Among the most exciting things that has happened in Berlin since the first two times I came here, is the closing of Berlin-Tempelhof Airport and the conversion of the site into the city's largest park. What is most striking about the space is the fact that aside from some new signage, some magenta paint on the runways and a few basic amenities like a biergarten, the park is virtually the same as it was when it was an airport. Cash-strapped Berlin has forgone the expensive landscaping and programming of the space and left it to the people to make the most of this wide open acreage not 15 minutes bike ride from the city center. And if our experience of the park on a Pfings holiday Monday is any evidence, the people are making the most of a completely unprogrammed experience to make it a vibrant public treasure.
The original terminal structure is itself something to experience as the Nazi regime that built it, in an effort to be grandiose, accidentally predicted the advent of the modern airport terminal years before the jet engine would require such large imposing structures. It's a structure that dominates the site no matter where you view it from. It's still used for concerts and exhibitions, but it does beg the question of whether the site, like many others in Berlin is really being used at its full potential.
This underprogramming may be an advantage as we experienced while biking around the runway. In the absence of ponds, playgrounds, hiking trails and the usual park amenities, people are making the space fulfill needs that they might not otherwise satisfy living in dense urban neighborhoods . The open expanse is one of the few windy open spaces in Berlin, and people have taken to this opportunity with every shape and size of stunt kite, land surfing vehicle, long-board kite surfing, remote control helicopter and anything they can utilize to joyfully trace their own personal territory in the open sky and open terrain.
Biking around the tarmac is a surreal experience where the nearly infinite variety of ways people engage with a blank landscape creates a parade-like experience where you never know what is coming next. Musicians, picnics, stunt-rollerbladers, people in Hawaiian shirts doing unconventional exercises. It begs the question of whether offering a clean blank slate for people to make what they want in the urban outdoors might not be the best use of this former airport? Perhaps having a lack of funds may have been a blessing after all?
The biergarten embodies the most infrastructure you will find at Temepelhof, but even this seems fairly portable and temporary. While this is the most traditional experience you would find in most German parks and probably one of the more investment heavy, it was probably the least dynamic parts of the site.
Lastly, if there was any more evidence needed to prove that people will make the most of an open space, members of the neighboring Neukölln community have established a small cluster of family gardens. It appears that they were built spontaneously with no formalized system to establish them except for a hand-painted bedsheet banner in the middle. While more formal versions of these "Schrebergartens" exist in cities throughout German to provide small plots for apartment-based urban families, this renegade form is truly inspiring.
Tempelhof Airport was only closed a few years ago and already the wilderness is taking over the space. The few signs in the park mention some of the rare birds and insects that inhabit the land. But it's the way the people engage with this park to make the most of whatever short comings they find in their city experience which can be fulfilled in thousands of feet of pavement, open land, and open sky. With some luck, the city of Berlin may continue to let this open-ended urban experiment continue to thrive. Who knows what we may one day experience out on the tarmac.