Architecture and the City: Berlin, Tempelhof

March 9, 2015

Through a narrative structure of text, image and drawings, Ted Brown explores a design alternative for the abandoned Tempelhof terminal and airfield in Berlin. Working with reference to Hilberseimer, O. M. Ungers, Tafuri, Rossi, Koolhaas, and P. V. Aureli, Brown posits a stratified field as object, a “city within the city” of Berlin.


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Architecture and the city. © Ted Brown.

Head without a Body, Body without a Head: The Eagle

Moved to the top of the Tempelhof terminal building in 1940 under the direction of architect Ernst Sagebiel, Lemke’s bronze eagle (symbol of National Socialism under Hitler) is later turned on its head. As a tribute to the US for feeding the Western half of the city, the eagle is Americanized, head painted white during the post-war airlift (and thus, you might say, given a new imperial signature). Later, during the Cold War, it (in whole or in part) is the Berliners’ gift to the Yanks who install it at the Military Academy, West Point, NY. In 1985 West Point gives it back: but only the head. A new monument/memorial in Berlin, the eagle head is located in the forecourt of the now abandoned Tempelhof airport terminal, Eagle Square.

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Tempelhof Airport within the City of Berlin © Composite of DE/BKG Google Earth, September 4, 2014.

The body has gone missing.

Inscribed at the base of the main stair, Humboldt University: “Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert; es kommt aber darauf an, sie zu verändern” (Philosophers have only sought to interpret the world in various ways; the point is to change it). Words resonate; the head/body–thought/action split identified by Marx (eleventh thesis on Feuerbach) is materialized in an eagle split between two continents. The eagle allegorizes the thought that thought alone accomplishes nothing. Thoughtful in-action percolates in the Tempelhof debates.

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Lemke’s Eagle (only the head) in front of the vacant Tempelhof Terminal Building. © Ted Brown.

In-Voluntary Prisoner

With no consensus on its future, the great void of the Tempelhof airfield has become (temporarily) an urban park of little but diverse activity (underutilized but active). However, the behemoth terminal building at Tempelhof is arrested—trapped, literally imprisoned, fenced in, doors locked. Occasional events are anomalies within the vast vacant terminal. At one time a thoroughly modern airport, gateway to the city of Berlin, the terminal is on life support.

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Templehof Terminal, Imprisoned. © Ted Brown.

Critical Reconstruction

Critical Reconstruction: the rage in Berlin that produces outrage. What is critical and what to reconstruct: the urban plan and cornice line of Prussian Berlin, the Wall, Speer’s NS axis, Hansaviertel, Potsdamer Platz or the project, program, and form of Karl Marx (Stalin) Allee?

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“Critical Reconstruction,” Berlin. © Ted Brown.

The Gift Economy: Part I

In recognition of their post-wall economic success (and in an effort to avoid future surveillance), Berliners decide to release the Tempelhof terminal building and offer it as another gift to the US. At last, this iconic Nazi edifice is off the books, no longer subject to daily protest and opinion and no longer a line item on the city and state budget.

The Yanks “critically reconstruct” the terminal outside Tucson, Arizona at the AMRC “boneyard,” home to over 4,500 decommissioned planes, managed by the US Air Force Material Command. The rebuilding project within this vast airplane graveyard unites the (abandoned) terminal with the (abandoned) airplanes.

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Uniting abandoned terminal with abandoned airplanes, Tucson, Arizona. © Composite: DE/BKG Goggle Earth (Berlin), Landsat Goggle Earth (Tucson), March 27, 2014.

The Gift Economy: Part II

Beholden to the logic of reciprocation, the US offers a piece of the Arizona suburbs to Berlin in exchange for the terminal. The plan is meticulously drafted and sent. It is reviewed by the local Berlin government and quickly and summarily rejected.

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“Gift Economy,” Berlin and the US. © Ted Brown.

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Arizona suburb in Berlin. © Composite: Landsat Goggle Earth (Arizona suburb). DE/BKG Goggle Earth (Berlin).

Urban Artifacts, Permanence

Rossi: A propelling (non-pathological) urban artifact (monument) is reaffirmed by both its existence and adaptability to change in use. Originally designed in some response to program, the formal characteristics are sufficiently general (but precise) to absorb alternative programs and persist through social and economic change.

Experiment: Can one move a monument to the conceptual and literal desert and construct a city? That is, if the autonomous urban artifact confirms and helps construct the existing city, can it also spawn new urban organizations?

Can the monument give birth to the city? Can the monument give birth?

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Formal order in the desert. © Base aerial photograph Landsat Google Earth (Tucson), March 27, 2014.


The first child has an inflexible configuration (an order) other than a grid (it must be the maternal genes). As with all babies, physical attributes seem to derive from both parents. That said, clearly the legs and arms are maternal. Paternal lineage is more ambiguous. With unknown father and those chubby legs she soon gets a nickname, “Surely Temple.”

It is nothing less than a new formal structure in the Mojave Desert that will give the airplane bone yard a symbolic, if not economic, civic pattern. This is a bold experiment to reunite planning and architecture. With the ensuing construction, there is an historic opportunity to stabilize a-historic values, abstract, timeless, and indisputable principles, much like the desert itself, but this time carefully separated from the forces of development. Templehof is more than “the mother of all airports.”

Baby’s first words: “Ich bin ein Berliner.”

The US military, not exactly in the baby business, puts the second child up for adoption while still in the nest (egg). Berlin is quick to file papers and move forward—exchanges have been frequent. Although the foster parents live in Schönefeld, the egg incubates at Tempelhof. With American vitamins and German beer, the chances for a healthy childhood are promising (although interminably delayed). What plans will hatch?

