholesale makeover as a shrunken green space ringed by a mini-city of homes, offices and a new central library.

Read below for the stance of Manfred Kühne, head city planner in Berlin’s Department of Urban Planning, and further down for details on the new library.

Developing Tempelhof is a key part of the city government’s strategy to revitalise Berlin’s economy, but the supporters of the 100% Tempelhofer Feld initiative say the plans will erase history, damage the environment and ruin a unique urban playground.

Flughafen Tempelhof is the only surviving relic of Hitler’s scheme to turn Berlin into World Capital Germania, but its role in the 1948-49 Berlin airlift turned it from a symbol of Nazi megalomania into an icon of anti-Soviet defiance. Its grounds also include the remains of the Nazis’ earliest concentration camps and a Cold War US army base.

Berlin’s government shut down Tempelhof in October 2008 in preparation for the planned 2010 opening of the (still-unfinished) BER airport. On May 8, 2010, it was reborn as a public park, but no sooner had the city christened the park Tempelhofer Freiheit – “freedom” – than they declared that too much freedom was a bad thing. They revealed plans to develop much of the open space, with a modern “city of tomorrow” on the east side including over 4000 affordable apartments, and an “innovation zone” – office buildings, schools and the library – on the south and west.

Environmentalists led by the watchdog group BUND called foul. They claim that losing this urban “green lung” will raise Berlin’s air temperatures. And 80 percent of the grounds are now designated a protected wildlife refuge – where will those birds, bees and foxes go?

After four years, Tempelhof is also home to another form of wildlife: thousands of Berliners who think its open, untamed spaces are the perfect place to run, walk, bike and fly kites.

So why does the city want to mess with perfection? Because Berlin is running out of apartments. It will welcome 250,000 new residents in the next 15 years. At the same time, empty space is disappearing. To the city’s planners, the exairport is a blank canvas, an underutilised asset.

Berlin does have a housing crisis, but, as Green Party politician Antje Kapek pointed out, those 4000 flats are a drop in the bucket. And they’re a Band-Aid on a gaping, self-inflicted wound. For over a decade, Berlin’s SPD-run government hasn’t built a single affordable apartment. Instead, they let developers fill empty lots with luxury flats, much of them bought by non-Berliners as second homes or investments. Building on Tempelhof is an easy out, a political gesture of atonement timed for the 2016 election.

If you’re curious what the Tempelhof housing would look like, check out the wall of generic apartment blocks rising on the west side of Gleisdreieck Park. Those are high-end luxury flats. Tempelhof’s housing will be city-built affordable units, the lowest of the low-end. Expect stucco-on-Styrofoam boxes that, after a few years of non-maintenance, will age into a major eyesore.

Today, Tempelhof Freiheit is a gloriously vast space in a city quickly losing its spaciousness. Its soft borders buffer it from the city, creating the illusion of infinity. Bringing the city into that space with a ring of buildings will destroy that spaciousness and turn its untamed wilderness into a stranger’s backyard.

A large part of the remaining green space is scheduled for a major facelift via Scottish landscape architects GROSS.MAX. Their scheme adds decorative plantings, rolling hills, a reflecting pond and a faux mountain peak. Tempelhof’s inner wild beast will not only be caged but tamed, neutered and sheared like a French poodle.

The last time Berliners voted on Tempelhof in April 2008, 60 percent wanted to keep the then-functioning airport open. The city annulled the results because voter turnout was too low. This year, the vote coincides with the EU Parliament elections, so turnout shouldn’t be a problem. If the initiative passes, it will be read as a vote of protest against Mayor Klaus Wowereit and an over-reaching city government, but the real lesson may be this: don’t give Berliners a taste of freedom and then try to take it away.

THE OFFICIAL STANCE: “Why leave such a large unused space in the middle of the city?”

Manfred Kühne, head city planner in Berlin’s Department of Urban Planning, on why the government wants to build on Tempelhof.

For many Berliners, Tempelhof is perfect as it is. Why change it?

Yes, but many thought it was perfect as an airfield. They miss the planes. There are many perspectives. The total area of Tempelhof is over 300 hectares – why should we leave such a large unused space in the middle of the city? For the first time in 10 years, the city government has a budget for new affordable housing, but we don’t have the land to build it on.

But most of the proposed buildings in Tempelhof aren’t housing.

