A farewell to Tegel

Jesse Simon bids an emotional ‘adieu’ to one of the city’s cold war concrete throwbacks…

When Tegel Airport finally closed early in November of 2020, it had a mere 2.7 stars out of five on Google Maps. Visitors appreciated the funky hexagonal design, although some said the terminal building was dated and the amenities could be improved. And those were the positive reviews.

The litany of complaints levelled at Berlin’s primary airport over the years were many and wide-ranging: it was small, it was ugly, it was hard to get there by public transit, there wasn’t enough flight-side seating and almost nothing in the way of decent shops and services. Even its most loyal apologists—and there were many—were forced to concede that the experience of Tegel was worlds away from the sleek and sterile modernity that awaits the traveller in the airports of nearly every other European capital.

How, then, does one begin to argue that this flawed holdover was not merely one of the last great airports of the twentieth century, but also a crucial Berlin institution? With the long-delayed Berlin Brandenburg (BER) now open and a dormant Tegel waiting out the statutory six-month period before its now-inevitable decommission, it is worth saying a few words in praise of this unlikely icon of Berlin, and why the city will be immeasurably poorer without it.

Like so many people who move to Berlin on a whim in their twenties and end up staying for the rest of their lives, Tegel Airport was a temporary solution that became permanent almost by accident. Although the large cleared section of the Jungfernheide Forest just south of the village of Tegel (now part of the borough of Reinickendorf) had been used for military training during the Second World War, it was only in 1948, during the Berlin Blockade, that an airfield was first constructed on the site.

It spent its first decade as a French military base—Reinickendorf was, at the time, located in the French sector of Allied-occupied West Berlin—and was pressed into commercial service in 1960 primarily because its runway was long enough to accommodate the newer, larger aircraft which could not land at Tempelhof.

The period of economic recovery in the post-war years witnessed a boom in commercial air travel, and while much of West Berlin’s flight traffic was centred around Tempelhof, there were enough planes passing through Tegel that the city soon decided to replace the pre-fab shack with a new purpose-built terminal. At a time when many European capitals were building or rebuilding their major airports far outside the city centre, the city of West Berlin, a walled enclave surrounded on all sides by East Germany, was more limited in its choices.

Although there were other suburban airfields within the Allied controlled territory—at Staaken and Gatow, both at the extreme western edge of Berlin—Tegel was by far the more convenient location. In 1965, the design competition for a new terminal was won by Meinhard von Gerkan, Volkwin Marg and Klaus Nickels, a trio of young architects who had not yet built any major projects, but who impressed the jury with an entirely new concept for air travel: instead of a central hall with long corridors leading to the gates, the hexagonal terminal would place arriving passengers no more than thirty metres from their gate, while providing the same number of jet-bridges as a traditional departure hall.

Unlike Tempelhof, the new terminal at Tegel was also designed specifically for the automobile age, with an internal loop for pick-ups and drop-offs, and ample parking directly beneath the departures area. Construction on the new terminal began in 1970. When it was completed near the end of 1974 most of the major carriers relocated from Tempelhof, and Tegel became West Berlin’s primary airport.

For at least a few years it might even have been the last word in modern travel. Behind its imposing concrete and glass façade the architects had applied their hexagonal design concept to the decor, with a captivating pattern of brown tiles on the ground, and a series of yellow moulded plastic seating areas punctuated by elegant glass-globe lamps.

The architects had also left room in their plan for another identical hexagonal terminal which could be built next to the first. (The space was later filled with the much-less-hexagonal and deservedly derided Terminal C, which brought a little touch of Schönefeld despair to the faded glamour of the main terminal; however if you look on Google maps you can see exactly where the other hexagonal terminal would have sat).

After the Berlin wall fell in 1989, the reunified city found itself with three airports: Tegel, Tempelhof and Schönefeld, the facility in Brandenburg which had served the former East. Almost immediately the city began to devise plans for a new airport to supersede all three, and in 1998 an initial design was submitted by Gerkan Marg Partners, the Hamburg-based firm founded by the original architects of Tegel.

