Text by Boyd Farrow
Forget the 385-hectare site, the 4,000m semicircle of hangars, the 1.6 million visitors a year. What’s not mentioned in the blizzard of facts and figures about Tempelhof airport – venue for this month’s Berlin Festival featuring Blur, Björk and the Pet Shop Boys – is the 31 minutes it takes to walk the length of its 2,094m runway in 35oC heat wearing flip-flops. That’s going at a leisurely pace, mind. Any faster and you wouldn’t notice the half-dozen strains of wild grasses turning to straw on both sides of the asphalt; any slower, your Havaianas would melt.
Past the 1,000m point, your brain starts to melt instead. The smell of hand-rolled cigarettes and barbecues wafts towards you, but the horizon appears to be retreating. Music tinkles above meadows, sculptures spring up from scrubland and, whoa, is that sunbather naked? It is around this point you realise that out of everyone enjoying the sheer exhilaration of hanging out on a real runway – even on the hottest afternoon of the year – you’re the only one on foot. Next time, you promise yourself, you’ll hire a bicycle.
Despite the carefree vibe, Tempelhof has a lot of baggage, even for an airport. A reminder of both the Nazi aesthetic and Cold War divisions, few mourned its closure in 2008. Yet it is still the perfect metaphor for Berlin, where the only thing greater than its inhabitants’ love of outdoor activities is the city’s aversion to making decisions. After five years of proposals, the future of the terminal is still hazy. And though various cosmetic procedures for the airfield have been signed off – including a 60m implant to create a fake hill – no one is pumped up enough to cheerlead the plans. Yet, since May 2010, when the gates to Tempelhofer Freiheit (Tempelhof Freedom) swung open to the public, local Berliners quickly stamped their own personality on the place.
Nowhere is this more evident than at “pioneer projects” like Allmende-Kontor and Stadtteilgarten Schillerkiez – part urban farms, part community art spaces and part Mad Max film sets. In allotments notionally divided by bits of furniture, casements and automotive detritus, diverse groups of people grow plants and food in elevated beds and every hollow object they can lay their hands on. In Berlin, where someone tries to recycle your beer bottle while you’re still drinking from it, this is no mean feat. Even though the rest of the park is arid in early August, here lush foliage spills from bathtubs and drums. Shoots cascade from a motorcycle sidecar. Leaves wrestle with seating fashioned from pallets and road signs. Tomatoes shine like luftballons. Citruses hang like paper lanterns. And amid this whole steampunk salad, clusters of people drink wine, read or snooze in the shade of sunflowers the size of dinner plates.
The only thing higher than the flora are the nearby poles topped with metal sculptures at the edge of grassland to remind owners to keep dogs on leashes. This is designed to protect the returning wildlife, but no doubt it has preserved the peace at many a picnic. It’s late afternoon: Silva, a smiley Turkish woman and her strong-muscled parents are setting up a trestle table long enough for an Ottoman Ramadan feast. They have also lugged three coolers and a tent. Sadly, says Silva, they will not be camping overnight – the park closes at 10.30pm. “We like to come for slow meals here and just to enjoy the space,” she explains. “There is a real community here.”
The park’s most community-minded project is Arche Metropolis. On a 13,000m² plot in the full glare of the terminal’s Reichsadler (imperial eagle) symbol, foundations for a new utopia are being laid – a multicultural rag rug, where sustainability is bundled together with art. Today some radiantly beautiful teenagers are busying themselves rigging up a DJ booth and hanging ribbons over a plot on which there is a ramshackle bar, wind chimes and lots of wooden shapes. There is an event this evening to bang the drum – most likely, literally – for the project, which is designed to show kids from all backgrounds how to grow their food, build their homes, recycle and probably carry out their own facial piercings using nature’s antiseptics. For mental wellness, a “yurt castle” is starting to take shape on the “edible landscape”, which will host readings and music events. Obviously there are circus workshops and a Facebook page. “Just like we need biodiversity for the circle of nature, we need cultural diversity for our social circle,” intones the project’s co-chairman Martin Wittau, scampering around after his helpers. “Berlin is very rich creatively though it is poor financially.”
You get the distinct impression that Wittau, like the hot hippies with their artistically modified crops, hopes it stays this way. The official line is still that come 2017 the park will have been transformed, with more pathways, a massive “water landscape” and “cloud pavilions” built from remnants of airfield furniture. “Will it all happen? Who knows?” shrugs Wittau. “This city has a lot of plans, but many things don’t happen because the money doesn’t appear and in the meantime people find they like the way things are. Many of the people who live around here say what they like the most is the open space, the Freiheit.”
The Berlin Festival takes place at Tempelhof airport from 6-7 September
Three more re-imagined spaces
Freetown Christiania was created in 1971 when locals took over an old military base. Forty years on, residents bought the site for DKK76.5m; though the smell of dope is still familiar here, it’s an archetype of a green community, which draws up to 1m visitors a year. (Image by Arnaud de Grave)
Les Frigos, Paris
Originally a 1920s railway freezer hall - hence the name - this giant building behind the Bibliothèque nationale has evolved into a graffiti-covered space for 200 artist studios.
Eastern Curve Garden, London
This waste ground in east London has been transformed by volunteers into a garden open late into the evening in summer.