Affordable housing and rising rents are issues in Berlin today because we still have so many unemployed people and not enough jobs. The city of Berlin bought Tempelhof airport from the German Federal Government planning to make it an economic development zone. We need a mix of new housing and places for new businesses. If we can’t build on Tempelhof, we will have to build further out, and people will have to travel further to their jobs.

Isn’t 80 percent of the area now a nature preserve?

Yes, our plan is designed to interfere as little as possible with the protected habitats. The area between the runways, for example, is off limits during breeding season. And we have an agreement to create new wildlife preserves for any displaced animals and birds on agricultural land outside the city.

If the 100% Tempelhofer Feld initiative passes, will there never be any development on Tempelhof?

In theory the law could be changed, but for a long time it will be very difficult for any politicians to go against a vote by a majority of Berliners. It is irritating for us when the supporters of the initiative say it will still allow some development in the park area. The current wording of the initiative states that even small projects would be impossible.

The case against the new library

If the 100% Tempelhofer Feld initiative is approved, it will likely kill Mayor Klaus Wowereit’s pet project, a new central library on the former airfield.

Berlin already has architect Hans Scharoun’s 1970s Stabi building near Potsdamer Platz, part of the State Library. Then there are the Stadtbibliotheken – local libraries for checking out books, CDs and DVDs – in addition to innumerable university reading rooms.

The proposed building would house the Landesbibliothek, the official archive of everything published in Berlin, from books and magazines to digital media. It’s been waiting 100 years for a permanent home since World War I halted construction on a planned Mitte headquarters. Does the Landesbibliothek deserve a new building? Definitely.

The new Zentral- und Landesbibliothek (Central and Regional Library), or ZLB, will also replace the Amerika-Gedenkbibliothek near Hallesches Tor. This 1954 landmark, a gift from the American government, was built to serve 500 visitors a day. Today it handles around 3500. Does it need a new home? Maybe.

Mayor Wowereit has long dreamed of leaving behind an important public building. After his scheme for a Berlin Kunsthalle, a museum for contemporary art, fell through, he turned his sights on the library. When the airport closed, he found a location: the southwest corner near the Tempelhof S-Bahn station.

Last fall an architectural competition for the ZLB drew 40 designs. The brief called for a building that’s more than just Germany’s largest public library. It demanded an icon on a par with Bilbao’s Guggenheim and Paris’ Pompidou Center.

In the end, the jury of librarians and architects was split. The librarians picked a sensible design by two designers in their early thirties, Zurich-based Miebach Oberholzer Architekten (photo). The nine-story block is wrapped in a plain glass curtain wall. Inside, a grid of 10 concrete cylinders support the roof while housing elevators, stairs and toilets.

The jury’s architects preferred a more dramatic scheme by designers Kohlmayer Oberst. The long, low concrete rectangle is supported in the middle while both ends cantilever out like a seesaw. Berlin’s Building Director Regula Lüscher compared it to a ship. The librarians thought it was more like a tomb: except for the lobby, its concrete facade has no windows.

Do Berliners really need a new central library? Definitely not one of these two. Neither design has the flair of the Pompidou or Guggenheim. Instead, they share an icy minimalism those buildings were designed to counteract. Other reasons:

It’s not new. The whole idea of a monumental edifice for accessing books is anachronistic. Everything in print, including archives, will soon be available online. The Amerika- Gedenkbibliothek’s popularity is largely due to its collections of CDs and DVDs, two formats on the brink of obsolescence. Why not skip the expensive building and embrace the digital age via a virtual library where cardholders anywhere in the city can stream material online?

It’s not central. The ZLB’s advocates point to libraries in Amsterdam and Seattle as models. Yes, both are new and popular, but both were built where people already were, in the heart of busy downtowns. Will the expected 10,000 visitors a day trek to this windswept corner of Berlin to look at books?

It’s not a library. The new ZLB isn’t about books, we’re told, it’s about bonding. Like those other new libraries, it will serve as a de facto community centre. Berliners of all ages and colours will sip coffee, check out art, watch plays and take classes in its lofty halls… because, of course, there’s nowhere else in our fair city to do those things. If we truly need this library, why all the bells and whistles?

It’s too expensive. Officials have already marked up the ZLB’s price tag from €270 million to €350 million. If it’s completed as planned in 2021, don’t be surprised if we end up paying twice the original estimate.

It’s not for us. Affordable housing, cheaper transit and better schools top Berliners’ wish lists, not a Taj Mahal for librarians or an architectural icon. Wowereit wants his name on a monument, but his legacy will always be the billions he burned on the still-unfinished airport.