In the three decades since their first airport, the firm had not only made a name for itself with a series of major international air terminals and rail stations, but had also designed Berlin’s Tempodrom and were in the process of shaping its transportation future as architects of the city’s new Hauptbahnhof. By the time ground was broken for the new airport, nearly a decade later in 2008, Tegel had long outlived its useful life.

It had been subject to some makeovers and scrub ups over the years, none of which were able to conceal the seventies functionalism at its architectural core, nor the quaint regional-airport scale of its facilities. If BER had opened on schedule, Tegel might well have slipped quietly out of service, mourned by few and remembered mostly for its inconveniences. But over the next ten years, as the continued failure of BER to open its doors became Berlin’s great fiasco of the twenty-first century, something strange happened: Tegel became iconic.

Due perhaps to its imminent closure, Berliners and tourists began to speak more fondly of its hexagonal design, its clean modernist lines, its small scale, and the fact that you could get there for the price of a standard Zone A-B fare. It had survived through its long period of extreme uncoolness only to become cool again.

The resurgence in Tegel’s popularity coincided broadly with a renewed interest in brutalism that started in the late aughts as the generation who came of age at the tail end of the brutalist period—the generation to which the present writer most assuredly belongs—began to appreciate its social and aesthetic virtues.

For fans of poured concrete Tegel certainly offers much to love. Although most of the original decor has been updated and the interior spaces have been softened with the metallic grey cladding more suited to a modern airport, in the administrative lower level beneath the elevated busway and, especially, in the large parking area beneath the terminal itself one can still bask in the majesty of the building’s concrete substructure.

Indeed Tegel’s architectural assertiveness placed it somewhat at odds with newer airports, where one arrives either at an underground train terminal or a covered curbside and can sometimes go their entire journey without ever seeing the exterior of the building. This hermetic placelessness, in which the passenger proceeds seamlessly through a succession of bland, well-lit spaces, is seen as a virtue in modern travel: the purpose of the airport is to ‘handle people’, to process them efficiently within an environment so carefully calibrated that it draws no attention to itself.

Yet there was always something wonderful about that first glimpse of Tegel’s imposing terminal building after emerging from the long concrete tunnel beneath the jetway. And in an era when most airports are a tangle of vehicle ramps and pedestrian-unfriendly spaces, even the exterior areas of Tegel were always surprisingly walkable. Tegel, more than any newer airport, had a sense of being connected organically to the world that surrounded it.

It’s true that getting to Tegel could be a pain. Although the terminal was close enough to the city that a cab ride to the centre was only around thirty euros—not unreasonable by the standards of most European capitals—for anyone unwilling to splurge (or not travelling on an expense account), the only way to get there was by bus; and it wasn’t a special bus, but an ordinary city bus with not a single concession made to the fact that it served an airport and that its passengers might just be schlepping large suitcases.

Few things were guaranteed kill the buzz of a pleasant vacation so decisively as a journey on the X9 or TXL. Yet the fact that you could get to a major airport from most parts of Berlin in under an hour—and the fact that, if you had a travel card, the journey was essentially free—set Tegel apart from the modern world of overpriced airport shuttles and unpleasant express coaches.

(The lack of public transport was not, incidentally, an oversight on the part of the city. For many years the BVG had an extension of the U5 to Tegel via Turmstraße and Jungfernheide built into their long-term U-Bahn plan. One part was even constructed: if you’ve ever wondered why there are gated-off platforms at Jungfernheide U-Bahn station, they were to accommodate cross-platform changes for U7 passengers travelling to and from Tegel. Of course, given how long it’s taken for the current U5 extension to open, it’s probably just as well we didn’t wait.)

Apart from the problems of getting there, Tegel was often cited as a horrible place to spend time. This may be true, but who really wants to spend time at an airport? The modern airport experience may have a wider array of gastronomic and retail options, but these serve mostly to distract us from the fact that we’ve had to show up for our flight hours in advance in order to clear security and now have extra time to kill. Tegel wasn’t designed as a place to spend time because it understood that the romance of air travel lay not in sitting around an airport terminal, but in getting somewhere else quickly.