Back in Berlin: Absence Presence Absence

With the Tempelhof terminal building having been carefully disassembled, crated, and barged to the western US for its desert reconstruction, Berlin must confront a new absence, a negative form of the former terminal, a vast hole in the city scape, and a hole in the ground. The debate about this new void parallels those that surround Berlin: reconstruct (with no use intended but precise attention to detail), convert to a park, spawn private sector development, imagine new social housing, maybe new quintuple skin glass facades to a Prussian cornice; or covert to an energy source, an aviary, an underground graffiti park, …

The result of unsuccessful referenda, Berliners agree to leave the hole as a monumental void. The absence will always make present the memory of the terminal and with it, its aviation, national socialist, and airlift history. City mothers convince the city council to temporarily fill the void with water—a new urban swimming pool in the summer, a seasonal urban amenity that awaits a future generation for a definitive program. What was once the site of the largest building in Germany is now the largest swimming pool in the northern hemisphere (quite possibly the world).

Still, Berliners want to know: Wo is der Strand? (Where is the beach?)

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Tempelhof Terminal removed for “Critical Reconstruction.” © Base aerial photograph DE/BKG Google Earth (Berlin), September 4, 2014.

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Tempelhof Terminal: Presence, Absence. © Ted Brown.

Project: Park/Park/Park

With the crisis of the terminal building “solved,” Berliners move the debate back to the airfield. In lieu of the Arizona suburban plan, all agree to support different projects of a park—the egg has hatched. Delamination is the result: vehicular park(ing) below a continuous green park, below social housing that supports the vegetable Garden Park to help feed Berliners. With the ground no longer serving as an airfield, the land is configured to construct a park and cover a parking deck below. Twenty-five percent of the underground is devoted to parking to accommodate 20,672 vehicles. A place to park for residents and guests, it is anticipated to be an unanticipated revenue stream for the city. The undulating ground level park provides for all urban recreational and entertainment activities. The roof garden park of the housing blocks provides fifty-seven hectares of agricultural field.

As much a new experiment in politics as it is in urban architecture, the project is an incubator of radical hybridization of program, ecologies, opinion, landscape, and social exchange.

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Airfield laminations. © Ted Brown.

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Park/Park/Park. © Ted Brown.

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Park/Park/Park. © Ted Brown.

Housing the Masses

Ninety-five elevated parallel mix-use housing blocks, some over 4,000 feet (1,200 meters) long are spaced and oriented for ideal southern exposure. Many of the slabs take on certain characteristics of their forbearers. Ecologically calibrated to be thirty-two feet wide and ninety-six feet apart, the field of stripes provides 20,000 units of housing towards an anticipated population of over 50,000. At this scale, the former airfield morphs into a city (and into the effective and affective alternative to any US suburb).

It is a city within the city of Berlin.

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Institutional “Figures” within the Field. © Ted Brown.

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Housing slabs with genealogical relations. © Ted Brown.

City within a City: Field as an Object

The limits of the field have the form of an ellipse (once imagined as an outer spectator ring by Speer). The new Tempelhof is objectified, spatially isolated from its context. It is a complete (but contrasting) part of the city, a dialectical island with a strictly defined form. (It is a heterotopia in neither Foucault’s nor LeFebvre’s sense.) Absolute liberty is granted to the single architectural fragment: school, church, stock market, city hall, palace of justice, prison, and hospital are objects dispersed within the field. The gap between ground plane and housing block provide the infrastructure for commercial office and retail, a flexible system in response to market demand.

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Field as Object, A City within the City. © Ted Brown.

Space in-between

The elevated field leaves two primary spaces of absence. One, in plan, between ellipse and adjacent neighborhoods. The other, in section, between the new ground plane and the underbelly of the housing blocks. Public parks occupy the ground between this new city and adjacent neighborhoods, and between the newly configured ground plane and the raised housing blocks. At one level of conceptualization, all ground is park (the beach?) as social interface.

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Space in-between. © Ted Brown.

Voids within the Figural Field

Four voids mark the project. Retained to provide for vehicular access, kite boarding, roller-skating, sun bathing, etc., the airstrips “cut through” the housing slabs. The existing Volkspark (Hafen Heide) to the north is extended, penetrating the elliptical field. Two new public squares, Xplazt and Oplatz, are the “official” social center within this new civic compound. The ubiquitous perimeter block and courtyard is overcome. Chancellor Merkel confirms that all levels of privacy have gone out of fashion with the last century.

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Tempelhof Field X. © Ted Brown.

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Templehof Field O. © Ted Brown.

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Voids within the Object/Field. © Ted Brown.

Tale of Two cities

The Tempelhof experiment has two outcomes.

In the southwestern desert of United States, the relocated terminal building begets a highly configured fixed form, preserved by the dry air but with little occupation. A city of the dead—it is the final resting place for terminals and planes that soon outnumber the inhabitants of Tucson. Although subject to interpretation, its symbolic function demands inaction. It has a head, but no operational body.

In the heart of the German Capital, the park/housing field, configured as an object, locates the social experiment in the city. A utopian project, it is an archipelago within a vast urban conglomeration. A city of the living—autonomous in its form and outrageous in socio-political experiments—it remains permeable to the urbanism it confronts. A product of interpretation, it is the site of action, the location of change. Is it the body stitched and re-stitched to the head?

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Architecture of the Desert, Speers N/S Axis. © Ted Brown.

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Tempelhof Terminal. © Ted Brown.

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A City within the City in Berlin. © Ted Brown.

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Field Object on Scheider’s Plan of Berlin, 1798. © Ted Brown.