It was a throwback to a more innocent age, when you could show up twenty minutes before departure and still have enough time to buy a ticket. If Tegel struggled in the post 9/11 era of placing liquids and gels in a ziplock bag, it was simply because it belonged to a time when the airport was conceived as a gateway to somewhere else rather than a destination unto itself.

In an era when the last blemish of glamour has been buffed out of the travel experience, when seats are narrower and more tightly packed than ever, when legroom and luggage space are commodities available for purchase, when Gin & Tonic comes in a plastic cup and none of our fellow passengers look or dress even remotely like Alain Delon, Tegel didn’t merely remind us of how things used to be, it offered us the illusion—however unrealistic—that things might one day be like that again.

The yellow plastiform chairs and brown hexagonal tiles of the terminal building may have been replaced with modern lighting and cool aluminium years ago, but the space itself still contained the spirit of a different age. With the closure of Tegel, the final thread connecting us to an age when air travel was even vaguely sexy has been severed for good.

The ostentation of its architecture and the intimate scale of its operation may explain in part why Tegel was one of the last great airports, but it doesn’t quite get at the more difficult matter of why its closure will be such a great loss to Berlin. Yet in its final months of operation many Berliners seemed to sense that it was the end of an era.

In October, Tegel opened its observation deck to the public one last time, offering free tickets for those who signed up online (to limit numbers and for COVID tracking purposes). The tickets disappeared almost immediately and, during the terminal’s last days, passengers were outnumbered by Berliners with cameras wandering around, taking pictures and paying tribute to a place which had, perhaps unexpectedly, become a significant part of their lives and their city.

There is no question that Berlin needed a larger airport: at its peak Tegel handled around 22 million passengers a year, roughly ten times its intended capacity. More significantly, Berlin needed an airport suited to a modern European capital; it was perhaps seen as an embarrassment that the experience of travelling to and from Berlin was vastly inferior to the travel experience offered in Munich or Frankfurt. Yet this was not reason enough to take Tegel out of service. Berlin would not have been worse off for having a good secondary airport and, indeed, a majority of Berliners voted in 2017 to keep it open even after BER came into service. The city ignored the result of the vote.

Berlin, not surprisingly, has a complicated relationship with its twentieth century history; while no one could accuse it of wilfully ignoring the darker aspects—it is, indeed, a city where memory is never far from the surface—it can also be unfairly harsh to those parts of the city that don’t quite fit into its carefully curated narrative. Since reunification, Berlin has sought to erase the scars left by the divided city—witness the redevelopment of Potsdamer Platz—and it has been especially unforgiving to artefacts and institutions from the era of division.

The city is happy to let the shell of the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche stand as a memorial to the horrors of war, but less comfortable with anything suggesting that the two Berlins were actually doing fine for themselves during the seventies and eighties. In the past decades we have seen the Palast der Republik, the extraordinary modernist conference centre on the Museumsinsel, replaced by a tastelessly reconstructed Stadtschloss; we have seen the delightful station platforms of the U7 and U9 extensions stripped of their distinctive decor; we watch with sadness as the ICC building is left abandoned until its removal can be justified.

Tegel belongs to that same unfashionable period of Berlin’s history when reunification seemed increasingly unlikely and the two cities got on with life on their own terms; it was inevitable that it had to go. The building themselves will remain; there are plans to redevelop the area into an urban technology campus for the Beuth Hochschule für Technik, but unless something completely unexpected happens—and there are, at the time of writing, still two months left of 2020, so you never know—it seems unlikely that they will ever again serve their intended purpose.

Far off at the edge of Reinickendorf, accessible only by the occasional bus, what remains of the airport will fade slowly from collective memory. And BER will probably be great: there will almost certainly be better shops and restaurants, more seating, a larger duty free and longer security queues. It will, in short, be just like every other airport: with the closure of Tegel, Berlin takes yet another step toward being the bland European capital it so desperately wants to be, at the expense of the great city it once was.

All images by Jesse Simon

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